August 27, 2003

Pinup Profs; or, The 'Airbrushed Fantasy' of the College Brochure

1. They are all located in New England in the fall. That includes colleges in New Mexico and above the Arctic Circle, where hundreds of multicolored deciduous trees are shipped by FedEx during this yearlong season....

5. Their faculty members use extravagant hand gestures.
Photographers must often interrupt classes in American Sign Language to capture these images. Or maybe the profs are conducting groups of music students who have forgotten their instruments.

-- Paul Many, The Wonderful World of College Brochures

Here's an amusing little piece by someone who lists the top ten things he's learned about college by reading college brochures.

I'll add another one:

The teaching is done by bearded, tweed-wearing sages who inhabit the comfortable clutter of book-lined offices.

We might think of these instructors as the "pinup profs" of academic marketing.

Of course, there is a serious question here, which has to do with the persistence of the tweedy, autumn-in-New-England ideal in the face of the kinds of changes that are discussed here. Several commenters have suggested that the problems faced by the humanities can be traced in part to consumer demand: "I think that the demand being made by the public is not a change of emphasis from research to teaching," writes Bill Richards, "but rather from providing a 'well-rounded' education (whatever that means) to an education that provides practical value in the job marketplace by providing the holder of that education with a competitive edge at hiring/promotion time." I do think there is something to this. At the same time, I have to wonder, If students are increasingly interested in another kind of education, why do colleges still market themselves by invoking the older ideal?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 27, 2003 10:00 AM

Because of the student-parent disconnect, perchance? Quite a few people of my parents' generation (oh, all *right* already, my students' parents' generation) still have a lot invested in ivy and tweed.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 27, 2003 10:18 AM

I think that's part of it, and to go with it, the question of who pays.

Also, the tweed image goes with high-profile schools that have good alumni networks, so there's an economic value to all that tweed too.

Posted by: Ginger at August 27, 2003 10:32 AM

Students are also not all the same. Lots of students take the whole personal growth-finding yourself thing very seriously, and they tend to be some of the more visible and articulate students. We always love to have the Student Government types talk with visiting trustees and pols because they spout all that love-of-learning stuff on command, despite the conscious and unconscious efforts of the faculty to induce a healthy skepticism. Even students who tend to be more career oriented like at least a little tweed, partly because they just do, and partly because they (and the parents) want assurance that we are not DeVry. That is snobbishness (which is quite practical in this sense), but it is also quite reasonable if they think it through. You may only want to learn statistics to make money, but you are best learning them from someone who loves math for its own sake. Ditto with pretty much everything else. Even in history most of the majors go on to get jobs (mostly in secondary school) and they want history geeks for profs. The only ones likely to be turned off by the ivy shots are the 100% beer crowd, and we get plenty of them without trying to attract them.
On a more mundane level, you need pictures of something, and education is hard to take pictures of. You have the lab shot, the library shot, the laughing with classmates shot, (in front of a ivy-covered wall, or if you can’t manage that a brick one), the old building shot, and the wise old professor shot.

P.S. I use hand gestures a lot. This has led, so far, to two appearances on the web page, but I have not yet cracked the catalogue. Maybe I should dress better.

Posted by: Ssuma at August 27, 2003 10:53 AM

I've often seen the student/parent diconnect go the other way: the student wants to get excited about Thucydides (even if she can't bring herself to be), while the parents want her to go to med school. When that happens (and when we can get the student to stand up to her parents), it's a total home-run for the liberal arts. Problem is that we're going to score less and less as more and more of America's college students (my students' rivals on the job market) get undergraduate business degrees and such.

Posted by: Bob at August 27, 2003 11:10 AM

Ssuma does capture something very important in how schools are marketed.

It's something I deal with almost every day as part of my job at a community college: let me tell you, education is not naturally too photogenic. (I have untold shots of buildings with no people or people staring at computer monitors.)

And also the factor that not all students are the same I think must weigh heavily for those four-year schools...perhaps the students who are focused on job-skills are reading the text or doing research, and those interested in the tweedy life are looking at the pictures?

Personally, the lovely photos in the brochure from my alma mater ( were a big draw, and I was both overly academic and incredibly indecisive as a high school junior/senior. (So was the late application deadline, but that's another story.)

