Love out of Nothing at All?: A re-examination of popular culture’s presence in the college application
College application essay, identity as narrative, popular culture, digital media literacy, self-branding
Structured talk (30 minutes), discussion (30 minutes)
Secondary school counselors, CBOs
Harry Potter. Twilight. Video games. Twitter.
The media environment that surrounds today’s applicants seems rife with topics that likely sit high atop lists that solemnly declare, “Bad Essay Ideas.” And, perhaps, not without reason, for the typical college application essay is one that often treats these subjects (along with more traditional ones like leadership, sports, or community service) lightly, evidencing a cursory understanding of the material at best. Students seem to struggle to infuse meaning into activities that appear on resumes, attempting to convince admission officers—and perhaps themselves—that these pursuits constituted time well spent.
But what if we could encourage students to rethink their engagement in these activities, while also challenging them to respond to the question, “Why does this matter?” Instead of asking students to conform to a process that privileges particular activities over others, how might we inspire young people to cultivate genuine interests while simultaneously thinking critically about the implications of their actions? Similarly, how might we encourage adults to recognize the potential nascent political themes of Harry Potter, see young people negotiating family structures and gender roles through Twilight, witness creativity and collaboration through video games, and understand how Twitter can develop the skill of curation? Instead of promoting the chasm between digital media/popular culture and education, how can we use the space to promote the skills that our students will need to be competitive in the 21st century?
College attendance and completion (at a four-year institution) has come to represent a significant demarcation in American society with studies showing a positive correlation between obtainment of a bachelor’s degree and total lifetime income. But more so than a mere economic advantage, higher education represents an opportunity for social mobility and the accumulation of social/cultural capital. If we accept that college attendance represents at least a partial transformative experience, we realize that understanding who is accepted is important.
Informal reports from educators (an opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education) have hinted that the current generation of college students display a wide range of skills and intelligences but also appear to be distracted by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter while in class, suggesting that digital media is generally seen as inhabiting a space separate from education (although this might be changing, albeit slowly).
However, I suggest that some of the types of skills professors desire (e.g., critical thinking, academic inquiry, engagement, and risk-taking) can be, and are, cultivated through pop culture and digital media use/production but it is my belief that, as a whole, the undergraduate admission process systematically devalues participation in such spaces, privileging more traditional—and readily understood—activities. There seems to be a potential disconnect, then, between selection criteria and the skills that schools hope to attract; if an institution values traits like proactivity, are admission officers fully sensitive to the range of ways in which such a trait might present or manifest? Or have we become overly influenced on quantitative measures like GPA and test scores and the relative stability they purport to provide? If such a bias exists, a possible effect of the college application structure (and the American educational system) is to cause those involved in the admission process to internalize a mental barrier between digital media and education.
It seems evident that the admission selection process (as reflective of an institution’s values) plays a large part in shaping who is able to attend a given school. Highly-selective schools, however, seem to have a disproportionate amount of influence in American culture as their practices create a stance that other colleges and universities either aspire or react to. Therefore the position that highly-selective institutions take on the integration of digital media and education likely has a trickle-down effect that affects the admission profession as a whole and is likely internalized by college counselors and high school students who aim to be accepted by these schools.
Ultimately, I hope to foster discussion between high school students, high school college counselors, and admission officers that examines how we collectively conceptualize and articulate the value of the connection between pop culture, digital media and education. I argue that higher-order skills can be cultivated by youth practices such as remix but that incongruent language employed by youth and adults makes recognition of this process difficult. After giving a short talk that explores the ways in which the everyday practices of youth can be seen as valuable, I will ask participants to join in a discussion that seeks to uncover strategies to enable youth to articulate their process and how we can challenge our peers to become more sensitive to the manifestation of traits that mark a “successful student.”
