Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 2000
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Reality Bites
By "Guido Veloce"

As I write this column, the hottest programs on television are either game shows or reality-based ones. The latter come in several varieties, but the basic format is to take a group of people who don't know or like each other, throw them into a confined space, make them do stupid things, rob them of every shred of privacy and dignity, and see who survives. It is like a weekend with the in-laws.

As an academic, I should deplore such programs and everything else that is mindless, vulgar, and anti-intellectual in American life. As someone who lives on an academic salary, I want colleges and universities to join the parade. Bring on the revenue these shows generate; above all, bring on the royalties to people who suggest surefire hits like the following:

Department Meeting! Twenty-one men and women, of different ages but of similar intelligence, articulateness, and egos, are locked in an unappealing room, deprived of food and drink, given a meaningless agenda, and forced to vote on who should be cast out. It is a 21-way tie.

Do You Want to Be a PhD? First, a group of middle-aged men and women meet, consider the weighty applications of 200 would-be contestants, then flip coins to narrow the list to 15. The 15 perform various tasks, including basic research, writing obscure papers, massaging egos, teaching sections, and formulating topics. They engage in such extracurricular activities as drinking together and helping each other move. Two, four, or, if it is a humanities program, five of them marry each other. They compete in games of skill such as backstabbing, gossip mongering, and book reviewing. Each week someone flips a coin to see who leaves the program. The losers write letters to Lingua Franca.

Who Wants to Marry a Department Chair? The winning contestant has the marriage annulled, complaining that the chair spent the honeymoon negotiating such issues as bedroom space, "leave" time, "terms of appointment," and spousal parking privileges.

Provost for a Day: Contestants spend a day sitting in a nice office listening to people complain. They are judged by their ability to nod sympathetically, appear engaged, avoid profanity, and resist the effects of unlimited free coffee.

Tenure Survivor: An appealing group of young men and women are gathered together in an isolated "department," told that some will survive and that the rest will "be happier elsewhere." The rules are explained, although not in English. Lawyers will be present to ensure that no one understands what is going on. Contestants are given a number of alternatives: teach or write, serve on committees or not serve on committees, be collegial or hide in the library, and publish or perish. Each will be told that he or she selected the wrong options, but will nonetheless be judged on merit. Each will have to hurl books at a live graduate student, being judged by the quantity of volumes thrown with extra points if most of the authors are French. The winner will be forced to listen to endless stories about how standards have declined.

Administrative Jeopardy: Contestants will be appointed to administrative positions. They must answer each statement with a question. Giving an answer means immediate expulsion from the contest. The last person to make a decision wins.

Wheel of Fame: Contestants will face a board with a number of blanks, arbitrarily spaced. An attractive graduate student with green hair and tattoos spins a wheel with the letters of the alphabet; the contestant must arrange whichever ones the wheel selects on the board. The scholar who forms the most brilliantly unintelligible sentence wins a chance to negotiate with Stanley Fish. The losers denounce academia as a fraud and open natural food restaurants.

World Wide Federation of Ego Wrestling: Contestants select colorful nicknames such as Deconstructor, Grant Terminator, Cross-Dresser, or Theory Buster. They hurl colorful taunts at each other, such as, "my laboratory is bigger than yours," "you park in outer darkness," "your reviews stink," or "my mentor can whup your mentor." After several hours of posturing, they write favorable reviews of each other and go off and have a drink together. Nobody wins.

Staff Island: A group of men and women who have already been asked to do arbitrary and obscure tasks are thrown together on a desert island, away from faculty, students, telephones, fax machines, photocopiers, computers, and personnel regulations. They must live on next to nothing, eat unpalatable food, and work long hours. They are very happy and refuse to vote anyone off the island.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.