Saturday, July 20, 2013

Dangerously optimistic?

Over on the redesign blog (previously), there's some controversy about the tagline used on the mockups of the new website: "Dangerously Optimistic Since 1853":

Dangerously optimistic since 1853

A lot of people don't like it, and I can understand why. It doesn't seem to say anything about Shimer's core product—whether you call that dialogal education, Great Books pedagogy or what have you. On top of that, it lends itself to unfavorable interpretations. Can Shimer really afford to emphasize its own precariousness in this way? Even the old and thoroughly-reviled tagline "the Great Books College of the Midwest" at least suggested stability

But even though I'm the sort of person who normally hates everything, this new tagline really appeals to me. I'll try to explain why (see also Adam O.'s eloquent comment).

As much as Shimer stands for the great books (and for smallness, intentional community, dialogical pedagogy, and various other good things), it stands also for a certain glorious bloody-mindedness without which the school's existence—beyond 1853, or 1855, or 1857, or 1895, or 1898, or 1906, or 1927, or 1949, or 1957, or 1973, or 1977, or 1979, or 1990, or 2010, inter alia—would be unthinkable.

There is a reason that Shimer's people have always kept going, in the face of challenges that would have  made any well-adjusted institution decide to meekly curl up and die. Putting that reason into words can be challenging, but it's there all the same.

"Dangerously Optimistic" wouldn't have occurred to me as a way of summarizing this, but I think it works quite well—and certainly better than obvious alternatives like "Telling the World To Go Fuck Itself Since 1853," which for one thing is a bit too long.
For a long time, there has been an understandable desire to  keep this crazier side of Shimer safely tucked in the attic—when that craziness isn't needed to repel the latest existential threat, of course.  But this has left me and many others with a strange sense of contradiction between the community that we identify with and the school's outward face (which is also the face presented to alumni). Some contradiction between the inward and outward faces of Shimer is inevitable, but there's been something strangely bloodless about the way that Shimer has presented itself for many years, as if Shimer were trying to pretend that it had become a scaled-down version of an otherwise normal college.

This isn't good for Shimer or its people, and least of all for students who come to Shimer expecting something completely different from what they find.

Does the "dangerously optimistic" tagline emphasize precariousness, even foolhardiness? OK, sure. But Shimer has tried over and over to try to pretend that it hasn't spent 1.6 centuries dancing (flawlessly) on the volcano's brim, only for this pretense to be given the lie when the music starts again. This is stupid and self-defeating. We need to find ways of more effectively integrating this underlying strength in the outward-facing version of Shimer.  We cannot afford to keep turning Shimer's strengths into weaknesses.

In the end, I trust that the choice in this matter rests with the people of Shimer College, as it should.

But for my part, I think this is a good tagline.


Alfred Lord Tenniscourt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Lord Tenniscourt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Lord Tenniscourt said...

Yeah, I think it's dumb.
Who the hell is optimistic, and about what? "Dangerously Pessimistic, since 1853" would be a better fit for the Shimer I know and love (knew and loved?).
Anyhow, in 1998 that would have been cutting edge. This is not 1998. I don't think that is going to ring worth a shit to millennials. I completely agree with letting our freak flag fly, but this trite, little Abercrombie meets Obama motto doesn't do it.
Further, the college age people I know these days are absolutely starving for someplace to go actually learn something. They are starving for anything that has any actual meaning at all. They have had their asses kissed constantly throughout their educational careers, and the ones who would be interested in Shimer at all are sick of it. They want someplace where they can learn, where they can engage, and where they will get meaningful, and eventually even critical, feedback.
I think they also want fairness and objectivity. One trend I have noticed is that if you are a kid who has a working class physique and working class clothes, you get your ass kissed no matter what you do and get a "B" or a "C." If you affect the manner and dress of a pseudointellectual, you get your ass kissed and get an "A" or a "B."
It seems the feminist and civil rights movements reached a point in the 1990's or so when they became counter-productive in the context of public schools in America. There was overwhelming pressure before those movements to give grades to white males, who walked around with a sense of false entitlement. Then, there was a powerful movement to give good grades to people who deserved them, regardless of their color, or gender, or whatever. And I don't believe that came full circle and brought the false sense of entitlement to rest with women and minorities, as so many white males who don't measure up to their female or minority competitors insinuate today, I believe that what has happened is that grades are now given to people who really want them, whether or not they deserve them. They are handed out based on posturing and stereotype, rather than ability and application.
The reason for this is simple - if the kids who really wanted good grades get them, whether they deserve them or not, no one bitches.
If some savant, idiot or otherwise, is a little too aloof to care about class, they may do excellent work, they may do the best work in the class and show promise that deserves development and attention, but it is much easier to throw them a c, knowing they won't bitch, and give the overachievers (they used to be called "low intelligence, high achievers" the A's.
And the result is that there are legions of these kids, who usually do much, much better on SAT's than their grades would indicate, who have this sense that they are being ignored, and that they are being pushed away from a system that should be embracing people with their sense of disheveled (or not) curiosity, and natural inclination towards learning.

