TRUE FACT: The Chronicle of Higher Education is not known for the amount of female cleavage it displays in a typical issue. But that all changed on November 10, 2023, when a full-page photo of Dr. Wendy Osefo, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, accompanied an article that discussed her role in the “The Real Housewives of the Potomac,” a reality-TV show on Bravo. Yowsa.
This is just the latest case of college professors dipping their toes — or, in the case of Dr. Osefo, something else — into the deep end of the pool of commercial television. How many of the following shows do you remember?
UNDERCOVER NUN (1961-1963, CBS): In the fall of 1961, Tamara Froxel, a Professor of Religious Studies at Wesleyan University, entered the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She was not a nun, but pretended to be one.
Wearing a bodycam disguised by her wimple, Dr. Froxel recorded the daily routines of the Abbey’s residents. Because these cloistered women did not watch TV, they had no idea they were becoming famous.
UNDERCOVER NUN was cancelled after two seasons. According to the show’s producer, “eventually, people got tired of watching quiet women bake bread, can preserves, and gaze upward during prayer. Forty-six episodes, and not one pillow fight at bedtime. Very frustrating.”
TENURE ISLAND (1974, ABC): The series began with 12 full professors from colleges around the country being parachuted onto a remote island in the South Pacific.
By Day 10 they had all perished, having starved to death during a protracted community meeting in which a filibuster by a portly humanities professor from Clemson blocked a vote on a cannibalism proposal.
“The show was an absolute disaster,” lamented its executive producer. “We had no idea how clueless tenured professors would be when it came to surviving in the wild.”
The final episode of TENURE ISLAND has never been broadcast.
DAM! (2002, National Geographic Channel): In 2001, Nelson Crossfork, a Vanderbilt University anthropologist, spent 8 months as a member of a beaver colony in Caribou, Maine. During that time he helped his fellow beavers build an elaborate dam on the Aroostook River.
This limited series documented Crossfork’s arduous journey to becoming accepted by the beavers, culminating in a secret beaver-flap ceremony in which he was inducted into the Aroostook Order of the Overbite.
In 2004, Crossfork returned to the colony, where he currently lives. He works as a policy advocate for the Order of the Overbite, lobbying the Maine State government for beaver-friendly legislation.
His memoir, “Beaver Boy,” will be published in 2025 by Simon & Schuster.
Coming in March 2024 on Netflix: WHO TOOK MY TOWEL? THE REAL ADJUNCTS OF UC-BERKELEY’S STEAM ROOM.