Skip to main content

It’s not my Grinnellian story

Topics/tags: Rants, Grinnell, marketing, language, typography

Today I received a copy of Our Grinnellian Story, the internal guide to our new marketing campaign. Particularly given what I’d seen on the marketing page, I approached the piece with trepidation. I appreciate what folks are trying to do, but I’m worried about what they are doing.

I started on a hopeful note. The pamphlet uses the term story rather than brand. I hate the latter term. Do folks not remember what it used to mean to brand people? It’s not quite so bad when we talk about branding objects. But, in the end, our marketing is about people and making those people Grinnellians. The term brand should not be used for that activity. Story is such a better term.

But my hope was short lived. The first page begins Why BRAND matters. I’ll tell you why it matters. (Offensive text elided.) [1].

I’d been also been worried about what the text would be like, given the poor quality or writing on our marketing page. Unfortunately, it’s even worse than the Web page. Here’s a sample.

Through our academics we support individually advised learning for the intellectually engaged so they can navigate the world’s complexities and contribute with great responsibility. We do this by offering: Liberal arts and mentored research that equips Grinnellians to pursue ideas and knowledge with confidence.

I’m sorry, but my Grinnellian story would be much better written. What does this even mean? The individually advised curriculum supports our academic programs, not the other way around. I don’t even know what it means for academics to support anything [2]. The liberal arts are a part of our academic program, And even if I did write something like this, I would also use the word equip rather equips, given that we seem to be using a compound noun.

More broadly, my Grinnellian story would also provide greater depth of explanation [3]. For example, what do we mean by individually advised education? I understand an individually advised curriculum. In that case, faculty members work closely with students to develop a plan of study that will help them grow intellectually and as individuals, a plan that supports them and challenges them. Individually advised learning? I’m not quite so sure about.

I’d also want some better explanation or examples of how the liberal arts and mentored research equip Grinnellians to pursue ideas and knowledge. Is the liberal arts themselves, the ways in which we teach those subjects, the ways students approach them [4], or some combination of them? It strikes me that much of what we do that encourages students to pursue ideas and knowledge is to challenge them in the classroom. Is that liberal arts or mentored research? From my perspective, it’s neither. It’s a form of pedagogy that is supported by our relatively low student-to-faculty ratio and by a broad commitment to such challenges, a commitment shared by both faculty and students.

I’d also choose different adverbs. One colleague suggested that we should really be teaching students to pursue ideas and knowledge with humility. Another, accepting that positive words may sell better, suggested confidently. But with confidence? Bleh.

As I said, it’s not my Grinnellian story.

Once again, I’m left with a dilemma: How do I support the general concepts within the Grinnellian story while objecting strenuously to the ways in which the presentation undermines that story? And what is this story that I’m supposed to support, in any case?

Let’s see …

We have a strong academic program. No one is surprised by that. What details of that academic program are particularly important to the story? They don’t tell us. I’m going to go with Faculty are engaged scholars who challenge both their students and themselves in the classroom. I’ll use as examples BIO 150, Ross Heanfler’s Deviance and Social Control, and Erik Simpson’s Lighting the Page.

Students have opportunities to do substantive research. I’m uncomfortable with the term mentored research, since that would suggest that every student is doing a MAP. But I can pick a wide variety of interesting research projects, including those in my own department [5], virtual reality work that includes both Sarah Purcell’s virtual plantation and Jenny Anger’s virtual 1930’s German art exhibition [6], Tim Arner’s amazing projects that include both The Grinnell Beowulf and The Grinnell Writing Guide, and some of the cool mapping activities I’ve seen from Mark Laver and Eiren Shea. I might also note the experience of attending a Grinnell Singers concert in which they performed complex choral music written by one Grinnell student and were conducted by another Grinnell student [7].

We prefer to focus on students who can accept these challenges. At least I think that’s what we mean by intellectually engaged. I expect that talking about the challenging courses and interesting projects will help reveal that. I could also mention the expected workload.

We embrace social engagement [8], both inside and outside the classroom. I can likely come up with a variety of examples of student-led projects that support the College, the town, and the broader world. I can also speak to the way the College works to free students from the typical Colonialist Social Good mentality of I know what’s wrong here and how to fix it and to instead encourage them to listen and to support what communities identify as their needs and solutions.

We accept and appreciate difference [9]. In talking about these issues, I will likely focus on my department and our firm commitment to broaden participation. As I’ve written [10] far too many times, computer technology is changing the world. We therefore have an obligation to ensure that the people who develop that technology represent a wide variety of viewpoints. I can also talk about the ways in which the department designs (and redesigns) our curricula to be more inclusive.