Alfred Lord Tenniscourt said...

And many people from the old school can't completely believe that things are really this arbitrary... But they are!
The widespread recognition of the learning disability seemed to hold great promise for helping educate our children for a short time. But the misuse of the "learning disability" by pushy, bourgeois parents, as a means by which to argue that children should be given the same grades as others when they hadn't developed the same competence with material pretty much undermined the very important educational value of the concept, and instead served to gradually make grades arbitrary with respect to learning.
Many teachers nowadays think about grades like this: What is the lowest grade I can give this student that he or she is not likely to bitch about and get me in trouble.
In my opinion, those students who have the natural inclination to learn, the natural sense of curiosity that pushes them to books, and makes them easy to give bad grades to, are the people we want and need to come to Shimer.
I don't think they will be impressed with this kind of slogan. I think they want something with a little empirical touch, something with a little bite to it. Something that sets a bar, sets a standard, for them and for the college, and I think they want that standard to be something anyone can see and evaluate easily.
A bad slogan that I would not advocate for, but that I think approaches what we should be thinking about is "a rigorous, difficult, old school college that you can get into, but maybe not out of." Or, "State Scools are for Philistines." Or, I don't know, anything but "dangerously optimistic since 1853." That slogan is for you and for me. Whoever made it up had those of us who already fell for the Shimer thing in mind because they knew we would be the ones to approve it.
It was not made up thinking of students who have been through school in these last years, who have gone through a school system where severely affected autistic children are brought into their classes to flap and squeal away, and given passing grades in those same classes (the guise is equality, the reality is cost effectiveness). It is not for students who were given "therapy" after September 11, 2001 until they broke down and cried (I have it on good authority that was often the only way out of "therapy"). It was not made up for students who are sick of the Jersey Shore, et al being shoved down their throats by the man.
"Dangerously Optimistic" is a slogan geared towards a baby boomer who fondly remembers rebelling against a man in a tweed suit, who wanted short, declarative sentences like Earnest Hemmingways and thought every student should be proficient in arithmetic, and wouldn't make enough time for Sappho or electronic computers, and was terrified by recreational drug use each night as he sipped his fifth scotch.
These students have never met that man. They are rebelling from this faceless freakshow behind which authority hides. They are rebelling from emotional domination in the classroom. They are rebelling against utter lack of intellectual content. They are rebelling against consumerism, and the culture of sound byte sized chunks of text and audio of new 'social' media and rapid cut video that keeps people in a state of groundlessness so thorough that they attempt to buy things to find some sense of self. They are rebelling against compulsory drug use, and many of them will have severe psychological scars from spending large parts of their formative years on prescription amphetamines.
Give them a goddamn better slogan. They deserve one. They need one.

Samuel Henderson said...

I can see your point, but in a competition between options actually at hand as opposed to existing in our fevered imaginations, I still think this wins hands down. The reason that I think this is actually somewhat the opposite of what I set forth in the above post -- since there I was trying to explain why I, personally, like it.

