Category Archives: Teaching

UVA Admissions Viewbook as Research Source

During the first week of school, my class revisited the college admissions process to explore what research is and which sources are useful, reliable, and convincing (categories, we’ve found, that are sometimes in tension). The first source we considered in depth was UVA’s admissions prospectus, which is posted on the Admissions Office’s web page. By having my students analyze sections of the viewbook in small groups and lead a discussion of certain spreads with the class as a whole, I hoped to suggest to them that information, even from trusted sources, is always mediated. In groups, they looked for pages that depicted aspects of Virginia that they probably wouldn’t experience while they were here and thought through why so much seemingly extraneous information would be included in the viewbook.

One spread that came up in at least two of the sections was this one:

Students generally agreed that they wouldn’t be going to space during their tenures at UVA, nor would they be likely to meet Edgar Allan Poe, Tina Fey, Katie Couric, or Tiki Barber. Yet certain aspects of the spread did provide indirect information—the astronaut in the picture, for example, is not only a UVA alumna but also a Professor of Engineering. Many of the students thought the pictures and descriptions of celebrities on the verso side of the spread, which might appear to the more cynical as mindless celebrity promotion, provided compelling evidence that many alumni of UVA become successful later on. Students rated the spread low on the usefulness scale, but many of them found it compelling.

One student offered a sophisticated analysis of a spread with a long-exposure that shows a statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Rotunda, with a blur of people in the 2000s whirling around it:

In the photograph, Jefferson—and by proxy his “vision”—is literally set in stone at the center of the University. By the implicit logic of the photograph, time will pass, and many transient people will move through the institution, but the “vision” will remain the same. The page depicts Jefferson as a renaissance man: a list of “TJ’s Professions” on the right side of the spread at once secures his nickname-worthy familiarity to University students and marks him as remarkably versatile, serving not just as President, Governor, Secretary of State, and Founder of the University of Virginia, but also as Lawyer, Farmer, Diplomat, Scientist, Musician, and Architect. As a piece of the Admissions research picture, the class pointed out, this spread is marginally useful as a reflection of the ethos of UVA, but it also begins the process of Jefferson mythification that students will experience throughout their years at Virginia.

The admissions viewbook is structured around the two conceits of “UVA IS” and “YOU ARE” (each gets half the book, and two sets of page numbers work inward toward the center). Students found one of the “YOU ARE” spreads rather useless but compelling nonetheless:

As a set of compliments directed toward Juniors and Seniors in High School (many of whom, no doubt, do share many of the qualities listed on the page), students found this spread a nice mental break from the information barrage of many of the pages in the viewbook. Yet it is utterly useless as a source of information about the University of Virginia. Students eventually posited an ulterior motive to the spread. It is nice for high school students to be complimented so aggressively, but they had to admit that the Admissions Office’s goal in doing so was likely geared more toward making prospective students feel good about UVA than it was about providing information about the University itself.

The information in the viewbook, students pointed out, was all true, but it also shaped that information into narratives that were designed not just to depict but also to construct the experience of UVA students. The book was telling the truth, but it was also suggesting a set of ideas and feelings designed to appeal to them in specific ways. From one vantage, the UVA admissions office is in a position to know more about the institution than any other source—it has the authority of a trusted institution, after all, and it exists within the UVA community. Students enjoy the viewbook (if nothing else, many of its pages are beautiful), but I hope they also now recognize that it has other goals beyond giving prospective students an accurate picture of life at UVA. The viewbook remained part of the conversation as we discussed other readings related to college admissions, including a terrific chapter on the marketing of college from David Kirp’s Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line. I hope that students bring the sophisticated skepticism they brought to the viewbook to the other sources of information we’ll also consider, from the seeming quantitative authority of the U.S. News & World Report Rankings, to the ostensible chaos of Wikipedia, to the cultural and intellectual authority that academic studies carry (like this one by Matthew Hartley and Christopher C. Morphew about viewbooks themselves, which I used information from in class but did not have the students read) to the seeming irrefutability of primary sources.

Designing a Transition Sequence for the Liberal Arts

This summer, I began my job as a lecturer in UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences and Assistant Director of the University’s Transition Program, which helps students who are primarily from underrepresented groups adapt to college. The job has been a major transition for me, too, as I’ve shifted from my typical teaching in English, which has involved literature and composition classes, to classes under the designation of LASE, or “Liberal Arts Seminar.” These classes share three primarily goals: to introduce students to academic skills that will benefit them throughout college, from classroom demeanor and participation to appropriate ways to address Professors in emails; to help students develop and achieve academic and career goals; and to introduce students to the liberal arts, particularly the critical-thinking emphasis of the liberal arts.

In the summer, my co-teachers and I focused the LASE curriculum on a single problem: “when, if ever, is it OK to break the law?” In LASE 2110, our pre-matriculated first-years read difficult texts by figures such as Plato, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Henry David Thoreau and applied their ideas to contemporary situations of civil disobedience. Throughout the class and in their final papers, students explored a variety of complex situations, from the seemingly trivial outrage of the Jefferson Memorial Dancers and many topless protestors, to the anti-TSA rage of John Tyner, to Kenza Drider’s resistance to the French ban on face coverings, to the relationship between social media and the Egyptian revolution, to Jose Antonio Vargas’s “outing” himself as an illegal immigrant, among others. The course had many goals, from giving students a first opportunity to revise a significant paper on a topic of their choosing, to easing them into the college classroom, to emphasizing the management of multiple competing perspectives that solid critical thinking requires.

This fall, our focus of LASE 3110 moves from general “Critical Reading, Writing, and Reasoning” to “Analysis and Research.” While students will have the opportunity to write on a research topic of their choosing, the readings and examples I’ve chosen for the course center on the University of Virginia itself. We’ve started the semester by turning a skeptical eye toward sources of information related to the most recent (and probably significant) research project these students have undertaken, the college admissions process. By considering and evaluating the information students have used to make their decision, from the students’ campus visits and conversations with students, deans, alumni, coaches, and parents, to the University’s web page, to its viewbook, to the U.S. News Rankings, to the Fiske Guide to Colleges, to wikipedia and other encyclopedias, I’ve tried to emphasize to students that information is subject to significant mediation. The college viewbook is an informational tool, but it is also a marketing construct. After our focus on secondary sources, we’ll move on to a consideration of primary sources as we consider questions about the University’s past using artifacts from special collections. In the second half of the course, students will perform a significant research project of their choosing as a complement to their first-year writing classes.

As transition students in the Spring term formulate a plan for their college educations and attempt to decide on majors, we’ll together explore the (currently hotly debated) question of “What’s the point of college?” As I ask students to wade through the national (and perennial?) debate on this issue, I’ll help them decide on their own personalized answer.

Teaching this sequence at this point in my career has already been a necessarily reflective experience: reading and teaching debates on the purpose of the liberal arts has made me want to more explicitly define what I think the goals of liberal arts teaching in the humanities (and by proxy the goals of the course sequence) are. So far, I’ve tried to instill in my students values I’ve also promoted in my literature and writing classes: the contingency of knowledge; the changeability of present circumstances; skepticism toward accepted truths; the importance of questions and processes, and not just answers; the importance of understanding (but not always agreeing with) alternative points of view; and the relationship between conceptual ideas and the world they help form. I’ve begun to think that if Universities began to do a better job of formulating more specific goals for students than the vague catchall “critical thinking,” debates about the value of the liberal arts and the humanities would begin to get clearer for the public. And as I teach these courses this year, and these or similar ones in the future, I hope that be more specific with my students about what I hope they get from their liberal arts educations.