Teaching ‘Survivor’: Professor Max Dawson brings reality TV to the classroom

Coco Keevan

Every Tuesday and Thursday in Louis Room 119, Communication Prof. Max Dawson conducts a social experiment. His group of 60 castaways – students, all eager for class to begin – sit divided, sometimes color-coordinated, declaring alliances to tribes organized by Dawson’s arbitrary classification system.

It pays homage to “Survivor,” the 12-year-old archetypal modern reality television program, of which Dawson is, in his own words, a super fan.

“I love ‘Survivor,'” Dawson said. “‘Survivor’ is a sort of family tradition for the Dawsons. I tweeted incessantly about the show for probably the last five or six seasons, and it became something I was known for among other academics.”

Dawson used to joke that he would teach a class on “Survivor,” which is now the reality.

“It essentially got to the point where I thought, why not? he said. “It’s a crucial text within the recent history of the American broadcasting industry. And I’m crazy about it.”

The response was overwhelming, with so many students requesting enrollment that the class doubled in size before the start of the quarter. Now, the castaways are as diverse as any true season of “Survivor,” composed of the show’s fans, reality television nuts, pop culture apostles and people who didn’t quite know what to expect.

“We’ve discussed how reality television came to be, the ways marketing has changed within reality shows,” said Communication sophomore Jason Lederman. “Now I find myself actively watching reality TV and looking for the things we’ve spoken about.”

What it seems Dawson created, above all else, was a fast and obsessive “Survivor” fan base, with students taking to the Internet, via Twitter, to banter and bicker over past seasons, contestants and all things marooned.

Dawson’s class, RTVF 330: The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality, is dually structured to both fulfill the expectations of a typical Northwestern film studies course and mimic the actual game of “Survivor.” The course’s first half, as described by Dawson, is concerned with “the political economy of television in the post-network, post-TiVo universe.” Students study the changes taking place within the television industry during the ‘90s that made the market ripe for the reign of reality television.

“‘Survivor’ was the show that started it all– the first network primetime show that proved reality TV was not just a fad, not just some inexpensive freak show that you throw up on a Saturday night,” Dawson said. “It could be compelling and high-quality, and it could go toe-to-toe with any big budget network drama. It exploded a paradigm and started a new one.”

The course’s other endeavor – to entrench students in a real-stakes game of “Survivor” – explains the crowded mid-size lecture hall. For the first half of the class, Dawson’s castaways were divided into four tribes, named for the professor’s favorite “Survivor” seasons, and as tribes, students were expected to compete against each other for immunity. Immunity challenges, or weekly group quizzes, bring both tangible and academic rewards, from Starbucks coffee and hot chocolate to the ultimate prize – a pass on Dawson’s midterm exam. Dawson even buried a Hidden Immunity Idol, a “Survivor” standby, on campus, and leaks clues via Twitter. And any students who abuse computer privileges in class are sent to Exile Island.

However, the game is changing for “Survivor” students. Following last Thursday’s midterm, tribes are dissolving, making the course an individual game with students working on a final project in which they apply the principles of reality television they’ve learned – and, possibly, the ruthlessness they’ve gained through play – to another reality television show.

“Even though I’m not a “Survivor” or reality TV fan per se, he’s made this class very much worth taking,” said Medill senior Jen Schaefer. “It’ll be particularly useful if I do end up working in TV in the future.”

While Dawson is the clear leader of this ragtag group of television zealots, he’s reluctant to compare himself to the show’s host, the enigmatic Jeff Probst.

“I am a shameless fan of his,” Dawson said. “My mom has the biggest crush on him. Objectively, as a scholar, I can declare that Jeff Probst is an amazing television host, the best in reality TV history. The class is my opportunity to pretend I’m Jeff Probst.”

But, like Probst, Dawson has formed his own little society, watching as students forge alliances as he works to reinvent the modern television analysis course. With modern comforts still intact, that is.

On Feb. 9, Dawson’s class will be visited by six former “Survivor” contestants, giving his students the opportunity to learn even more about the reality television show.

-Coco Keevan