Compare "Dangerously Optimistic" to our current tagline, "the Great Books college of Chicago". That slogan (like most alternatives that have been suggested) puts a box around what Shimer is and does -- it starts the conversation by excluding people who don't identify with the "Great Books" concept. (Ironically, that continues to include a healthy majority of Shimerians, so I suppose it's a wonder that Shimer has managed to attract any students at all.) The suggested tagline succeeds at this unwinnable game by playing a different game instead: by defining Shimer in a unique way that nonetheless says nothing about the details of Shimer's curriculum, lifestyle or governance structure.

True, this slogan doesn't reach out and grab people (except those who are already under Shimer's spell), but at least it doesn't push them away. Nor does it promise a kind of boxed-up conformity that Shimer can never deliver. That puts it ahead of any competition that I'm aware of, and on a par with what had until now been my favorite Shimer tagline, "the little college with big ideas."

Alfred Lord Tenniscourt said...

Just to be clear, is there a competition actually at hand?Are there actual options from which to chose?
I try to keep up with things to some degree, but it wouldn't surprise me if I had totally missed something like this...
They had a contest for the name of the student newspaper a couple years ago, and came up with "vita mentis."
I always found that name super lame. But one thing that amused me about the process was that every time the staff member, whose name I shall not dignify by mentioning here, tried to solicit votes, he was forced to emphasize that you had to pick from the list and that new submissions would not be accepted or considered, because apparently everyone at Shimer felt empowered enough to say "those choices all suck, here is my submission, sorry it's late."

Alfred Lord Tenniscourt said...

Here is my submission:
Shimer College, Our existence includes all years, x, where:
{x ∈ N ⎮ x ≥ 1853 ∩ x ≤ the present}

n8right said...

It's funny to me that you think that the slogan only applies to "Baby Boomer" types, because the people who put the tagline on there come from the relatively young staff at White Whale. As an older current student (I just turned 30), I think the slogan is fantastic and I know many of the younger students, though they don't have the online presence to make their voices heard on the redesign webpage and this blog site, like it too. Shimer is full of inquisitive people and those are the type of people that we want to attract and as a Tag line I think that "Dangerously Optimistic" will invite curious minds to explore our site and wonder what it is that we do at school. I am one of those people who tested well but did miserably at school because I was bored. I applied and was accepted at Shimer in 2001, but realized I was not up to the challenge. I returned 10 years later to receive the education I wanted. I could care less that we were a "Great Books" school. I came to Shimer because I saw the potential to expand my critical thinking. The tag line "Dangerously Optimistic" would have attracted me both in 2001 and 2011 because I would want to know more. Too often Shimer comes off as a stuffy intellectual haven when the reality is that our students are vibrant, curious, and humorous. I, for one, would love to see what type of students we attract with this tagline or one similar than something that was overly pretentious or academic. I want to find the kids that are not always represented at Shimer that could benefit from an education. As diverse as we claim we are, we are a very mono culture school.

Anonymous said...

Hi, my name is Janie, and I'm part of the White Whale team that's crafting this puppy.

We've stayed out of this discussion for the most part -- simply because it's so great. But a slight semantic shift may be appropriate: because we're not proposing anything like a "tagline".

We have not talked to Shimer about incorporating this language anywhere else in their materials. It's not going on any new stationary, or - god strike us dead - on the top corner of an invoice.

It will live online, and thus, it can always be a doorway instead of a dead-end. We can link that text to Shimer's history, or its mission, or frankly, directly to this blog post.

We can also change that text periodically. We can rotate through a few options. We can gif it, meme it to death, outgrow it, deny it, and then finally, use HTML to render it in a s ̶t ̶r ̶i ̶k ̶e ̶t ̶h ̶r ̶o ̶u ̶g ̶h typeface.

This very discussion has been as useful for explaining Shimer College as any two words that we're gonna come up with -- we're just trying to make curious those folks who don't know much about you yet.