If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.
Individualism and Neoliberal Thought
Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.
Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.
Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.
The Manifestation of the Post-
And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).
The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.
Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.
Problematizing Irony as Social Critique
How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.
One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?
One of the greatest mistakes, I have been told, is to do things simply because “that’s the way that they’ve always been done.” This is not to suggest that traditions and practices may not have endured for a reason, but I have been trained to continually question the assumptions and expectations that surround my object of inquiry. In so many ways, I have been continually told to fight against determinism, to reexamine evidence, and to think about what historiographical methods can reveal.
So when it comes to the college admission essay—something that I had been familiar with for a number of years—and a story from The Chronicle that reported on the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admission, I began to sit down and thing: why do we do what we do? I know the party line: that the essay is used to assess writing composition skills. This is not untrue, but as someone who has recently had to read undergraduate papers for the first time, I began to wonder if there was in fact any correlation between an ability to produce a (relatively short) essay as a one-off and the kind of structure/discipline necessary for the actual papers that students would be writing in college. Sure, we have composition courses to help students along but skills are often still lacking.
So all of this begs the question: “What exactly do we hope to get out of the college admission essay?”
As mentioned in the article, another common response is “authenticity.” We are looking for a glimpse of a spark, we are looking for something/someone fresh—we want a student who is unabashedly true to who he or she is. But we also want a student who fits into our often unstated range for who an acceptable student should be.
I’ve spent some of my free time last year thinking deeply about the implications for this (particularly as I began to work more with fan communities) and reflected back to all the times that I saw kids who were incredibly passionate about things like Harry Potter or dressage or Rubik’s cubes. It was no small secret that these sorts of activities were generally regarded with skepticism at best (and possible derision at worse, particularly if someone decided that an interview was the opportune time to demonstrate something). Authenticity, then, is only valued insofar as it speaks to values that I support.
So, if I were really being honest, what I’m really looking for is a student to tell me a really good story about himself or herself and I want that tale to hit markers of what I deem to be truth or authenticity. (And the insistence on a narrative is in itself a bias, right? There are “good” stories and “bad” stories, stories that have better formats than others, and this driving need to turn everything into a narrative although there are other forms of structure.) I think, as admission officers, we develop this internalized sense of what represents truth (i.e., we purport to be able to tell when students are being disingenuous or are overly polished) and perhaps blind ourselves to the way in which we can get played if a student manages to present as someone who ascribes to our ideal image of what a “real” candidate looks like. And to be fair, I don’t think that our filters our off—we all know those students who try too hard or who use sleight of hand to try to trick us—but I also don’t know that we are actively considering how we may be duped by false positives.
There has to be, I think, some real discussion about what we strive for as admission officers and whether our metrics continue to be up to the challenge. We must recognize that these tests and evaluations are born out of culture that is different from our own (not just in the structure of educational institutions but also fundamentally who our students are and how they function). Are we applying methods developed in the 20th century (and earlier!) to 21st century students? We shouldn’t throw out everything we’ve learned but, like with test scores, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what we think we’re getting out of all of this.
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.
In a few months, many of you will hear classmates stand up and give a speech that celebrates where you have come, but also, more importantly, where you will go in the future. Your peers will begin reflecting on the times that you have spent together and attempt to encapsulate the entirety of your high school experience in a few choice words. These people will do their best to soothe the nerves of those around them, peering into the future with sagacity far beyond their years. This, I am afraid, will seem like one of those speeches. However, do not fret for I have sat through these talks—and even given a few—and I will do my best to make my story as entertaining as possible.
From this point forward, you will find yourselves involved with a myriad of activities ranging from prom, to commencement, to five hundred graduation parties, to the inevitable “best, last, and greatest goodbye celebration” for you and your friends. I remember madly rushing around, desperate to create and capture memories, sure that I would keep them with me forever. Savor these moments and hold them close, not out of fear for losing something dear to you, but because they demonstrate, in a very subtle way, how much you have grown over the past four years.
Coming to campus for the first time, I admittedly had trepidations about the school for I had never lived in a place other thanHawaii. Would I get along with my roommate? Why did the sky look brown? What were flip-flops? How would I sneak my rice cooker into the dorm without my RA noticing? I distinctly remember the first time that I stepped foot on the USC campus as an “official” student: on that day, I felt out of place for I realized that while I attended the University of Southern California, I had yet to become a Trojan. Making the transition to college life always represents a challenge, I think, although we may not admit it at the time. As freshmen, we arrive on campus and begin the often-intimidating process of integrating ourselves into a community that seems all too large and detached. We venture off into the unknown, attempting to pass off our fears as excitement, sometimes portraying the image that we want to meet others simply because we have a amicable disposition—and not because we desperately seek to make friends. Those first few days it seems so much easier to lie still and be safe, and a giant leap of faith seems easy when everyone you’ve asked is so sure. Yet, sometimes the only way is jumping—I hope you’re not afraid of heights.
Now, all of those memories seem so far behind me for I find myself a senior with a mere month until graduation. When I think back on my time at USC, I find that I have accomplished my goal, although not in a way that I had anticipated. I, like many of my peers, came to the University to learn, and I found that I have. I now know how to write a paper containing more than five paragraphs, the seductive nature of afternoon naps, that I have the best friends in the world, and that frozen yogurt makes everything just a little better. But, most importantly, I know who I am—well, at least I think so. College has enabled me to discover what I will and will not do, challenged my thinking, and made me realize what I will fight for. This knowledge, in turn, has served to foster a sense of pride—a feeling achieved only after coming to terms with oneself. For me, so much of this sentiment stems from my time inSouthern California; the experiences that I have had at USC have become an intrinsic part of my identity. And, talking to other students at the University, I know that others feel the same as I. On campus, the student body has developed a way to express the exuberance that they feel: Fight On. I truly believe that each individual on the USC grounds feels a sense of pride—there really is no other word for it—in belonging to the Trojan Family. Yet, this phrase that we utter, often without a second thought, gently reminds us to temper our pride with a sense of humility. The words “Fight On” issue a silent challenge to those who say them, inviting us to always strive to do, and be, better. Looking back, I realize that I have finally become a Trojan.
I sat for a long time, trying to think about how to close my talk. I tried to think back a few years to what I wanted to hear as a senior, to what I wish I had heard before embarking on what would surely be one of the most exciting and precious journeys of my life. As the time to give my speech drew near, I found myself lacking inspiration and I began to panic. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered a book that I had read, and one that you surely will become familiar with in the coming months. Throughout my life, I have found myself continually drawn to this poet’s ability to convey incredibly profound and complex ideas in words so simple that even a child could understand them. Therefore, in the words of Theodore Geisel, I leave you with this message: No matter what college you attend, you have all proven that you have brains in your head and that you have feet in your shoes, that you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. From now on, you are on your own—you know what you know—and you are the one who will decide where to go. So be your name Chang, or Nakamura, or Kaneaiakala-Ventura, you’re off to great places! Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way. And, of course, Fight On.