The V word

I confess. I was the one who used the word "vibrant" in some Kenyon admissions literature a few years back. It seemed like such a good find. I was trying to capture that quality on campus of, well, vibrancy. Vibrant: it suggested life, energy, good vibes. I was pleased with myself--until I began reading the admissions literature of some other colleges.

Every campus in the country was vibrant that year. Viewbooks overflowed with vibrancy. Vibrant classes, vibrant clubs, vibrant dorm life. Sports were vibrant. So was the music scene. A smart-aleck high school senior from the Cleveland suburbs published an op-ed piece poking fun at the collegiate hucksters who were filling her mailbox with vibrancy. It was humiliating.

What hurt, first of all, was the realization that I'd been lazy with the language. Searching for something high-toned and evocative, I'd chosen what turned out to be a commonplace. Worse, this stumble undermined my sense of having a role to play in the enterprise of higher education--as a kind of lyricist, distilling the flux of life at Kenyon into prose-songs that, at their best, memorably conveyed something of the essence of the place, something genuine. A former newspaper reporter, I still counted myself among the truth-tellers. Or had I become just another ad-man, tossing off jingles?

There is, to be sure, an element of commercialism in the whole business of recruiting students. The admissions staff is, in a sense, the sales force; we "creatives" in the public affairs office are the marketing department.

But that isn't the whole story. In this issue of the Bulletin, my colleague Amy Blumenthal--who, as director of admissions communications, is Kenyon's chief lyricist--examines the admissions process at Kenyon. One of her central points is that, even while contending with the realities of rankings and SAT scores, the College's admissions office strives to keep the application process humane and personal.

Similarly, we songwriters aim for more than flashy adjectives and slick slogans. Not that slogans don't have their place. People naturally love wordplay. They take pleasure in catch phrases, and Kenyon has produced some good ones. "Teachers, mentors, friends." "Learning in the company of friends." "A gem encased in cornfields." "Quintessential Kenyon." Slogans can come across as fake or forced, or they can resonate, in the same way that metaphors resonate. (The admissions writer as lyricist: doesn't that metaphor put college junk mail in a whole new light?)

Our most compelling songs, however, emerge not from wordplay but from people. We take seriously the old admonition to writers, "Show, don't tell." That is, get to students and professors, interview them, spend time with them, recount their stories, transcribe their musings, give the reader anecdotes, examples, details, voices, places, scenes, sensory stuff. That's what convinces. And that's why I say I was lazy with the language: a solid anecdote would have sung out "vibrant" far better than the mere adjective. Don't tell them that Kenyon is vibrant. Give them a story that shows them.

Stories like these are "a Kenyon trademark," Amy writes in her article. Rather than say, simply, "Professors are friendly and accessible," we like to tell people that "Doc Locke," the ebullient director of the Chamber Singers, and his wife, Kay, always have students over for a lasagne dinner at their house, where the tomatoes in the sauce are likely to come from piano instructor Patty Pelfrey's garden. Lesson for writers: it's not just dinner, it's a lasagne dinner. The power is in the particulars.

A number of such stories regularly come our way, in part because Kenyon is a small and sociable place, and in part because the public affairs office is lucky enough to have three staffers who are married to professors. Last night's dinner conversation may turn into a short feature on the Web site. People and their stories: we can never get enough of them.

This past year, when we rewrote a good deal of our admissions literature, we drafted a long list of questions and interviewed dozens of students. We filled our booklets and brochures with their voices and their stories--their favorite projects, professors, and places, their quintessentially quirky Kenyon anecdotes, their silliness and their affection. We won an award for our big admissions piece, the Prospectus. But the highest compliment that we received came from a Kenyon parent, who read the piece and said that it really captured the quality of the place.

Needless to say, the V word did not appear.

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