The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality Season 2
January 15, 2013 3 Comments
Last week marked the return of “The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality,” my class on Survivor and reality TV at Northwestern University. The class has evolved quite a bit since I first described it on the blog last January. Many of these changes are responses to the feedback I received while teaching it for the first time last year. When word got out in January 2012 that I was teaching a class on Survivor I received messages from fans of the show, journalists, and former contestants. While a few of my correspondents were skeptical about the idea of a college class on a reality TV show, many offered their encouragement, and a few volunteered to participate in one form or another. Over the course of the quarter the class was visited by critics and bloggers, producers and writers, and a number of former Survivor castaways. For our Survivor Summit event on February 9, 2012 we were joined by Stephen Fishbach and Erinn Lobdell (both of Survivor: Tocantins), John Cochran (Survivor: South Pacific; Survivor Caramoan), Mookie Lee (Survivor: Fiji), Jenny Guzon-Bae (Survivor: Cook Islands), and Kelly Goldsmith (Survivor: Africa). In addition, we hosted Skype q&a sessions with Survivor’s first winner, Richard Hatch, and two-time castaway (and perennial fan favorite) Yau-Man Chan.
Though it wasn’t my intention to involve so many guest speakers in the class, as the weeks progressed “The Tribe Has Spoken…” organically developed into a dialog between my students and reality TV insiders. Twitter was instrumental in making this dialog possible. I’ve long been a proponent of Twitter as a teaching tool, and in the past I had used it to foster participation and collaboration in my undergraduate classes. In “The Tribe Has Spoken…” Twitter proved to have a number of other uses for me and my students. First and perhaps most importantly, Twitter opened up our classroom, allowing us to interact with people around the country with similar interests in reality TV or social media. At first this group was limited to professors and students at other universities. But in time people outside of academia began dropping in on our conversations. My students deserve much of the credit for this. A few of the students live tweeted our twice-weekly class meetings under the #rtvf330 hashtag. When our discussions touched on specific shows, producers, or contestants, they would often tag them in their tweets. On a number of occasions the people tagged in my students’ tweets responded to clarify a point, raise an objection, or just say hello. These incidents generated excitement in the classroom, but they also illustrated a key argument of the class: that new technologies and new forms of television programming are collapsing the social distances that separate television producers and audiences.
Twitter also was a crucial part of the game aspect of the class. In designing “The Tribe Has Spoken…,” I drew heavily on Survivor‘s structure and rules. At the start of the quarter I divided the students into four tribes which then competed against one another in a series of weekly challenges – mainly pop quizzes. At the end of the first half of the class the tribe with the highest average score on these challenges was granted immunity from the midterm exam (its members all received an automatic “A”). Throughout the first half of the class I used Twitter to distribute a series of clues pertaining to the location of a hidden immunity idol which also granted its holder an “A” on the midterm. These clues included challenges (for example, one required students to use Twitter to interact with Survivor contestants), Survivor trivia questions, or puzzles (e.g., book cyphers, riddles, etc.). As the midterm neared, I sent out a series of vague tweets pointing toward the location on Northwestern’s campus where had I buried the idol.
For the second “season” of “The Tribe Has Spoken…” I’ve made a few modifications to both the class and the game. I’ve tightened the reading list to focus more closely on three topics: 1) the economic history of reality TV, 2) the production of reality TV, and 3) the relationship between reality TV and social media. In keeping with this focus I’ve invited to Northwestern a number of guests who are uniquely qualified to speak on these subjects. The quarter kicked off with a social media workshop with technology consultant Ed Swiderski. Swiderski is the founder of Kambio Group, a digital marketing and technology agency in Chicago. He’s also the winner of the fifth season of the ABC series The Bachelorette and the second-runner up on this past summer’s Bachelor Pad 3.
Like Ed, many of our guests will come from programs other than Survivor. Right now our list of invited participants includes former contestants from Big Brother, Glass House, Paradise Hotel, and The Amazing Race. (Note: this list is subject to change. Having spent the last year interacting with former reality TV contestants I’ve learned to make my schedules in pencil, not ink.) One event that all of Northwestern is particularly excited for is Dan Gheesling’s visit on February 21. In addition to being the winner of Big Brother 10 and runner up of Big Brother 14 Gheesling is a coach, educator, motivational speaker, and author. I personally can’t wait to see if his legendary mind control techniques are effective on me and my students.
As I’ve noted, I’ve also made some changes to the game component of the class. Instead of one hidden immunity idol, I’m hiding an idol on the Northwestern campus each week. The student who finds this idol will be immune from that week’s quiz. However, there is a twist. Last year the idol was a little too powerful, as a student could hold onto an idol and play it whenever he or she didn’t want to take a quiz. This year, however, the idol must be played at the start of class, before I announce whether or not a quiz is taking place. If the student plays the idol on a day when there is no quiz, or if she holds on to it and there is a quiz, she forfeits immunity. With any luck our classes this quarter will be as fraught with tension as any tribal council Survivor‘s post-Russell Hantz era.
In the interest of maintaining an element of surprise I’m going to keep the rest of the twists secret for the time being. I’ve encourage my students to familiarize themselves with the major twists from past seasons of Survivor, with the warning that any of these might occur over the next ten weeks. Fans versus Favorites, exile island, mutinies, even the widely detested medallion of power and redemption island – all are fair game in this year’s class.
I’ll be sure to post updates about these twists and about the class in general as the season – I mean, quarter – progresses. For the time being, I thought I’d share two documents from the class. The first is the syllabus, which contains our basic schedule of readings and assignments. The second is a handout that I’ve named “The Island Orientation Packet” which contains an explanation of the rules of the game (and the class) and a Survivor glossary. Much thanks to the folks at the Survivor Whispers and Previously on Survivor Facebook groups for their invaluable assistance in compiling these lists. I also encourage you to join me and all of the RTVF330 castaways online. Class meets from 3-5 pm CST on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and while it’s not possible for us to have streaming video feeds from the classroom is it possible for you to drop in via Twitter by searching for the #rtvf330 hashtag. Hope to see you on the Island!
Special thanks to RTVF330 All Star Amanda Shepherd for designing the “Survivor: Northwestern” logo.