Posted by: Elaine at August 27, 2003 11:14 AM

Eh..hem. I hope I do not sound too bitter if I point out that many top liberal arts colleges also like to highlight in their brochures and campus literature the pedigrees (not the research) of their faculty. Looking at the department webpage of my alma matter (a top-40 liberal arts institution) I notice a lot of 'Ph.D. Yale' 'Ph.D. Harvard', but very few publications. (The most hysterical example is the department chair, who I happen to know went to a very third rate Ph.D. program - his bio makes only this mention to his education 'summa cum laude Stanford University' - his undergraduate degree!)

I was warned of this phenomenon when I went on the job market - several people told me not to bother applying to (top) liberal arts colleges, even those who did not stress research in their promotion structure. Because I had a Ph.D. from a research university that lacked that 'leafy New England image', I would stand better in my applications to research universities that would judge me on my reseach, or at public universities that did not rely on 'leafy' marketing image for their livelihood. And judging from the outcomes of those applications, I think they may have been right!

Posted by: Matilde at August 27, 2003 02:45 PM

Don't forget the pictures of students sitting on the lawn listening attentively at the feet of their mentors, or the ones of people doing exciting things in lab.

Did anyone watch the Max Bickford series while it was still on? If so, did you have the same reaction I did to the classrooms -- gee, they only have one lecture hall and one seminar room for everything! I was also struck by how readily and quickly students answered questions in lecture, and how easily professors blithely downloaded student files into their computers to read and plagiarism-check them. Hah!

(There were more thematic things that, although painted with a broad stroke, the series did tend to get right.)

Posted by: Rana at August 27, 2003 09:57 PM

Why do they persist with these images? Surely everyone here knows those lines from the opening of the 18th Brumaire: "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living... etc" People cling tightest to the old conceptions at the very moment when they are being made meaningless. Due to the inadequacy and conservatism of our conceptual universe, those images are what 'university' means to people. Of course, it also means middle class social reproduction, vocational training, and alcohol abuse, but that's the grim reality that doesn't make for such nice pictures.

Sometimes i think we are still really worried about idolatry. Think about it. We depict ourselves as beings in a constant pursuit of our desires, even if the reality is in the constant deferment. We creat vast numbers of images of the objects of our lusts and of ourselves in the pursuit of the most insane desires, but it's much harder to find images of say, money, or people at work. (I mean really at work -- not Maoist/Madison Ave. happysmily models)

Posted by: che at August 28, 2003 12:09 AM

I think it is interesting to compare business dep't brochures with humanities brochures. There is a difference in what is portrayed. Many of the business profs look like they came right from the workplace or the golf course (i.e. wearing business casual garb) whereas the humanities profs work the tweed.
I'm not suprised that marketing has extended to what field of study a future student might pursue. The key is to inject just enough tweed to appear better than the average person, but not TOO much better (that would go into the dangerous terrain of elitism, which seems to be a big taboo in this era of Fox News Network's "fair and balanced" everything!)

Posted by: Cat at August 28, 2003 10:26 AM

You know, I never wear tweed or a cardigan because I'm just not old enough for it to look right. I guess I wear business causal even though I teach English.

But, as soon as I start turning gray, I think I may become a model for college brochures. First thing, I'm going to Scotland to get a jacket made--the kind so coarse that it looks like the rocks and heather are woven right into it.

Even though nobody is allowed to actually smoke these days, I going to hold a pipe as I sit amid the oak bookshelves of my office and gaze wistfully out my leaded window at the falling autumn leaves and the new generation of worshipful students in their blue blazers.

And I think I'll start spending more time in Paris and Tuscany during my sabbaticals. It will be good to be tenured.

Posted by: TH Benton at August 28, 2003 10:56 AM

Ah, Tuscanny ...

One of my favorite all-time academic real-life parodies occurred at my local grocery store last March. I was standing in line and ahead of me was a famous and tenured professor (I knew who he was, he had no idea of me) who is British and consistently wears black jeans and a blak leather coat. Nevermind that he is a tad too old, and a bit to pasty-skinned and geaky to pull off this look. So, there he is talking to a late-middle-aged woman wearing the big jewelry and the flowing, draping whatever -- clearly a sign of her academic standing -- and they're talking about how she and Giles (I'm not makign this up)just returned from, you guessed it, Tuscanny. I heard all about it -- it was beautiful, and yes she and Giles went to many a wine-tasting, and took walks amongst the hills, and 'oh, it was breathtaking, just breathtaking'.

