Campus Media and Right Relationships: Allowing the Student Body to Appear
In Culture as a Disability, McDermott and Varenne) present the argument that the system in which the conventions of our culture is set up disallows each all individuals to be perceived as ‘able’. (McDermott and Varenne, 1995) Varenne then, in a later article entitled “Extra burdens in the search for new openings”, claims that our culture is “simultaneously enabling and disabling”. (Varenne, 2003) Whatever act is taken to enable a certain group will invariably disable another. To ‘disable’ is not limited to the literal definition and I will expand on this later. An extrapolation of this claim would indicate that there is no possibility for a collective Utopia; culture does not work as an interconnected whole. Rather, it is a system that separates, disables and causes injustice.
Though our society, in the words of Varenne, is a ‘disability’ in and of itself, our culture is still interconnected. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler writes, “the attachment to ‘you’ is what comprises who ‘I’ am.” (Butler, 2004) Barad, in Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning speaks of entanglements and the entangled nature of all things. (Barad, 2007) Both these theorists make claims for a society that is a collective whole and imagining an individual’s complete detachment from the society in which they live proves difficult. Given the entanglement of individuals within society, both writers (Butler more explicitly) call for responsibility and the formation of right relationships within the culture.
For this paper, I will attempt to apply this theory to a real-life example: the student culture at Bryn Mawr College as represented through media created by the college’s communications office. I will examine what the media projects as ‘student culture’ within an all-women’s environment to see which groups are ‘disabled’ and which groups are ‘enabled’. To eliminate ambiguity, I will diffract the terms ‘disabled’ and ‘enabled’ through Butler’s concept of ‘the right to appear’. The ‘disability’ in this paper will not refer to a “lack of adequate power, strength or physical or mental ability” (Dictionary.com) but rather, the ‘disappearance’ of a certain image. Butler argues that the ‘right to appear’ is a right that everyone in an interconnected society deserves and thus, for all intents and purposes, this serves as the working definition of ‘enabled’ within the context of this paper. Thus, the terms ‘enabled’ and ‘appear’ will be used interchangeably, as will ‘disabled’ and ‘disappear’.
The reason for diffracting and then examining student culture at Bryn Mawr College through the lens of the media is because “everything we know about our culture, we know through the media” (Luhmann, 2000). Thus, it seems that whatever is being represented through the college’s advertisements becomes, in a way, the culture. There is a huge entanglement between what is portrayed in the college’s advertisements and the actual student culture. This is because all that is represented in the media takes reference from the actual culture itself. In other words, without the ‘real-life culture’, there would be no ‘culture’ as portrayed in the media. However, the representations within the media do not conform completely to the ‘real-life’ culture. The reason why these representations should be given the right to appear links back to the idea of entanglements – students should be enabled to be presented as representations of their school and the communications office has the responsibility to form right relationships with the students that it is attempted to represent.
Thus, I will begin the paper with a close analysis of the media that is available through the communications office and then include the ‘reality’ of student culture as diffracted by current Bryn Mawr students. I will my discussion to media that is dispersed on a wide scale to outside audiences and leave out media produced by students. Further, I will explore the entangled nature of not just the student body, but also the entanglements between current students and the communications office. From here, I will discuss the possibilities of building a right relationship wherein students at Bryn Mawr College feel as though they have the ‘right to appear’ within the culture as presented through the communications office while evaluating whether any ‘disabilities’ arise.
Who has the Right to Appear?
The information (comprised of images and text) that is presented through the college communications office conforms with the idea of a ‘perfect all-women’s college environment’. Pictures of young, female students surrounded by beautiful landscapes are displayed and made visible. The entire package is streamlined and adheres to a strict set of guidelines that all come together to form a holistic image of a College that exemplify the public image of the ‘Bryn Mawr Woman’. (Defined as a woman who possesses a rare combination of an intense intellectual commitment, purposeful vision and a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world”.) This definition adheres somewhat to the norms of society as it makes use of the social category, ‘female’. Additionally, working under the assumption that all students at the college identify as female, “she” and “her” – female pronouns – are used in descriptions.
