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Alternate Academic Reality

Alternate Academic Reality
June 20, 2006

“The Seedy Side of Tweed: Professors Swap Wives.”

If Jerry Springer was in charge of casting a new reality program endeavor for FOX television, that could well be the title. He’s not, but Rocket Science Laboratories, the company behind many a reality show smash hit, including "Joe Millionaire," "Temptation Island" and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé," is taking on the task.

Last week, the company put out a call for new families to take part in " Trading Spouses," a reality program on FOX entering its fourth season that features moms switching places with each other in their respective families each week. The point is to see how well they mesh in their new environments and confront unexpected challenges, according to the show's creators. Moms are given $50,000 at the end of each episode to spend on items and services that they believe will improve their temporary family’s overall dynamic. 

For one episode this year, Rocket Science Laboratories wants to feature two families in which one or both of the parents are professors.

“Our show is about celebrating families from eclectic backgrounds,” explains Brooke Krinsky, a casting associate with the company. “One reason we’re going after higher education professionals is that they tend to lead amazing lives and do amazing things.” She says she could picture an archaeologist mom or dad taking families on new adventures that they could never imagine.   

“We could have a dad who’s a science professor and a mom who manages a punk band,” gushes Krinsky. “It’s a fun experiment.”

Some professors, including those who have studied and participated in reality programs, are a bit incredulous about the proposal. Some say that while talk shows have long entertained the middle class by mocking people from lower socioeconomic classes, now a new target is emerging in reality television -- one focused on stereotypical portrayals of academics.

“I would guess that they’re trying to look for eggheads or absent-minded professors,” says Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University in Indiana, who has studied the reality TV genre. “Producers of reality shows thrive on generating and maintaining stereotypes.

“These programs have one point -- to get ratings,” adds McCall. “They do that by exploiting or gawking at people. They shoot all kinds of footage and then selectively highlight the stuff that’s most bizarre.”

McCall doesn’t necessarily buy the “amazing professor” argument offered by Krinsky. “They might be surprised that people who work in higher education are just like other folks,” he says. “We live day-to-day lives just like everyone else.”

Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, in California, is also wary of the wife swap casting call. “They just don’t stop, do they?” he asks, recalling his recent experience with a reality program on Comedy Central called "Man Bites Dog." In March, he was approached about taking part in a discussion on media issues -- without being told that he was really appearing on a fake news show. Executives with the program ultimately said that Smoller should have been told about this information.

“Up until now, these shows have focused on trashing low-income people,” says Smoller. “They taunt them into acting out class stereotypes. Now, clearly, the time has come to punk upper SES individuals.”

Smoller says he doesn’t think that the prestige of academics could be increased by participating in a wife swap program. “I don’t think our profession really needs to be part of this,” he says. “I think of us as the good guys."

Other academics are less worried about reality programming and can see its benefit, if carried out properly. Paul Steven Miller, a professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law, took part in a program called "Little People, Big World," which appeared on The Learning Channel in April. Miller, a dwarf, provided mentorship to a high school student who is also a dwarf, in the process of deciding what he’d like to be when he graduates from college.

“As somebody who is used to being in the press,” says Miller, "I’ve never seen the kind of response in my e-mail box after the program aired.”

Many people told him that he had made them think differently about dwarfs. “I am startled by the breadth and depth of reality shows,” says Miller.

The law professor says the premise of "Trading Spouses" isn’t what he would call tasteful. He said he would appreciate it if the program went beyond stereotypical media presentations of professors. “It will be interesting to see how the producers choose to highlight us,” he says. 

Would Miller appear on the program? “If FOX wants me, they can give me a call,” he says with a laugh. “I’d have to check with my wife. I don’t want her to end up seeing that there’s a better life out there with some other academic.”

 

 

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