I make this vow before all: 1. I shall not wear black jeans -- ever! -- and I shall toss the black leather coat when I can no longer wear it with grace; 2. I will never, ever go to Tuscanny. (unless it's with porn-star Jenna Jameson and we're going to do nasty, dirty things on a hill in plain view of some academic couple's villa).

Posted by: Chris at August 28, 2003 12:03 PM

My rules are hair-related:

(1) Avoid the comb-over (I'm running up against this one, now).

(2) Men should only wear a pony tail after age 30 if either (a) they wore one before age 30, or (b) they've left their boring middle-class life for the life of a rogue watcher, mercenary, biker, rebel outlaw, or something similar.

Posted by: Barry at August 28, 2003 04:02 PM

(a) I wore a pony tail for a few years, then forsook it for my present buzz cut. The pony tail didn’t look especially distinctive; it only amplified my general resemblance to a horse’s rear end.

(b) I wear tweed jackets, though not the extreme tweed to which THB adverts above. Herringbone looks good with black and white, though.

(c) I gesticulate and pace a lot while teaching. (I’m still not photogenic.) Is there a rule against this?

(d) I’ve taught in Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois. Campuses in IL and NJ can still muster changing leaves, but they can’t compare to the ocean-kissed beach in Florida for attracting student attention.

Posted by: AKMA at August 28, 2003 08:24 PM

Over a few winter days in Bloomington, a set of pictures emerged that I wish could have ended up in their catalog...

Somebody made a snowman on Jordan Commons. The next day, somebody else made a bunch of little snow-students in a half-circle around the snowman, who suddenly became Professor Snowman.

The next day, somebody else crowned the little scene by putting a snowball in Professor Snowman's hand. Clearly Professor Snowman teaches the origins of snow-life...

And heck, it's a change from tweed.

(Despite not being professorial, I will admit to resembling the flowing-gowns-and-big-jewelry remark.)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 28, 2003 10:39 PM

I've never been able to pull off tweed. My normal inclinations are to follow the herd of slight women with glasses and short dark slightly funky hair and short dark slightly funky suits and chunky heels, though I try to deviate from the norm by wearing camel to interviews.

(I recall once going to an AHA conference and thinking, wow, look -- it's a bunch of me's!).

Posted by: Rana at August 28, 2003 11:01 PM

And then there was the time I was wearing black skirt, black turtleneck, black tights and the aforesaid black chunky shoes, and had a friend remark, "All you need is a cigarette to look just like a lit major!" *grin*

Posted by: Rana at August 28, 2003 11:03 PM

From AKMA: "I wear tweed jackets, though not the extreme tweed to which THB adverts above."

EXTREME TWEED might be a pretty good name for an academic blog.

It's also a good put-down: "The chair doesn't read anything written after 1960. He's an extreme tweed."

Posted by: TH Benton at August 29, 2003 11:18 AM

Here's an ad for tweed (EXTREME TWEED) that's funny:

Wittgenstein on tweed.

The best proof that Bertie Russell was a smart cookie is that he thought Ludwig Wittgenstein was smarter. Wittgenstein. He was the one who said that the really important things in life can't be said, only shown.

Is it just by accident that when Wittgenstein showed himself to the world, he almost invariably showed himself in tweed? Harris tweed, to be exact.

He gave alway all his money but he didn't give away the tweed. It was tweed in Vienna and tweed at Cambridge and on the blustery west coast of Ireland, working hard at philosophy and trying to keep warm.

Wittgenstein furrows his brow at the slightly hairy cuff of his faithful tweed jacket, so many colors in there..."Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent."

Harris Tweed Sports Jacket: an inexpressibly good handwoven fabric, substantial and handsome, with a two-button front, flapped pockets....

Posted by: Fontana Labs at August 29, 2003 02:29 PM

Two thoughts on this..

1)"If students are increasingly interested in (education which will help their careers), why do colleges still market themselves by invoking the older ideal?" My somewhat cynical answer is that, increasingly, students do *not* view education "that will help their careers" in terms of learning specific career-oriented knowledge (accounting, logistics, whatever.) They view the key to their careers not as a set of knowledge, but as a credential. The tweedy professors are associated with the kind of credential that gets job offers.

2) Several people have pointed out that education is hard to capture as images in a brochure. This is actually true of many services and products. As one who has perpetrated many ads and brochures upon the world, I've observed that it's really pretty hard to get a set of images that tell the right story. Often, the first proposals from the ad agency will consist of smiling people and abstract art that has nothing to do with what you are trying to sell. It takes a lot of work to get a really creative solution, and I suspect that most university recruiting departments don't make the effort (if indeed they know what it is they really want to communicate).

