Last week’s episode of the TV sitcom “Community” was not only one of the series’ high points but also had a very real and unfunny warning for modern universities.
For those who haven’t seen “Community” (you should go and watch it now, seriously) it follows the lives of a mismatched group of students at a very low-end American community college. Departing from the common sitcom trope of treating its audience like a bunch of idiots, “Community” has proven to be one of the most imaginative and genuinely hilarious comedies on TV at the moment. It’s constantly been plagued with threats of cancellation but has somehow come back from a shockingly terrible fourth season (largely the result of the sacking of its creator Dan Harman, who returned for the current fifth season) to the often bizarre flights of fancy and hilarity that fans love it for; flights of fancy that include not one but three paintball-themed episodes, each one paying homage to classics of cinema such as spaghetti westerns and Star Wars.
Last week, “Community” reached, in my opinion, new levels of genius with an incredibly precise commentary on social media and the power of quantitative ratings and human detachment to corrupt decent society (whatever that is). The eighth episode of the fifth season, App Development and Condiments, saw some app developers beta test their new app on the college campus. The new app, MeowMeowBeenz, allows any user to rate any other user based on a five ‘beenz’ scale. The results are predictable and escalate to the extreme of a dystopian, caste-based society in which those with five beenz rule and those with one ‘been’ are cast into the ‘outlands’. Everyone in between works in varying levels of servitude for the ‘fives’, as they become known. This for some reason includes the introduction of a sexy dress code that takes its inspiration from sci-fi classics such as Logan’s Run, the original Star Trek and, ridiculously, Zardoz.
What’s so great about this episode of “Community” is that it takes the concept of ratings in an education environment to its logical conclusion (okay, maybe not the sexy costumes). From the outset, teachers desperate for more beenz do things like feigning a limp or pretending it’s constantly their birthday in order to win over other users.
This is exactly what things like Rate My Professor and the National Student Survey do. In order to win the approval of students, we academics are tacitly encouraged to make courses easier and, somehow, be more physically attractive; these being the two things that influence ratings the most. The Guardian published two articles last week which highlighted the mental health issues faced by academics in modern universities, many of which stem from these types of ratings systems.
These systems, while ostensibly aimed at improving the quality of education for students in fact mean that academics are coming under intense pressures to not only be high-performing researchers (the REF is another issue for another day) but also generous markers, because there’s nothing that’ll get students to give you or your department a good rating on Rate My Professor or the Nation Student Survey like giving them an easy time and letting them get higher grades than they deserve. It’s an old story, the one about these types of rating systems and the effect they have on genuine academic quality, but the revelations last week about academic mental health brings it into another perspective. Not only does the ‘student as consumer’ model of higher education threaten real education, it also threatens the people providing that education. Those seen as underperforming could well face being disciplined or fired, or continuing to labour under intense pressure and mental health issues. An employemen tribunal due to conclude this week will examine Yeong-Ah Soh’s allegation that she was sacked by Imperial College London as a result of low satisfaction scores and a refusal to make a course easier.
At the end of last week’s episode of “Community” the student body revolted against the MeowMeowBeenz regime and, following an uprising that levelled everyone to a ‘one’ (there’s also a well-put comment on revolution in there), simply deleted the app from their phones. When the National Student Survey was first rolled out several student unions protested and boycotted it, with some even burning posters and T-shirts promoting the survey. Perhaps something similar is necessary again, to protect not only the education we want to provide but also our own mental wellbeing. Could academics take the lead and encourage students to boycott the National Student Survey? It’s an idea. Although we might have to soften our stance by smearing mustard across our faces, the way one of the characters in “Community” has to in order to get people to sympathise with her.