Given that Bryn Mawr is an all-women’s college, it is unsurprising that the images on brochures and on the college website are comprised of young women “in action”. More specifically, on the college’s ‘student profiles’ page, there are photos of students with big smiles, put-together outfits and detailed descriptions of their academic and personal achievements. Each profile is filed under three categories: “Extraordinary Academics”, “Global Leadership For Women” and “Vibrant, Diverse, Community”. To have a profile on this page, one must be “an excellent representative” who fits in the “overall blend” of students from a variety of “major subjects, extracurricular activities, geographical origins, and so on”. The communications office, it seems, get recommendations for students and then select who gets to appear on the page. While this projects a positive image of the “Bryn Mawr Woman”, it disables the image of the ‘average student’ who perhaps does not fit in with the image that the college is attempting to project on this page. What is interesting to consider is that the “average student” comprises the majority of the students at Bryn Mawr. This does not mean that they are not excellent students; it just means that the media enables certain students by giving them the ‘right to appear’ and disables others who they do not deem worthy to be good “representatives” of the college.
Looking at the images on the website and in the brochures procured at the admissions office, it seems that the students that are enabled all have similar features – they are happy to be at Bryn Mawr (as seen through big, happy smiles), they seem to be focused on their intellectual pursuits and they all conform to society’s expectations of what it means to present themselves as a woman. Though they are all said to be ‘diverse’, there seems to be a very strict pattern in terms of those who appear in pictures that represent the college. There is not a hint of queerness or a defiance of gender expectations expect for perhaps the young woman in a science lab on the homepage. (Provided, of course, that a social expectation of women is that they generally ‘don’t do science’). This image conforms to the use of female pronouns throughout the website. It looks as though only students who conform to the image of the ‘feminine woman’ and who identify strongly as women are granted the right to appear here and thus are given ability through this appearance. There is a lack of representation in terms of transgender, genderqueer or even, homosexual students on the website at all.
Lastly, the images that the media presents of the school’s environment ‘disable’ certain flaws. While there is no denying that the college does have these buildings, certain ones are given more visibility that others. For example, one of the brochures has pictures of Pembroke Arch, Taylor Hall, Rhodes Hall and the Campus Centre. All of these buildings have the same form of gothic architecture and are thus, chosen to represent student surroundings. Additionally, they paint a picture of an idyllic place where students can learn, study and hang out in peace and tranquillity because they are intertwined with images that relate to academia. While there are photos of ‘typical student hangouts’, these do not take precedence over the ‘castle-like’ ones. Additionally, the majority of the photos are taken in the sunlight, or at least in bright light which semiotically, presents the school in a positive way. These images enable an image of academic utopia to appear which is then associated with the student population.
Voices of the ‘Disabled’
The image that is presented through the media of Bryn Mawr College is quite clear but as mentioned earlier, they do not conform to the actual culture within Bryn Mawr. In this section of the paper, I will attempt to diffract student opinions of Bryn Mawr and its entanglement with advertising to reveal where right relationships should be formed. Additionally, I have interviewed students that conform to the student image as presented in the media as well as students that lie outside of the boundaries.
When asked about the image of the ‘Bryn Mawr’ woman, not one of my interviewees said anything about the ‘personal characteristics’ that are highlighted on both the website and brochure. Rather, I got responses ranging from ‘motivated, hopeful activists’ to ‘inspired hipsters’ to ‘gay intense bubble’. There is no collective image of what it means to be a ‘Bryn Mawr Woman’ or as one student put it, a ‘BMW’. Instead, the sense that I got from these responses is that each student diffracts the concept through their own image of what it means to be a student at this school. This would contradict the unified image of a Bryn Mawr woman that appears in the media.
