Saturday, February 20, 2010

Through mem'ry's haze

I lived in New Haven the summer after my junior year at Yale -- a baby step toward living on my own for real when college was through. I had long thought it might be fun to be a campus tour guide, but during the academic year the competition for the job was too intense, and the time commitment too burdensome, for me to bother. The summertime tour-guide gig was much more my speed, and so when I knew I would be in town I decided to try out for a position. To help me prepare, I got a copy of the tour-guide "script," and I was, quite honestly, appalled. This was 2002. The script I got was from about 1990. It hadn't been updated since it was first typed, except for a few notes in the margins. That explained why I was always hearing tour guides claim that, because Connecticut Hall had a computer cluster in the basement, it wasn't necessary for students to have their own computers. (This despite the fact that everyone I knew had his or her own computer.) A lot of other things had changed, on campus and in the world, in the last decade or so, and few of them were documented in the "official" guide. The "Women's Table," for example, hadn't even been installed when the script was written. No wonder guides who stopped there always told stories about the Vietnam War Memorial instead.

I quickly learned that no one had bothered to update the script because tour guides weren't really expected to rely on documentation; the training involved tagging along on several tours to get a feel for what they were like, and then auditioning by giving an imitation tour to whichever student guide was doing the judging. The guides I saw all told the same apocryphal stories about Nathan Hale and Maya Lin, though the details were flexible. They differed widely on the facts they fit in around the anecdotes. I overheard three different guides claim that three different residential colleges were "the oldest one at Yale." Once I heard a tour guide tell a group that a lot of movie stars had lived in Calhoun, including Claire Danes and Edward Norton. After the tour, I introduced myself and told him I was pretty sure Norton was actually in Ezra Stiles. He shrugged cheerfully and said, "It doesn't matter. They don't know that." And they never will!

I suppose it's no secret that campus tours are a PR tool, and most admissions offices prize making a good impression over conveying accurate historical information. Given that Yale's actual history is rather eventful, though, I didn't see why a really good tour couldn't be both entertaining and correct. So I did my own research and found some stories I could tell that were both fresh and actually true. I knew I could do the talk-loud-and-look-friendly part; I wanted to be informative on top of it. And I think I succeeded. The student guide who judged my audition was impressed. Then I got a call: they couldn't hire me as a guide because I already had a full-time campus job. (To avoid having to pay student workers overtime, the student employment office had very strict rules against students' working more than 37.5 hours a week.) I had told the tour-guide coordinators that my library hours were flexible -- I'd set things up so I could work fewer shifts there if I had a tour-guide gig. I told them this again. They couldn't, or rather wouldn't, bother to make it work. So that was the end of my righteous crusade to bring factual accountability to the tour-guide machine. All summer long I sat behind the circulation desk in the library and listened to tour guides misinform their groups about the symbolism of the building, or the meaning of the enigmatic painting above my head. No two guides said the same thing. And no one ever said any of the really interesting things I'd learned when I read up on the subject.

I didn't spend all my time at Yale defending truth, of course; most of my energy went toward working on a humor magazine (with its own fascinating history). When Old Owl and old friend Mike Gerber asked me to contribute to the very first "Alumni Issue" of The Yale Record, I thought about what might appeal to the current undergrads, and all my frustration with the tour-guide process came back in vivid detail. With all that in mind, I invite you to check out the result -- and the very funny contributions of all the other Old Owls who owe Mike a favor love the Record. You can download the entire Alumni Issue here. Here's a sample of my contribution, "The Great Yale Campus Tour":
OK, this is Jonathan Edwards, the oldest residential college at Yale. Let me explain: We have a system here for undergrads that is exactly like the one they have at Oxford, except that it’s completely unlike any other school anywhere in the world. There are twelve of these colleges, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Students live in them after freshman year, unless you’re in Silliman or Timothy Dwight Chapel — that building across the street. It’s the oldest residential college at Yale. If you’re in one of those colleges, you move in freshman year and live in dorms in the basement. Each college has a master and a dean, who pick your classes for you and prepare the meals and screen your mail. Yes? …No, you can’t choose which college you want to be in. The admissions office randomly assigns them, unless your mother or father went to Yale, in which case you get to live in an apartment in the Taft Hotel, on College Street.
I don't think you have to be an Eli to enjoy it. But please judge for yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been on a couple of Yale tours, I loved it!