Desert of My Real Life

{June 29, 2016}   Information Archives

I’ve been spending Wednesday mornings in the library this summer working on my Freaks and Geeks project in the company of other academics working on their own projects. One of the frustrating things about today’s session is that I’m trying to find a particular advertisement that NBC created for Freaks and Geeks that used the tagline “What high school was like for the rest of us.” And I can’t find it. This made me start thinking about all of the cultural ephemera that we have lost because we don’t pay attention at the start of a project to archiving the materials of the project.

As I’ve said before, I’m also working on a project this summer (and into the next academic year) that will transform my university’s structure around interdisciplinary clusters. No other university has attempted such a vast overhaul of the way they do things and so we are being watched by people all over the higher education landscape. I am serving as a guide for the project (I’m not always completely sure what that means). A group of us guides decided last week that we should be documenting the process of change as it occurs and no one is going to do that documentation if we don’t. So we’re working on a proposal describing how to do that. In the meantime, some of us have started our own personal documentation using various social media platforms. We don’t know exactly what will happen with the materials that we create and collect or how we will end up using them but we hope that we will be able provide lessons (both positive and negative) to other universities that are thinking about major transformation initiatives.

Once again, I see connections between my two major projects this summer, even though they seem very different from each other on the surface. This idea of connections also got me thinking about how I do my research for the Freaks and Geeks project (which is no different than the way most people do research). I sometimes find myself having followed paths of inquiry that have led me in very different directions compared to where I thought I was going. For example, I was researching other television shows related to high school. The TV show James at 15 is on that list. It was only on for two seasons and I was just a year younger than the title character. I loved that show! It was another “realistic” look at high school kids, but with less comedy than Freaks and Geeks. I haven’t seen (or really even thought about) the show since its original airing. I wanted to know if it was as good as I remembered and so I did a bit of research, starting with Wikipedia. I discovered that Kim Richards played James’ sister in the show. That name seemed familiar but I couldn’t remember why. So then I researched her. She was Prudence in the show The Nanny and the Professor, which I also loved when I was a really little kid. It turns out that Richards also was one of the original members of the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which is a show that I have never seen. The interconnectedness of knowledge and information would be an interesting premise for a blog called “Rabbit Hole” in which the author described their wanderings around the Internet that happen simply by clicking links and seeing where they end up.

Interconnectedness of knowledge, TV shows about high school, information archives. I get to think about all the fun things.

I have two major projects that I’m working on this summer. One is related to the television show Freaks and Geeks which I love and use in my Analyzing Television class every spring. The other is related to the development of strategic clusters at my University. In doing research for the Freaks and Geeks project, I discovered a comment by one of the stars of the show that made me think about our approach to strategic clusters. I love these kinds of connections that bring together the various aspects of my work.

If you don’t know Freaks and Geeks, it was a show that lasted only one season on NBC in the 1999-2000 season. It was created by Paul Feig, produced by Judd Apatow, and (mostly) directed by Jake Kasdan. Each of them had worked on other things before the show but, despite its short lifespan, the show brought them to prominence. One of the things that is remarkable about the show is that it launched the careers of some of our most successful young actors today. Many of those actors have gone on to be well-known in a variety of creative endeavors. Linda Cardellini was a 24-year-old actress when she was cast as Lindsay Weir, the leading role on Freaks and Geeks. She has since gone on to success in both television and films, winning a TVLand award for her role in ER in 2009. James Franco, who portrayed Daniel Desario in his first major role, has starred in blockbuster movies and television shows, taken smaller roles in critically-acclaimed films, hosted the Oscars, published poetry and short stories, written and directed documentaries and docudramas, and starred on Broadway. Jason Segel, who portrayed Nick Andropolis, starred in the hit television show, How I Met Your Mother, and has achieved commercial and criticalsuccess in his film career. Seth Rogen, who portrayed Ken Miller, was nominated for an Emmy as a staff writer for Da Ali G Show, and has written, directed and starred in many movies. John Francis Daley, who starred as Sam Weir, also starred in the hit show Bones and co-wrote the movie Horrible Bosses, among other accomplishments. Creators Feig and Apatow are clearly very good at identifying young talent.

Based on some comments by the cast members, however, I would argue that Feig and Apatow were also very good at nurturing young talent. For example, Segal, Rogen, and Franco, who at the time were 19, 16, and 20 respectively, would get a script written by someone else on Friday and then get together on Sunday to “improve” it. Rogen has said, “We felt if we made the scenes better on the weekend, if we came in with better jokes, they would film it. And they would! And we didn’t know it at the time, but that was completely un-indicative of probably every other show that was on television.” Reflecting on the experience, co-star Busy Phillips comments, “I don’t think it’s surprising that 8 or 10 of us that were on the show have successfully written and produced our own things. … Judd and Paul and Jake and all of the writers made us feel like all our ideas were worth something, when so many other people were telling me that basically I was a talking prop.”

These comments make me think about my University’s current effort to move to a strategic cluster orientation for our academic experience. Strategic clusters are a way of organizing a university around discpline-based affinity groups. The idea is that faculty, staff, students, and outside partners with similar interests work on problems, tasks, events, and so on across disciplines, each bringing their unique disciplinary knowledge and perspective to the endeavor. The reorganization of a university into clusters is a huge project but one that is likely to have many benefits. The benefit that I’m most excited about is that students, as part of their regular academic experience rather than as an add-on, will engage in work that will be useful outside of the classroom. I think students take the work more seriously when they perceive that there is an audience for it beyond the instructor of the course and a use for the work beyond the existence of the course. For example, the student blogs for my Analyzing Television class are more insightful and of a higher quality than the papers students used to write for the class that only I would read. I think that’s because the blogs are public and I work to make them known to a larger community of readers who will give the students feedback on what they’ve written.

The comments from the Freaks and Geeks cast members make me think of another benefit of strategic clusters. If student ideas are taken seriously on these “real-world” projects, they will see their participation as more important than just being “a talking prop.” Encouraging student ideas and actually using their ideas on these projects will benefit both the projects that the students are currently working on and the students themselves in the long term as they see themselves as vital, valuable contributors to their disciplines. If the creators of a very public television show can use the work of a group of college aged people in a serious way, so can we. And so should we.

et cetera