• October 22, 2014

So You Think You Can Lecture?

Teaching Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

A few months ago my wife and I upgraded our cable package. We now receive around 4,000 television channels, many of which are dedicated to areas of life in the 21st century that I did not know existed.

Savvy entrepreneur that I am, the first thing I noticed after sampling bits of everything that cable had to offer was a surprising dearth of programming related to teaching and learning in higher education. Where were the television series that dramatized the thrills of small-group work, recorded feats of grading under pressure, or demonstrated the skillful handling of office hours? Surely, with many hundreds of thousands of us devoting our lives to teaching today's youth and tomorrow's leaders, some television mogul should see the benefit of catering to our special needs and interests.

In the spirit of moving that venture forward—as soon as someone with a lot of money decides to take the plunge and announce the formation of the Teaching and Learning Channel (the new and improved TLC, in other words)—we have formed a committee here at the On Course offices at The Chronicle to put together sketches of some of the shows that might anchor this promising station.

Because initially we will have to do some work to gain our audience, our committee decided to piggyback our first season of shows on existing television hits, thereby allowing us to gain attention when people are doing Web searches for more information on their favorite programs, and accidentally click on our sponsored links. Assuming that everything falls into place, and we are on the air for the fall season, here are some of the shows we have planned for you.

So You Think You Can Lecture?: A panel of academic superstars audition young tenure-trackers as they attempt to deliver dazzling lectures to rooms of bored undergraduates who have been given iPads opened to their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Can our intrepid contestants steal the attention of our student audience away from their favorite social-networking sites?

Multimedia slide shows, song and dance routines, historical re-enactments—there's nothing our lecturers won't try to achieve tenure-worthy scores on the mock student evaluations that our audience will fill out after each performance. The last lecturer standing, at the conclusion of our inaugural season, gets the reward that many academics pine for their entire career: a lifetime of free parking in the lot closest to their office building.

The Bachelor: Graduate School: A high-powered scientist, with a stellar record of placing his Ph.D. students at Ivy League institutions, is gently wooed by a cadre of hopeful incoming graduate students. Each week features single dates or small-group outings in which our superstar professor tests the potential of our contestants by assigning them meaningless library research tasks, having them grade stacks of illegible quizzes, or asking them for advice on promoting his research through Twitter and Facebook. You'll have to stick around for our season finale to see who gets the Cross pen!

Campus Chopped: In this high-energy reality series, new faculty members compete against one another to manage a wacky basket of "ingredients" in their first job. Episode 1 begins with an appetizer course in which our tenure-track hopefuls are given 50 essays to grade in a windowless, unheated office, interrupted every 15 minutes by a student looking for a signature on a form they aren't authorized to sign.

For the main course, each young participant is placed in a cavernous lecture hall with tiered seats and a broken projector, with 14 students scattered in the back rows, and asked to teach an interactive lesson on the comma splice. For dessert, the contestants are confronted with a plagiarized essay, spouses who don't understand why they spend so much time on the job, and a rejection letter from the top journal in their field. They attempt to hold it together.

The Big Bang Theory: We don't need to modify this nerdy sitcom for academic consumption. We're just going to show reruns.

Law and Order: Plagiarism Unit: In the higher-education community, crimes against academic integrity are considered to be especially heinous. Our ensemble crime features two zealous faculty members working in tandem with two midcareer associate deans at a large research university to root out the criminals who are feeding the coffers of America's term-paper mills, failing to give proper credit to Wikipedia in their research papers, and incorrectly formatting their citations. These are their stories. Really. These are original stories, we promise. We made them up ourselves.

Finding Bigfoot Believers: A team of psychological investigators travels around the country in search of educated people who take the Bigfoot legend seriously.

Campus MythBusters: Is the library really sinking a little bit every year at Rival U. because the architects failed to take into account the weight of all of the books? Did a student really go into the final exam of a large lecture course in which he wasn't enrolled, and then pretend to go mad and run out screaming in the middle of the test? Our quirky committee of investigators will take on all of the campus legends you heard when you were a student from a friend who was visiting from another campus, and who was totally and completely sure that it was a true story.

Jersey Shore Extension Campus: Snooki, Pauly D, the Situation and the rest of the gang take online courses during the off-season, attempting to better themselves through higher education. We follow our buff and sun-tanned learners as they log onto the computer, view online lectures and PowerPoints, sit quietly reading and highlighting textbooks, and taking final exams on campus. Thoughtful expressions, bouts of test anxiety, and high-spirited late-night debates about course content—our expert camera operators capture it all.

Candid interviews with cast members about their studies, as well as a close analysis of their written work, reveal that the cast members are just as dim as they seem in their regular show.

iCampus: You won't believe the hijinks that ensue when the gang enrolls in the Harvard M.B.A. program for the fall semester of 2012, seeking to rebrand the iCarly franchise for an older demographic. Spencer markets his outsider art to Starbucks, Carly and Sam create thoughtful Webcast episodes on the future of the digital humanities, and Freddie writes and directs an avant-garde film. The gang has to pull together to support Gibby, though, who begins taking off his shirt for money to help pay his tuition bills.

Of course, we hope eventually to produce our own programming on the Teaching and Learning Channel, and so our first season will also include a pilot of our exciting original series:

The Process: Each week we'll visit a campus that faces a major academic challenge: a plummeting graduation rate, a sex scandal in the president's office, an out-of-control athletics budget. Our crack team of academic consultants will meet with all constituencies on the campus, brainstorm and debate, and then—in the tense concluding scene of each high-powered episode—form a committee that will make recommendations to the provost.

We invite faithful readers of this column to join us in our continuing efforts to bring this televised dream to life. If you have your own ideas for shows that might help us fill out our inaugural season, post them below. If we like them, we'll pass them along to the committee.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is www.jamesmlang.com. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.

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