So far, so good.
And then comes a little typo, or wrong word choice, or two, and we get this:
“The main purpose of Fear Factor was to ‘freak out’ the audience by having the contestants preform discussing tasks.”
Taking my student at his word(s), I get a show that unnerved its viewers by showing contestants writing scripts for talk shows…or maybe choreographing the movements associated with talking…or maybe scripting Oscar “banter,” which definitely involves tasks supposed to look more or less impromptu (although it couldn’t sound more scripted if it tried). So by that reading, audiences can be freaked out by watching script-writing sessions. Maybe writing comedy is like making that proverbial sausage—you can’t watch it being made if you want to be able to stomach the product.
Perhaps we can chalk up “preform” to an uncorrected typo, although I see it often enough to suspect that some people out there think the word IS “preform,” and it is done by preformers.…. Anyway, if we can set “preform” aside:
Of course my student meant “disgusting tasks,” and so did George F. Will, whose essay he was responding to. No one who accidentally watched that so-called reality show back in its heyday needs to be reminded of what some of those tasks were. Eeeeuuuuw. Freak me out!
But I think if we take my student at his word (again), we have something more interesting than the comment he meant to make.
Living in the age of Tweets—or the age that preceded it, MTV (back when MTV did music videos)—has, it seems to me and to many other observers, created a society of people with attention spans so minuscule as to be virtually nonexistent. I have begun to claim (with all due respect to true sufferers from the actual affliction) that the computer has given me A.D.D., I who used to be able to immerse myself in The Anatomy of Melancholy, or even student papers, for hours at a time. I believe my students have a hard time understanding the precepts of academic argument because in their “real” lives discussions consist of swapping unchallenged assertions of unexamined opinions. Even the “discussion” shows on television have devolved into matches where shouted assertions and slurs take the place of volleyballs, flying back and forth dangerously without ever going anywhere but back and forth, and scoring points is the only point.
For such an audience, watching an actual discussion, where assertions are offered, countered, challenged, supported, qualified, and interrelated, might be an experience so disorienting, unsettling, mystifying, downright bizarre as to amount to a real freak-out.
Young ladies and young gentlemen, I welcome you to your tour of our college campus. For your entertainment and edification, we’ll visit an upperclass seminar, so you can hear what we do. Here we are, at Prof. Wilde’s English 456, Gender Roles in Victorian Fiction: or, “Fear Factor”!