Post Academic

Academia as TV (with poll)

Posted in Absurdities,Surviving Grad School by Arnold Pan on April 2, 2010
Tags: , , , ,

I just came upon this article from a few years ago by Marc Bousquet titled, “Like ‘The Wire’?  You’re Living It”, which compares the operations of university administration to the bureaucratic cynicism of municipal government, law enforcement, education, and media depicted in The Wire.  (h/t to my friend Sam’s Facebook wall for the link)  Pretty much any structural argument you want to make about any institution could be analogized to The Wire and its rich account of the interconnectedness of many seemingly disconnected social spheres, so Bousquet stands on solid ground.  He makes a scathing indictment of academic administration and the culture it perpetuates via the comparison:

“There’s plenty to say about this in relation to campus administration — the way that managerial control of institutional mission has shifted toward vocational training over education, as Stanley Aronowitz has long observed, and toward direct corporate influence over research and curriculum, as Jennifer Washburn has made abundantly clear.”

And his conclusion is ever more scathing:

“Only a very unusual person can do what the sleaziest small contractor does — pick up day labor, pay them less than the minimum wage to rebuild a suburban kitchen, collect fifty grand, and then dump the workers back on the street corner.

The task of academic quality management is to find those rare people and make them deans, provosts, and presidents.”

I’ll buy Bousquet’s argument that The Wire is an extended analogy for academia, as long as Post Academic gets to be Omar, the shotgun wielding Robin Hood of the ‘hood.

It’s a total non-sequitur, but reading the post reminded me of those drunken party conversations about how we could turn grad school into a TV show, though The Wire was never an obvious pick (and none of us had HBO).  Maybe it’s just a wish fulfillment of being a screenwriter, but we would even start casting these things. Setting aside the obvious soap opera analogies, what we would be the most compelling dramatic or reality TV reinterpretation of academia?

Check out the nominees below the fold…

1. Top Chef: Take a bunch of talented, competitive grad students, some of whom are total a-holes–but only one will win the title of “top geek.”  Put them through a series of challenges, from “Quickfire” abstract submissions to “Elimination Challenges” that involve convention interviews and teaching demos, and bring on celebrity academics as the judges.  And only one person ends up with a tenure-track position, though I’ll take the 1-in-20 odds over the 200+ applicant pool of any actual job search in a heartbeat.  Bonus points for making these folks live together in the same house.

2. Undercover Boss: Find a baby-faced dean and put him through the grad school ringer, starting with the actual application, coursework, and teaching.  Make him figure out how to get funding when the department’s budget is shot and force him to find a way to fend for himself when that teaching offer falls through a week before the next quarter starts.  Then give him a series of tedious tasks, from filling out a bunch of grad student paperwork to photocopying class materials as scornful Assistant Profs cut you in line, thinking you’re work study.  Then repeat, one quarter after another.

3. Arrested Development: Like grad school, Arrested Development is all about dysfunction, but doing just enough to get by.  And like grad school, the show is about a reversion to childhood, or more accurately, never outgrowing stunted growth.  Then think of all the hare-brained schemes, where the only thing that’s revealed in the end is that the emperor has no clothes.  Plus, don’t forget the unhealthy dose of psychological trauma–you gotta believe there are at least a few “never-nudes” in your cohort and the faculty.

4. Mad Men: You chuckle at how un-PC Mad Men is when it portrays sexism and racism in a way that seems so quaint because it took place in the 1960s.  (What’s up with all the Chinamen cracks, huh?)  But try updating it in a humanities program where maybe Peggy got promoted and Joan transitioned into the professsion, but it’s still mostly a bunch of Dons and Petes who may be on the make, with a few emeriti Sterlings and Coopers who are getting the fat paychecks and corner offices.  And I’m still not sure where all the minorities are.

5. The Colbert Report: Except it would have to be a bizarro world version, where the host is a conservative who plays an esteemed Marxist.  Bizarro Prof. Colbert would espouse proper lefty sentiments about the subaltern and the means of production, while, at the same time, s/he would be cracking down on grad students unionizing and trying to figure out how to get them to do cheap labor under the premise of “mentoring.”  S/he would also have to be sympathetic to racial subordination at the same time s/he questions whether those minority colleagues are affirmative action beneficiaries getting a free pass.

OK, maybe the Colbert analogy doesn’t work so well, since I’m not suggesting that lefty-ism is phony; instead, I’m trying to make the point that many (but not all!) left-leaning academics might lead more socially conservative lives (talking about myself here) and be more politically conservative than their scholarship implies.

Tell us your own ideas in the comments section and vote in our poll!

“A display of old televisions, VCRs and radios in Amberley Working Museum, England” by Les Chatfield from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

6 Responses to 'Academia as TV (with poll)'

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  1. The people on Top Chef actually resemble disgruntled academics, too. I bet that whoever invented that genre of show (Project Runway, Top Chef, etc.) had a stint in grad school!

  2. Jane said,

    Great post, Arnold! I just finished watching Mad Men Seasons 1-3 on video and totally kept thinking how a satire of all the hierarchies and slights of academia would work well for nighttime drama! We need to pitch it and make the screenwriter dream come true!

  3. Arnold Pan said,

    Thanks, Jane! Yeah, you could definitely play up the overeager backstabbing angle (with Pete) and all the interoffice romances. I probably prefer Arrested Development as my grad school-as-TV adaptation, but that’s mostly because the Orange County setting and the absurd storylines remind me too much of UCI!

  4. dhume said,

    What about “Battlestar Galactica”? That seems like the best analogy to contemporary academia. A small number of deeply flawed people who have survived a massive, traumatic catastrophe totally by chance and who must struggle to live with each other while they are beset by implacable enemies on every side. Also, there’s never enough of anything and the facilities are in rotten shape.

  5. We should have included that one, with special notice for “the facilities are in rotten shape.”

  6. Arnold Pan said,


    Sci-fi totally skipped my mind, but your description of Battlestar Galactica could be the winner. I’m just thinking of the survivor countdown and the dwindling numbers of academics actually being able to find jobs in their chosen areas of expertise! Plus, there’s gotta be some correlation between the Cylons and android-like college administrators.

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