Posted by: David Foster at August 29, 2003 08:50 PM

"Education is hard to capture as images in a brochure. This is actually true of many services and products."

Indeed. When I was 12 I was baffled by a completely non-representational sanitary napkin ad. My father explained the problem just as you did, which wasn't much help.

Posted by: zizka at August 29, 2003 10:29 PM

in addition to #3 on the list small groups of students composed of at least one asian, one african american, one caucasian, and one of indeterminate ethnicity roam the campus frolicking on the grass, playing frisbee, or eating lunch together. although groupings of various nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities are usually seen in such high concentrations only at international food festivals, students on these campuses are rigorously multiethnic, multicultural, and multinational
most of the college brochures i've seen these past couple of years are including a new kind of pinup prof - the prof of color. there's usually one (sometimes even more than one) that gets to make an appearance. college faculties are so diverse these days! now there's a fantasy for ya.

Posted by: meanregression at August 30, 2003 06:22 PM

My undergrad's brochure made a big deal out of showing community and diversity in the photos. This is a natural choice, but was more obvious for coming right after California's Prop 209 (it was a UC). After going to campus I found out that only a low number of African American students enrolled had nothing to do with athletics, especially compared to white students. And while I wouldn't argue that there weren't multiracial groups of friends, many racial and ethnic groups had tight-knit groups of friends like themselves.

Also in the photos were the images of students sitting by the recognizable buildings with their bikes leaned against brick walls while reading by themselves (peaceful, opportunities to be alone on such a large campus, and assures parents that students do study). Nevermind the fact that the campus' geography made it almost impossible to ride a bike from one end to another, and that the student wouldn't have any quiet to study because of the constant construction on additional parking garages to meet students' demands (I'll come out an say it: it was UCLA).

Posted by: Incadenza at September 3, 2003 11:53 AM

Maybe the continued appeal of the tweedy ivy low-tech lectures proves a smothered taste for it. People fear they have to study something narrower, but regret it.

Maybe they only regret not having enough money to not need to study accounting, but hey, it still seems like something one could sublimate into support for the humanities in general. Imagine getting half the aristocratic-fantasy money that goes into production weddings.

Posted by: clew at September 3, 2003 01:55 PM

Holy smokes. Does that mean there's going to be an academia equivalent of Brides magazine?

The horror! The horror!

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 3, 2003 08:41 PM

Give it up folks, my alma mater has got the rest of you beat hands down in the brochure category. First, it's perched on a mountaintop in Tennesse, which means we get changing leaves, snow frolicking, frisbee shots of women dressed for the southern heat, and long shots of sunset over the valley. Second, every academic building is built in the College Gothic style from, get this, local stone. Not only does it look more like Oxford than the real Oxford, the brochure can show local craftsman practicing a dying art passed down through the generations, as they build or repair another picturesque constructions. Third, it's got institutional ties to the Anglican Communion, which means that the students and faculty pictured for visible diversity really do come from all sorts of peculiar places. The poli sci prof who was a minister in Liberia and only escaped with his life because he happened to be out of the country when the coup came usually makes the catalog. Finally, and this is the kicker for the brochure category, both faculty and students wear academic gowns to class. It's a tradition that goes back to the start of the university, but it's still practiced. And people really do teach outdoors sometimes. So you can legitimately fill the brochure with shots of multiethnic student, sitting at the feet of a wise prof, who is wearing a tattered gown that's clearly been his companion for decades, under brightly colored leaves in front of a Gothic quadrangle.

Now everyone else has been freed from having to compete with this kind of image in their brochure; Sewanee's nailed the Platonic ideal.

Posted by: Doug at September 4, 2003 04:25 AM

"Now everyone else has been freed from having to compete with this kind of image in their brochure; Sewanee's nailed the Platonic ideal."

Well, okay, then. Looks like we have a winner!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at September 4, 2003 08:42 AM

It would be nice to have a campus with a unified building style. I can see six different styles of architecture (in four different materials) without leaving my chair, and five of them are ugly.
The only tweed-wearer I know (and don't forget the elbow patches!) has been here for 45 years and still seems to think it's 1959. He also smells of mothballs, which causes me to believe that the English department keeps him in a closet somewhere, dragging him out to teach required courses, preferably at 8am, to scare off freshmen who think they want to be English majors.

Posted by: Jane at September 6, 2003 09:27 PM