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.