But if I’m honest about difference, I would have to let prospective students and parents know that many of our students of color find Grinnell less inclusive than it should be. Their Grinnellian story is unlikely to be as positive as mine. I’m not sure how to incorporate that kind of story. Perhaps I’ll focus on the aspiration.

If I’m honest about difference, I would also have to accept that many of our students with conservative viewpoints don’t find that that kind of difference is embraced or appreciated, either. I think we do better than many peers at accepting those viewpoints, but we have a way to go with this issue, too.

I think that covers the main characteristics that the booklet describes.

Or perhaps not. I see that we also have personality traits. Grinnellians are purposeful [11], creative, inquisitive, influential, genuine, and accepting. Interesting. How do I tie all of that to the rest of the story? I’ll need to work on that question. I also see that we are not afraid to ask hard questions and question easy answers [12].

Oh well. I’ll tell the story as best as I can. I’ll probably add one more thing:

Grinnellians understand the power of language. They write thoughtfully and edit carefully, considering not just style and flow, but also audience.

Postscript: My writing skills are not such that I would be able to successfully transform our marketing material into something I could be proud of [14]. So I’ll leave it to others to suggest rewrites. I’m pretty sure that some people will be amenable to them.

I will, however, express my interest in supporting the campaign through a series of questions, partially about the language but also about the so-called visual identity. Let’s see …

  1. I understand what we mean by an individually advised curriculum. But what is individually advised learning?

  2. I see that there are some fixed graphic elements that we are supposed to use. Where do I get copies of those graphic elements, preferably as vector graphics?

  3. While I know that Grinnell Red is Pantone 485 [15] and RGB #DA291C, the booklet does not provide the RGB values for our secondary palette or for the tints. What are those values? What are the situations in which we can or should use the various secondary colors?

I was also tempted to ask why they didn’t use Futura for Office of Communications on the back of the booklet. However, that seemed like overkill.

Postscript: I was looking at the booklet with two of my children. Youngest Son looked at some pages and said Wow, they were careless with the printing; look at how many letters get cut off. Middle Son said No, that’s intentional; it’s part of the design. Youngest Son said If I saw that in marketing material, my first thought would be I want to go somewhere else. I realize that my children are about as snarky as I am, but that still worries me.

Postscript: Are there any font experts out there? The more I look at Futura, the more I wonder whether it’s really supposed to be used as an all-caps font. There’s a huge variance in the width of capital letters, which makes some words look really weird. For example, the width of N appears to be about three times the width of L. Hence, the word LIVING appears particularly strange. Or perhaps it’s supposed to all make me uncomfortable. That’s a good marketing strategy: Grinnell: We take you out of your comfort zone.

Postscript: Now that I’m done ranting, I’m off to figure out how to incorporate new font choices into my two primary document creation workflows [16]. Since I do most of my work on Linux systems and neither ITS nor Communications seems willing to pay for the fonts [17], I expect that I’ll need to find open-source alternatives [18].

[1] With that over-the-top commentary, I have likely convinced some of you that I will have nothing sensible to say. I don’t care.

[2] Let me rephrase that. Academics are people who work in academe. So academics can support many things. Good writing, for example. But these aren’t the academics they mean, or seem to mean.

[3] Admittedly, my Grinnellian story would likely have too much depth of explanation, as well as too many digressive endnotes.

[4] That is, supported by individual advising.

[5] I love Jerod’s project on text recognition in historical maps.

[6] Today my mind is fuzzy on the details.

[7] No, neither of those was Middle Son.

[8] No, not in the form of I have a social engagement this Saturday night. More in the form I am engaged with society.

[9] The original is embrace and appreciate differences. But I’d used embrace in the prior paragraph. I also find that the singular scans a bit better.

[10] And said.

[11] Our Grinnellian Story explains purposeful as respectful, caring for our selves and our community. I don’t think that’s how most people will read the term, but perhaps I am wrong.

[12] No, I won’t take the bait.

[14] A colleague who writes much better than I also expressed concern about the arduous task of rewriting this material.

[15] For a general perspective on Pantone 485, you might want to read this article, or at least the title of the article.

[16] I write a lot of letters and memos using Markdown, HTML, and html2ps. I find the workflow efficient and it produces documents that generally look much nicer than the vast majority of what I receive on campus. I also use LaTeX when I’m collaborating with other people on research papers or large documents.

[17] Not so surprisingly, neither ITS nor Communications seems willing to pay for something I need to adhere to our Brand identity. So much for institutional commitment.

[18] Arguably, I should be using an open-source font in any case.

Version 1.0 of 2018-05-10.