The Freeway Flyer and Community Colleges

The fact that there is a primetime TV show about community colleges is another sign that these institutions are now part of our mainstream life and popular culture. In a way, it seems natural that NBC would base a sitcom in a community college setting. Starring Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, and many other entertaining actors, it has some clever moments and some genuine laughs. What it does not have, though, is an actual resemblance to the community colleges I know. This freeway flyer spends time at three different community colleges this semester, so I do have some perspective.

In some ways, this show is much like other shows about academic life on television and in movies. From “Welcome Back Kotter” and “The Paper Chase” in the Seventies, to present day renditions, they all seem to have a lot in common. Classes are very short in length, very small in number of students, and all the characters are very clever. The instructors have large offices, teach very few classes, if they have more than one, and they have total free rein.

NBC’s “Community” has a few other characteristics I have noticed. For example, each week there is a show about a particular group of students beginning a new class together. This college has the shortest semesters of any college I have known. Another aspect of the show is that the students are constantly thrown together, whether it is classes they attend together, study groups, or the many meals and breaks they share. Is this what happens in real life? No. In some university settings, students are often with their dorm mates, and they may have multiple classes with students who share their majors and programs. In most community colleges, people travel to school, attend their classes, and then they travel home. In “Community,” the TV show, it seems those people are always at the college. One wonders if they do have homes.

These are all of the things that were going through my mind when I watched the show recently. Mildly to moderately amusing, but it was nothing like real life. Except, upon further reflection, I began to consider some of the things that have been happening in real-life community colleges lately. Consider the record breaking (327 pounds before cooking) meatball cooked by Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Michigan this month. It had to be moved by forklift because of its size, and 250 pounds of it were donated to Meals on Wheels with the rest being distributed as meatball sandwiches to spectators. Glen Oaks is a small school in Michigan’s St. Joseph County, but now they have appeared in national newspapers, television news, and The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/24/worlds-largest-meatball-d_n_511643.html

This week, Kalamazoo Valley Community College is sponsoring its seventh annual diversity conference. One of the attractions the students are encouraged to attend is the Human Race Machine, which lets them view themselves as six different races. Students lined up for this event. Then, there is another college, Lake Michigan College which recently banned people convicted of sex crimes against children and those listed on Michigan’s sex offender registry from attending classes on its four campuses. This also resulted in the suspension of three current students who can now only take online courses. http://detnews.com/article/20100304/SCHOOLS/3040414/Lake-Michigan-College-bans-child-sex-crime-offenders

These stories are from three colleges in Southwestern Michigan, and all have happened within the last month. With over 1,200 community colleges in the United States, think of all the interesting activities and programs available for students. And, although Time Magazine and others have pronounced that community colleges are “deeply unsexy,” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1909623,00.html there is still a lot going on. They may not have Joel McHale and Chevy Chase, but they have a lot to offer, not even counting giant meatballs.

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