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Welcome to Reality TV 101

Centenary College offers students a chance to earn credits while watching a cultural phenomenon

Sunday, October 24, 2004
BY KELLY HEYBOER
Star-Ledger Staff

When Kerry Scholz heard Centenary College was offering a new class on reality television, the freshman made sure she was among the first to sign up.

Already a fan of MTV's "The Real World" and numerous reality makeover shows, Scholz knew a chance to study television's hottest trend was too good to pass up -- even if it raised questions among family and friends.

"My mom was like, 'I can't believe you are getting credit for that,'" said Scholz, 17, of Vernon.

Nearly 45 freshmen at the small liberal arts college in Hackettstown in Warren County are getting four credits each for taking either "Sociology of Reality TV," "Psychology of Reality TV" or "Social Psychology of Reality TV" this semester.

The new classes, which are among the most popular on campus, meet twice a week for a total of 3 1/2 hours to discuss the nuances of shows such as "American Idol," "Survivor" and "The Osbournes." The students write papers on reality show contestants and participate in their own "Apprentice"-style business challenges assigned by professors.

Higher-education officials say studying "The Bachelor" or "Fear Factor" as an academic pursuit isn't as far-fetched as it may sound.

The reality trend that already has conquered television is slowly being recognized as a social and cultural phenomenon. College campuses around the nation are developing courses exploring aspects of reality television.


A FACT OF LIFE

"This is a phenomenon that has spread so fast ... you certainly can't ignore it," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Anybody that's interested in American culture has to come to grips with reality TV."

Shortly after MTV's "The Real World" debuted in 1992, Thompson became one of the first professors in the nation to offer courses that take a serious look at the reality genre. Since then, colleges have used reality TV in everything from serious American studies classes to lighthearted classes for new freshmen.

Last year, Tufts University in Massachusetts offered a freshman seminar titled "Reality TV as the Site of Knowledge Production" and Indiana University students flocked to enroll in "The (Sur)Real World of Reality TV."

Most university film and television departments have added the study of reality television to their course work.

Several business schools, including Northern Illinois University, are also using the popularity of "The Apprentice" to offer classes modeled after the show's format. Students' grades depend on how long they last in the competition before the professor says, "You're fired!"

Reality television is also slowly becoming the subject of serious academic research. Of the 115 scholarly papers presented at a media studies conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year, 16 were about aspects of the reality television phenomenon.

At Centenary College, sociology assistant professor Amy D'Olivo and psychology instructor Christine Floether came up with the idea for a reality television course while brainstorming for unique freshman seminars.

Floether, who describes herself as an "Apprentice" junky, thought students would jump at the chance to turn an academic eye on reality shows. She was right. The courses filled so fast, the professors added a third class taught by another professor.


COURSE DEFENSE

All three professors defend their courses to parents who wonder why they are paying Centenary's $18,450 annual tuition for their children to study television. The reality television shows serve as a springboard to important lessons about writing papers, giving presentations, researching topics and working as a team, they said.

"It's been an eye-opener," Floether said. "It has all of these underlying skills going on."


THE WORK

At the beginning of the semester, students were given a weekly schedule listing more than 60 reality shows currently on the air. Each week, they are assigned a few to watch and are required to keep a journal.

Students also have gotten their own taste being a reality television contestant. On the first day of class they were told to write and perform original songs in front of an audience, just like contestants on "American Idol."

In another class, teams of students were told to go around campus and come up with a plan to raise money for a charity, an assignment professors lifted directly from an episode of "The Apprentice."

Freshman Melissa Pezzato, a psychology and elementary education major, said the course has actually turned out to be more insightful than she expected.

She now watches her favorite shows, including "Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica" and "Growing Up Gotti," with an eye toward the underlying family dynamics affecting the characters' behavior.

"I'm interested in people and how they work," said Pezzato, 18. "This class opens your mind up to a whole new insight on reality TV."

Classmate Jessica Tonnesen, 18, said she also is getting more out of the class than she expected.

"A lot of my friends at other colleges say they're shocked we get to watch TV," said Tonnesen, an elementary education and sociology major. "But it kind of gets you ready for college."

In the end, professors said they hope the Centenary freshmen can connect some of what they watch to real world sociology and psychology concepts. Eventually, they may realize they are living their own version of "The Real World," said D'Olivo, the sociology professor.

"I keep waiting for them to have that epiphany," D'Olivo said. "I keep waiting for them to say, 'The whole college experience is like a reality television show.'"



Kelly Heyboer covers higher education. She can be reached at kheyboer@starledger.com or (973) 392-5929.