A 6-year veteran of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA) Chris Tokuhama was responsible for coordinating the University’s merit-based scholarship process and 8-year combined Baccalaureate/M.D. program. Working closely with high school populations, Chris became interested in issues that ranged from self-harm to educational access and equity, which has helped to inform his current research interests in digital media literacy, learning, and youth cultures. In addition to his role as an advocate for youth in Education, which included a Journal of College Admission publication on the effects of branding in the admission process, Chris studies the relationship of personal identity to the body as a doctoral student in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties. When not pursuing his studies, Chris enjoys working with 826LA and drinking over-priced coffee.
There’s still time to make up for my sins. Or at least that’s what I tell myself before I go to sleep. I was young and I was doing the best that I could, because nobody ever asked anything more of me.
As I enter into a new phase of my growth, I think back on my participation in an admission process and find myself desperately hoping that, in the end, I did more good than harm.
I think about the messages that I was tasked with conveying and the ones that I unwittingly helped to perpetuate. Early in my career, I worked to break down specific stereotypes of USC, but, looking back, I sort of wonder if I was focused on the wrong objectives all along. Listening to faculty and other intelligent discussion about what skills are needed in college students today, I can’t help but think that we’re shooting ourselves in the collective foot by not really taking stock of the effects of our practices. This is not to suggest that there isn’t merit to the system that’s currently in place—it does its job in a number of different ways—but this also does not mean that it can’t be better.
I currently wonder about the more diffuse skills of creativity, remix, critical thinking, and how all of these intersect with media use by youth. I think about the charges of apathy and disengagement and how games, comics, and play can complicate the equation. I consider how the root of “academic inquiry” lies in a sense of joy that is systematically squeezed out of the grooming process—even though we know that this is what we need, does admission systematically work against the cultivation of the sentiment in youth? Instead of teaching students that their energies and passions are valued, do we irreparably damage youth by forcing them into a range of approved activities? Admittedly, the scope of what we recognize is broadening, but we will always be behind students. How powerful could it be to tell a student that he or she, exactly as he/she is, is valued? But also to challenge that student, saying that it’s not enough to stay there? To teach youth that they have a responsibility to use their passions to reshape the world? We talk about authenticity and genuineness with our applicants, and I can’t help but think that we’re going about it all wrong: if we valued who they already were, they wouldn’t feel the need to tell us what we want to hear. If we can reshape the discussion surrounding admission and get students to go after these things but also think critically about them, we can change the type of applicant who sits in our classrooms.
In some ways, you want to tell kids to just soar and so much of what we do as admission officers seems to work against that. We teach youth, whether we realize it or not, that the safe bet is valued (and sure, it’s safe for a reason) but not to think about why it’s valued in the first place and if there are in fact alternative routes to reach the same destination.
For me, the disconnect centers around the notion that kids aren’t given the tools to think about the things that they already do for fun in a critical manner. There’s certainly nothing wrong with traditional or established activities—and these should be encouraged as well—but I do think that we need to radically rethink the process by which our youth are developing skills that will prepare them for college and beyond. There’s something powerful inherent in really looking at what youth are already into—how they spend their time naturally—and using that; there’s something to the idea that showing students how their actions can serve as scaffolding for other things that we value.
While I doubt that any admission person would ever place a large amount of value in a student who competitively stacks cups, I would argue that there’s some skill in that and the trick is to flip that into something. In this process, we have to be partners with students: youth need to be able to articulate what such an activity means to them and we have to be receptive to that. Because, at the end of the day, admission officers are people and who can’t get on board with the simple joy that comes from something like that? Cup stacking might not be our favorite thing in the world, but we’ve all known that expression of joy (at least I hope so) and teaching a student how to parlay that sense of exuberance is what’s going to get him or her to the next level.
Ultimately, I want more kids to be unafraid to express some of that unadulterated passion on the application because knowing that, for possibly one second in your life, you simply shined is something so powerful. The trick is teaching kids humility and that their light isn’t better than or more special than anyone else’s…but if you don’t have a spark, you can’t shine.