The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Yale’s already-infamous musical admissions video shows how easy it is for institutions to come across as old fashioned even when they’re using new media.
Billed as an “independent an independent collaboration between Yale undergraduates and recent alumni working in the admissions office,” the 17 minute video is a slickly-produced, peppy campus musical number in which students sing and dance answers to the question that all college recruitment videos (and viewbooks and brochures) are meant to answer: it’s titled “That’s Why I Chose Yale.”
The Gawker took its swings shortly after the video was released in mid January, and a post at IvyGate was titled “That’s Why I Chose to Ram a Soldering Iron Into My Ears.” At some point the university felt it prudent to disable the ratings and comment features on YouTube.
This week even the New Yorker couldn’t restrain itself from jumping on the pileup, running a “Talk of the Town” piece about the embarrassed giggles and cringing bewilderment of Yale alumni who have seen the video...although some of them couldn’t bear to watch the whole thing.
Wait a minute. Isn’t this the very prescription for success in the YouTube era? The video was a participatory creative act rather than a top-down fiat. It let the students speak — okay, sing — for themselves about the university, not unlike MIT’s pioneering student blogs on its admissions page (which my colleague Bill wrote about in a recent post). It uses contemporary media to meet its audiences on their own turf. It delivers its message with energy and enthusiasm, avoiding the rationalist trap into which so many educational and cultural marketing efforts fall. And it’s an innovation, a risk: just what the doctors have been ordering.
So what’s wrong with this (motion) picture?
The problem is that the operative principles of the YouTube generation are only partly about new technologies and new forms of participation. More fundamentally, they’re about new values placed on things like spontaneity, authenticity, directness, specificity, and especially irony and other forms of built-in self-critique.
The Yale video feels anachronistic and naïve not because it shows fresh-faced students turning to the camera and bursting into song, but because it expresses the opposites of those contemporary values. It’s highly staged and rehearsed, with plenty of contrived touches. Its lyrics don’t sound like things students would say; they sound like official tour-guide patter about all the swell things the place offers. Its music, and more importantly the students it depicts, are generic rather than individual.
But the biggest miscalculation is how sincere the video feels, how earnest and eager to convince as well as please. I say this despite the protestations of its young creators, Andrew Johnson (Yale '06) and Ethan Kuperberg ('11), that the whole thing was tongue-in-cheek, and despite a few moments when the corniness promises to blossom into camp. For the most part, we’re not far from the wholesome zeal of a contemporary megachurch (and come to think of it, the score does sound like catchy Christian rock).
So despite the experiment in form, the video does what any admissions video does: it preaches. The real opportunity here, and the real fit with contemporary culture, would have been to use the disarming, infectious charm of the song-and-dance genre to critique the salesmanship of college marketing and give us a richer, more nuanced and complex picture of students’ lives at Yale.
There’s some irony here, since the idea of a place like Yale is, in part, to develop and celebrate the critical thinking skills that are absent in this infomercial.
But all kinds of cultural institutions can learn from Yale’s experiment. Many museum and arts professionals, like their counterparts in higher ed, assume that if their organization is using YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter then it must be relevant. But the values and voices they send through those channels can belie that relevance. (The holiday video released by Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art in December inspires just those questions.) The medium isn’t the message, if it ever was.
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