Reality TV and a rainy Graduation Day

I’ve never been a big fan of the so-called “reality TV” genre, first of all because I don’t see it as being very “realistic.”

Jayne and I have friends who are addicted to these shows, and – not wanting to be stereotyped as a stuffy academic intellectual snob professor – I’ve tried to at least give them a look. I’ve never liked critics who have never seen what they criticize.

We’ve been watching “Dancing with the Stars” some this season, and because I love my wife, I’ve actually texted in my votes for Jayne’s favorite contestant, the now-departed Ralph Macchio. Departed not from this life, as he’s a youthful looking 49-year-old, but just from the show. It’s harmless fluff, but I’ve actually gotten into it a little. It’s interesting to see the evolution of the contestants who aren’t professionals into competent dance performers. I’m now pulling for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward out of loyalty to one of our former home cities.

I haven’t had all that much exposure to many of the other reality shows. If I watch “American Idol” at all, it’s only during the opening weeks to see some of the truly awful contestants. I am always amazed at their certainty that they’re being cheated out of the chance for stardom when the inevitable happens and they’re told that they aren’t going to continue.

I’ve watched “The Bachelor” (or was it “The Bachelorette”?) once and just found it deplorably manipulative. It left me wondering why these contestants, particularly the young women, would subject themselves to possible rejection in front of a national audience – either that or an artificial relationship that usually fails.

And a few years back, I interviewed a couple who appeared on a season of “The Amazing Race.” I have to confess I only saw clips of the show online, but it looked interesting.

So what does all this have to do with Wingate University’s Commencement exercises last Saturday?

Our commencement speaker was a fellow named David Burris, the executive producer of “Survivor,” to my mind the deepest of the reality TV shows. To win, contestants have to excel in physical tasks, but they also have to have well-developed team-building, problem-solving and decision-making skills, all terms we academics throw around with regularity when we talk about educating young adults.

Burris, a Raleigh native whose parents were Wingate students and whose grandfather, C.C. Burris was a legendary president of Wingate (1937-1953) in its junior college days, recognizes that parallel.

Speaking of his work in TV he said. “We all teach and we all communicate ideas. My classroom is the viewing public, the 15 million people who watch the show every week.”

Every week is a learning experience for contestants, he says. “You have to cooperate with other people to stay alive and to succeed.”

If you’ve never watched “Survivor,” the social aspect of the show is probably the most interesting thing about it. Contestants, who are divided into competing “tribes,” meet each week to vote one contestant off the show, which generally takes place at some exotic and isolated locale.

This leads to interesting intrigue, machinations and some downright double-dealing as contestants form rapidly-shifting alliances with other contestants to protect their own interests. A fellow named Russell Hantz, a Texan who says he owns an oil company, seems to be the all-time champion at this, but he’s never won on the show and here’s why.

By the show’s end, how you’ve treated other people matters, as the folks who have been voted off previously will have a say in who the ultimate winner is.

“The people you’ve dismissed get to decide whether you succeed,” Burris said. “That’s instant karma.” (We found as his commencement address progressed that he’s quite a John Lennon fan.)

Burris, who has also been a writer, director and musician, said that Saturday’s graduates could learn a few things from the show.

“If you make a plan that doesn’t work, don’t be discouraged,” he said. “Prepare for the unknown. Think on your feet, be brave and take chances.”

And I’m glad he made a point that I try to make to students in my journalism classes. The world is changing, and the job you end up with in the future may be one that doesn’t exist now.

“When I was in college, there was no such thing as reality TV,” he said. He urged students to cherish the friends and ideas they found valuable during their Wingate years.

And quoting Lennon again, he concluded, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

As the awarding of degrees began, skies that had been threatening all morning delivered some rain, starting at about the last names beginning in B in the Bachelor of Science grads. It turned into a drizzle, but stopped short of a downpour. Thank goodness the day was cool or it would have felt like one of those subtropical settings that Burris seeks out every year for “Survivor.”

But everyone soldiered on through and the morning ended for me and other faculty as it always does, seeking out our students, meeting family members, posing for pictures – a nice part of the ritual as the students launch themselves into the real “real world.”

Congratulations to the Class of 2011.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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