Furthermore, in an interview with a senior Bryn Mawr student, I was told that it was unfortunate that the website did not have images of queer women with piercings or tattoos. To quote the student, “All the students on the website look straight”. Though there are no official statistics on the sexual orientation of students, there is a visible presence of queerness on campus. According to a Bryn Mawr sophomore, “we’re not just women, we’re more than just that”. Given the prevalent use of female pronouns on the website and the emphasis on the “Bryn Mawr WOMAN”, this opinion reveals that the students do not agree with the images that are made visible. Additionally, in a phone conversation with a current transgender student, there was concern at the lack of information regarding the transcommunity on campus. “There is no mention of transgenderism on any of the websites” he said, “you only learn about it by actually talking to students”. Furthermore, he feels underrepresented by the institution that he attends. By creating an image of the school school’s students that is, according to a freshwoman, “clearcut”, the communications office disables other individuals that do not conform to it.
Lastly, the images of the actual campus on the school’s website, while reflective of actual locations on campus are “dressed up” to be presented to the public. In the brochure, there is a photo of Thomas Great Hall referred to by many students as being “the building that most looks like a castle”. The way that the image is framed emphasizes the turrets and flags. As one junior put it “I hate those flags. It reminds me that the school is being fake”. Indeed, the flags are only put up during ‘special events’ such as parent’s weekend and convocation. For the most part of the semester, there are no flags and thus, the fact that they are displayed in the brochures would indicate that the communications office is creating a ‘false’ image of the campus. Additionally, there are a lot of photos that display wide, sweeping landscapes that evoke a sense of sublimity. While there is no denying that the campus is beautiful, there seems to be an explicit attempt to hide, or make invisible, certain images that do not conform to this framework. Further, when students were asked which part of campus were their favourite, I obtained responses that ranged from very ‘visible’ places such as the cloisters and the duck pond behind Rhodes to ‘invisible’ places like the labyrinth and the sunken garden. Also, though some of my respondents did refer to the campus as ‘beautiful’, the intersection between how the campus looks and how the students identify as academics does not exist.
As I have presented through my close analysis of college advertisements and student opinions of their school, there seems to be a large discrepancy between what is allowed to ‘appear’ in representations of the college and what students actually think of their school. Throughout my research for this paper, I did not get a response from any student that suggested that they thought that the school’s website or the brochures that are produced about the school fully represent what Bryn Mawr is to them. Though each student diffracts their experience at Bryn Mawr differently, the fact there is an agreement on this discrepancy alienates students as well as disallows them the ability to appear. Further, the agreement between students is interesting as it reveals that although each students’ lived experience is different, they are still all entangled.
Although the purpose of the school’s advertising (it seems) is to attract prospective students and project a certain image to the rest of the world, the fact remains that this image is not representative of the college. In fact, by creating this idyllic image, students become alienated from it and thus, are disabled. Though the communications office may be ‘outsiders’ to student life and activities, the entanglement between it and the student body is still essential. Students should have the right to appear and identify with the images that portray their school; without them, the college would not exist. Acting as the gatekeepers of information, the creators of the material produced by Bryn Mawr only allow certain aspects to be visible and this unidirectional flow of information ignores the entanglement with the student body completely.
Diffracting the entanglement through my own lens, I chose Bryn Mawr because of academics. However, coming from a booming metropolis, I felt like the images of the campus were alienating, though beautiful. Additionally, I did not feel as though I fitted into the image of the ‘Bryn Mawr’ woman as seen in the media, which was disconcerting to me as I was worried about my academic and social life. As an incoming student, these were huge concerns of mine. Now in my second year, I have come to find that Bryn Mawr Women are not as clear-cut as presented and that the campus was more inviting than presented in the images. Attempting to portray a more realistic representation of the school is essential because the things that are not represented (in my case anyway) are what my favourite things about the school are.
According to Butler, these entanglements are essential as they are the basis of our society. Without them, we would not exist. Each individual or party should take responsibility for each of their actions as each “death” is grievable. The “death” in this case is the disabling of the student population by forcing certain images of the students to disappear. Given the entanglements between the students and the media that represents them, there is a responsibility to allow these images to appear and thus, form a right relationship.
Because of the entangled nature of the students and the publications that are produced about them, it seems odd that there is such a large difference in the image that students have of the school and the image that the school attempts to present. As this entanglement comes with a good amount of responsibility, why isn’t there a move to enable students by allowing them to appear and represent the institution they attend? Why does the college project an image that few students identify with?
