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.