Colleges Review 'Community'

Some loved it. Some hated it. But everyone is a critic.

August 24, 2009

Some loved it. Some hated it. But everyone is a critic.

Last week, community college employees and attendees got their first look at “Community,” NBC’s new sitcom about a group of students at a fictional two-year institution. Ever since the network announced in May that it would be airing a new comedy focusing on life at a community college, many in academe expressed concern that the show might unfairly characterize this set of institutions and its students. Among those in the community college world who do not like what they have seen in the show's early ads, there has been some debate over whether to actively fight the show, ignore it or try to make something positive come out of it.

The pilot was available as a streaming video on Facebook for a limited amount of time to hype the show's Sept. 17 television debut. The only catch was that users of the social networking Web site had to become "a fan” of the show to view the pilot, a viral marketing technique making users open to communications from NBC about the show. The full pilot episode has since been taken down, but some scenes are available online.

Inside Higher Ed asked a cross-section of community college presidents, faculty members and students to view the advanced screening of the pilot episode on Facebook and write their impressions, and a number took up the offer.

Not surprisingly, opinions about the show are mixed. For all those who overlook the lowbrow humor and laud what they see as the show’s ultimate, encouraging message, there are others who insist that the sitcom is chock-full of gross exaggerations and has no redeeming value.

One of the most eager to comment about the pilot episode was Betty K. Young, president of Houston Community College’s Coleman College for Heath Sciences. You might know her as the motorcycle-riding president, then at Northwest State Community College, who made a cross-country trip in 2005 to appear on “The Tonight Show” to set Jay Leno straight for making jokes at the expense of community colleges. Still, for those expecting a harsh review, Young may disappoint.

“The show is a comedy, so it takes a few jabs at the perceived community college experience, but not in a mean-spirited or spiteful way – more like the way life takes jabs at all of us,” Young writes.

Jeff, the show’s main character (played by Joel McHale), is a lawyer who has recently been suspended by the state bar because his degree was discovered to be fake. He turns to Greendale Community College, the show’s fictitious campus in Colorado, to make his way to a legitimate degree. Still, he has a cynic’s attitude about his time at the college and asks his old friend, Duncan, a psychology professor (played by John Oliver), to help him get the answers to all of the tests he will take during the semester. When Duncan questions whether this is the right thing to do, Jeff retorts, “If I wanted to learn something I wouldn’t have come to community college.”

“The main character’s philosophy on a community college education seems to reflect the misunderstanding some people have about what a community college can do,” Young writes. “But 25 minutes later, with the magic of television and a dose of reality, Jeff is beginning to understand what all community college graduates know: a good education is a great equalizer.… Having been a community college faculty member and president of three colleges, I’ve seen my fair share of disbelieving Jeffs walk through the door – looking for the path of least resistance, and like Jeff are quickly humbled and accepted into a community of learners that care about them.”

Most of the episode centers around Jeff's Spanish study group, which consists of a hodgepodge of characters from all walks of life – labeled by the college dean in the episode as “remedial teens, 20-something dropouts, middle-aged divorcees and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity.” In this study group, however, there is not much studying being done.

Reviews from the faculty ranks of these scenes are mixed. Some said they thought the show’s producers, who said at a recent press top that they would not mock community colleges and play into negative stereotypes, failed to hold up their end of the bargain.

“Now, as a teacher of literature, I recognize that Jeff is a flawed character who, by episode end, begins to sense his limitations and, we assume, mature through the encouragement of his ‘study’ community,” writes Howard Tineberg, English professor at Bristol Community College, in Massachusetts, and former editor of Teaching English in the Two-Year College. “Much of the cynical representation of the community college is offered through Jeff’s rather warped perspective. But there is really no hint of irony that I can see because not one character so far is a trustworthy purveyor of the truth about community college.… I see much to be offended by in this premier episode.”

Other faculty members expressed similar criticisms.

“Unfortunately, the pilot of ‘Community’ perpetuates stereotypes of two-year colleges as consolation prizes for students and faculty who do not 'make it' into four-year institutions,” writes Sandie McGill Barnhouse, chair of the Two-Year College English Association (TYCA) and English professor at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, in North Carolina. “The opening scene manages to portray the dean as a bumbling administrator who cannot even explain to a gathering of students what a community college is without his note cards. The only professor we meet seems to be willing to sell test answers and spends his office hours swilling wine. What ‘Community’ does do is illustrate the broad range of students who attend community colleges, but the pilot misses the point. Our colleges are not second rate — but they often give a second chance to the unemployed, the returning veterans, the working parents, and the financially strapped.... This nation’s community colleges students should not be demeaned or portrayed as losers; in fact, they should be applauded for their choice to choose cost-effective, responsive education that meets their needs.”

Students were the most generous critics of the show, though much of the pilot episode lampoons them.

“Although some of the points made seemed a bit exaggerated, I found the show to be quite humorous,” writes Giovanni Garcia, a student at San Diego City College. “Some of the comments made toward community colleges had some truth behind them, but seemed to be a little far-fetched. The cast is a pretty accurate representation of a community college setting and is amusing to watch because it makes the show very easy to relate to.… I look forward to the upcoming season.”

Other students hope the show will give them an opportunity to tell others about the value of their institutions, but they acknowledge that all of the jokes at their expense will not make it easy.

“I think the show is pretty clever,” says Wendy Hamilton, president of the American Student Association of Community Colleges and a student at Hillsborough Community College, in Florida. “I can see where some offense can come in, to the bias of what type of people community college students are. I know this is show, but I want people to know that the majority of community college students are people who couldn't afford the luxury of a 4-year college, are not prepared to enter a 4-year institution, or are trying in these hard economic times to gain the knowledge that will help them attain a better job in our society. I believe the show is going to be great, but I still believe that it will not help change people's perception of our community college systems.”

Most of the reviewers of the pilot episode say they will be sure to watch the show again at some point this season, whether in an attempt to find redeeming value or further criticize. For instance, Young writes that she has even planned to have a group of faculty and students over to her house to watch the premiere in a few weeks as a way to start a dialogue with them about her institution.

Of the pilot and the community college world’s response to it, Richard Dittbenner, public information and government relations director of San Diego Community College District, frames it this way: “It is a show loaded with inaccuracies, misrepresentations, half-truths, stereotypes, and just enough truth in it to make it funny and engaging."


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