Building Right Relationships
The first suggestion for a right relationship between the students and the communications office would be to allow a wider range of students to ‘appear’ in advertising. Given the presence of the queer community, there should be images that are not heteronormative but rather, embrace a range of sexual orientations and appearances. Additionally, the text used in publications should be gender neutral in order to accommodate all students. Though this seems to disable the projected image of the school as incoming students might not be as attracted to this type of diversity, it enables them as well. This is because they will have a clearer and true image of the people they may meet on campus and as a result of being exposed to the ‘true’ image of students, be more or less inclined to apply. While this might pose a problem as prospective students may cross Bryn Mawr off their lists, they could experience problems later on if matriculated as they may realize that while they “fitted” with the projected image of Bryn Mawr, they may not “fit” with the actual college culture.
The inclusion of more student input is the second suggestion. Currently, the media that is distributed to the outside is flawed in the sense that it ‘gate keeps’ the information that it presents. Though there are instances of student input, they still have to go through another person who judges if it is ‘fit’ to be published. As a result, certain things are disabled and hidden if judged to be inappropriate. Given the entangled relationship between the communications office and the student body, the fact that only one side gets a say on how to project the school’s image is unjust.
Thirdly, in terms of the buildings on campus, there should be moves to create a real sense of what the environment at Bryn Mawr College is actually like. Rather than have photos of buildings that look alienating, there should be images that are more welcoming and inviting to represent the actual nature of Bryn Mawr’s campus. These images would also benefit all parties involved – the students and their environment would be enabled and made more visible while the communications office would project a more welcoming community.
By allowing more accurate images of students and student environments to appear in college media, the communications office will limit the amount of “grievable deaths”. Additionally, it will paint a more realistic image of the college that works in favour of all parties. Thus, by following these suggestions, a right relationship will be formed and the college will have taken the responsibility needed to enable students.
Acknowledgement of my Limitations
I acknowledge the fact that I have limited my diffractions to just the media produced by the college. Though there is a presence of student publications that do allow a more diverse image of students to appear, I have concentrated on media that is dispersed on a wider scale because this media is what projects the school’s image and branding to the rest of the world. Student publications like The BiCollege News and The College News do not get dispersed as widely or as quickly as those that come straight from the institution itself.
Furthermore, my diffractions are posited on assumptions that I have made about the aims of the college’s communications. Unable to get an opportunity for discussion with a communications officer, I was forced to rely on student input to conduct research for my paper. Though the basis of my argument is the entanglement between the communications office and the student body, I acknowledge that I have, ironically, left out their side of the argument. However, if given more time, I would ask about why they chose to present the images that they allowed to appear. Though I do feel that I have left out certain parts of their entanglement, it is still unquestionable that all Bryn Mawr students are not given the right to appear.
Additionally, the main entanglement that I have factored into my argument is between the students and the communications office. As Butler has argued about the responsibility of all humans, I have left out the entanglement of these two groups with others such as parents and faculty, among others. However, given the amount of time I had and the number of pages that I was allowed to submit, widening my scope would not have been feasible.
Lastly, I have diffracted the issue through my own personal lens. I did a close analysis of the media with my question in mind, thus causing certain images to appear to me over others. This entanglement with the material was not one that I was expecting. On top of that, I also looked at diffractions from the students – my main source of information – from my point of view. Nevertheless, it is still a diffraction that intra-acts with others and given the entangled nature of all humans, thus serves as a valid viewpoint.
Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne. “Culture as Disability.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 26. 1995. Print.
Hervé Varenne. “Extra Burdens In The Search For New Openings: On the Inevitability of Cultural Disabilities”. 2003. Web.
Karen Barad. “Diffractions: Differences, Contingencies and Entanglements That Matter”. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, ix-xiii. 2007. Print.
Niklas Luhmann. “Differentiation as a Doubling of Reality”. The Reality of the Mass Media. USA: Stanford University. 2000. Print.
Bryn Mawr College. Web. Last Accessed: December 13, 2011. <http://www.brynmawr.edu>.
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