Academia's "American Idol" - Macleans.ca

Academia’s “American Idol”

TVO’s Best Lecturer series brings reality TV to a classroom near you

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I’ve had a lot of opportunities to observe faculty in their natural habit, often in governance meetings and in private conversations outside the classroom. It really changes your perspective on professors when you get a sense of their more private professional lives, which is one of the reasons I encourage all students to participate in their university structures whenever there’s a chance to do so. You may not always be impressed with what you witness, but it’s bound to be illuminating. I still participate in governance as an alum, and I’m still regularly surprised.

For me, most recently, it was the public endorsement of TVO’s Best Lecturer competition. If you aren’t familiar with it by all means, check out the link. It’s a worthwhile event, and I’m quite pleased to see TVO supporting public intellectualism. But when you get right down to it, it’s just another reality TV show with audience voting. The reality may be good intellectual content, but the pattern still holds. It’s a popularity contest. Among university circles, it’s sometimes referred to as “Academic Idol” or similar. It’s fun, and if it entertains (and educates!) people that’s great, but wouldn’t you think that university professors are above the need for professional validation via public voting? Not hardly, let me tell you.

The first time this competition was held I can remember hearing professors snicker behind their hands at the idea. Oh, I’m sure some still do that, but at the time it was considered gauche for anyone to even admit it was interesting. Then it was held again. That year U of T had a particularly strong showing in the final 10 and suddenly I started hearing about it at governance meetings. Now we’re on the third go ‘round, and at the last meeting of the Academic Committee of Scarborough Council, we were actually urged to go vote when our representatives are up! We’ve got two professors in the running, and they are the only two from U of T generally. So, local pride, you know?

What’s especially hilarious is that I’m hearing some of this from the same professors who regularly pan the efficacy of student evaluations. They don’t want to admit that undergraduates in the classroom might have valid opinions about the quality of education, but they are willing to endorse the significance of an Academic Idol competition? Oh, naturally it’s all still very casual. Just in good fun. But it merits public attention at governance meetings. It’ll make it into the promotional literature around campus too, right beside the bone cell experiment another professor has just put into space. No one would suggest these are equivalent professional accomplishments, but they do tend to get mentioned quite frequently in the same venues.

What does all of this mean? To me it only means that professors are just as capable of being silly and inconsistent as the next human being. They still crave approval. They still compete in the most inane ways, and then do that familiar song and dance routine about how they don’t really take it seriously. Are these mixed signals here? You bet they are. Something of this nature can’t be both professionally irrelevant and deserving of significant attention at the same time. Now, it’s dead true that winning Academic Idol will never secure tenure for anyone, or serve as a significant element in a department review process. But it’s sure as hell good for bragging rights in the faculty lounge. And anyone with a bit of common sense knows that bragging rights and social standing, of any sort, have a way of spilling over into other areas. Academia isn’t immune to that.

Seriously, check out the link. Tune in and vote for Ontario’s Next Top Professor. If nothing else, it’s amusing to remember they’re doing it primarily because they want to win for all the same reasons as Canada’s Next Top Model. Some instincts are universal.

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