Marooning, Mergers and Midterms: Bringing Survivor to the classroom

    Photo by Emily Jan / North by Northwestern

    While Evanston may not look much like Samoa or the South Pacific during winter quarter, RTVF Assistant Professor Max Dawson is bringing a little piece of Survivor to Chicago through his new class, “The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality.”

    Covering everything from classic game shows to the Jersey Shore, RTVF 330 strives to illustrate the importance of reality television in the modern industry through a show that “launched the current reality TV boom.”

    Dawson, a life-long lover of television, wanted to integrate something new into the same television industry class that he teaches every year.

    “I periodically play around with ideas for off-the-wall classes, sometimes seriously, oftentimes on Twitter,” Dawson says. “Sometimes something just happens on TV and I think ‘What would a class on that be like?’”

    One of these ideas was to model a class after one of his favorite television shows, the reality classic Survivor, which Dawson says he “tweets about incessantly.”

    “I don’t follow sports and I don’t have a favorite basketball team, but I like the competition in Survivor,” he says. “I love strategy that can be an intricate game. It’s part pro-wrestling, part soap opera.”

    And thus “The Tribe Has Spoken” was created, with Dawson as a Jeff Probst-like figure who leads four tribes in weekly immunity challenge quizzes which will determine which team is exempt from participating in “The Merger” (midterm). After The Merger, the teams are dissolved and each individual student must complete a final project related to what they’ve learned about the modern American television industry and its inner workings.

    To help hammer the concepts of the class home, Dawson is also bringing in guest speakers like Mo Ryan, The Huffington Post’s television critic, and former Survivor contestants, such as Stephen Fishback, Erinn Lobdell and Kelly Goldsmith, who is also an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Kellogg.

    Dawson managed to snag this kind of star power through Twitter and other forms of social networking, spreading the word about the class by sending messages to potential guest speakers and brainstorming ideas for the class online.

    “People have responded very positively and have been very generous,” Dawson says. “I think they’re excited for a class that actually takes reality television seriously.”

    That’s easily done too, as many of the concepts covered in class, such as social networking and vlogging, are applicable to today's contemporary society today. Dawson says that reality television can tell us a lot about our relationship to the media.

    “It’s the idea that anyone can read my thoughts, watch my stuff on YouTube or read my blog,” Dawson says. “Reality TV is instrumental in this culture where we aren’t just consumers of media, but the producers of it as well.”

    That's why he also wants to combat some common misconceptions about reality television.

    “People don’t think about how important writers are in unscripted TV, creating compelling narratives,” Dawson says. “People also think that reality TV is crap, crass voyeurism that’s low-budget and unethical, but I think it’s actually incredibly important if you want to know more about the television industry and America today.”

    For those of you who love reality TV but missed out on registering for his class this quarter, don’t feel like you’ve been exiled just yet. Dawson is also working on a class for those interested in how the media portrays themselves on television shows such as 30 Rock and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

    “These shows cover all the stuff they’re teaching in media classes,” Dawson says. “Because 30 Rock is like being with a bunch of media scholars, but with a better sense of humor.”

    So whether Tina Fey or the Fiji Islands is more your shtick, brush up on your pop cultural awareness and check out this college class where you can actually watch everything from creative chefs to crazy celebrities. For credit.


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