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December 1, 2003

Jan Trembley (Alumnae Bulletin)
Measuring "Success" and the Alumnae Bulletin

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Jan began the discussion by distributing several handouts:

Jan observed that since our alumnae want to read about "what connects them to Bryn Mawr," what works for some readers may alienate others. It may be that our many of our alumnae (and women generally?) are more interested in articles about "what you go through in life" than in accounts of professional accomplishment; they always show a strong interest in the life stories of other generations of alumnae. Suggesting that success as it is conventionally understood is "not a useful concept" as the sole criterion in deciding what to feature in the Bulletin, the editorial committee aims to highlight activities that are "interesting, unusual and different" and alumnae who have "discovered or thought about something new" or "made a difference in the world"-- irrespective of the degree to which they have been publicly recognized. It is the "story behind the marker, rather than the mark of distinction itself," and what we can learn from that story, which justifies its selection.

Discussion began with a series of queries about the data (in the first of the handouts above) that as of August 2002, Alumnae Records reported a total of 1,485 PhDs held by living undergraduate alumnae. This is around 10-11% of the undergraduate alumnae for whom the college has mailing addresses. If that figure is correct, it could become an important talking point in faculty discussions about the nature and shape of our curriculum. If one in 10 of our students is pursuing the highest advanced degree--even if comparatively, and nationally, that is a high figure--then it becomes difficult to justify shaping the curriculum of our majors primarily in order to assure that students are prepared for graduate work. Related questions concerned who are the people we want to "stand for" Bryn Mawr, both in our classrooms and in our alumnae publication. "The Ph.D. corrupts": it is a marker of something in the world--but of what? Does the Bulletin better serve the institution by focusing on the undeniably successful? Or by attending to what its readership wants: what alumnae believe, value and are proud of? Jan thinks the latter covers a wider ranger of accomplishments than publicly demonstrated "success"--although she had no statistics to show this.

The main tension seemed to be between reporting things that the larger culture values, and reporting on local interests; another possible tension might be the need to show that Bryn Mawr is doing things of interest in the wider community. Any publication, to support the goals of the college, should lead to its readers thinking well and speaking well of the college. Arguably, if alumnae read the Bulletin, like it, feel connected to and then support Bryn Mawr financially, the Bulletin has been successful in reflecting the values of Bryn Mawr back to the alumnae, as they understand them. But what is the relationship of that process to reality? And how can one measure whether any given article, or the publication over a range of years, supports such goals?

Publishing an alumnae magazine differs from almost any other sort of editorial job: rather than having to create a readership, it has one "given" to it, so that its editor works "backwards" from those editing commercial magazines, in trying to please an established group of readers. Losing an alumnae reader may have much more significant repercussions than losing a subscriber to a magazine about automobile mechanics or fly-fishing: it may mean the sacrifice of her good-will, the good will of her college friends, and perhaps the financial support of them all. If being a good editor means being an educator, leading people beyond what makes them comfortable into what makes them think, must one be a bad editor in order to publish an alumnae publication that offends no one? Issues of sexuality and diversity, for instance, are highly divisive among alumnae; should those topics be featured in the Bulletin? The common favored topic is "Bryn Mawr and me": readers want to feel connected to the College through who they are, and the life choices they have made; moms at home and business women all need to feel that the College acknowledges and values them. Roughly half of the pages of each issue of the Bulletin are devoted to Class Notes but alumnae want more. In the next year or so, the Alumnae Association hopes to offer uncut, password-protected class notes online. There is also a "wildly active" listserv, used by some 200-300 alumnae. Should different Bulletins perhaps be produced for different sub-groups of Alumnae?

Is trying to "count" what works for its readers a bad idea for the Bulletin? The publication aims to be educational, not promotional, but battles must be picked: the usefulness of offense must be measured in a political context. Editors of alumnae magazines who refuse to be sensitive to the concerns of a college can do real damage to a school. What is the aim of the Bulletin, and how might its success in reaching that aim be measured? For instance, do we want alumnae to be so stirred by what they read that they will insist on having a role in--even "calling the shots on"--decisions that are made here? (Mention was made of Catharine Stimpson's recent visit, and her interest--and that of other "loving alums"-- in the future of the graduate programs here.) It was speculated that 80-90% of the College's budget is paid for by current students (=their parents) and alumnae. Those who "pay for the place" actually have little voice in what happens here (but it was also observed that, in charitable giving, unless your gift is an enormous one, you do not expect to control how your money is spent).

How might assessment of the success of the Bulletin be accomplished? This is not only an issue about alumnae relations. (See, for instance, Tony Rothman's humorous essay, "A Physicist on Madison Avenue," which details the impossibility of pinpointing the factors common to the best-selling issues of Scientific American.) In larger terms, how can we assess success? For instance, we make assumptions that what we do in the classroom has an effect on our students. But what constitutes accurate measures of effect? If what we most value is creating experiences that will be of use in our students' lives thirty years from now, but are under heavy pressure to achieve shorter-term goals (such as preparing them for graduate school or the MCATs), then what is "unquantifiable" gets trumped by what is quantifiable (more precisely and insidiously, by the myth of what we think the quantifiable would show, could we measure it....) So: "welcome to Alumnae Relations," where fundraising is accomplished largely through "friend-"raising--and where you can seldom assess the personal effect of the experiences you are providing.

It was not thought possible to disassociate the work we do--as editors, as fundraisers, as teachers and researchers--from the need for immediate payback. Jan described a "detailed reader survey" that the Alumnae Association hopes to conduct next year: it will include focus groups, interviews and short-answer questions, which will provide "numbers as far as we can get." But wasn't the take-home lesson of last week's discussion about the work of Henry Mayhew that numbers are not useful when de-coupled from case studies and descriptions of individual experiences? There is another, perhaps more accurate myth about Bryn Mawr which many of us could sign on to: that this is the educational home for feisty, single-minded individualists. Do we not attend to this myth because it is not quantifiable, in the way a Ph.D. is? Perhaps an even larger myth is operative here: the notion that an institution has a clear goal, a focus which we can both articulate and achieve. Such an idea is deeply flawed; all of us have participated in institutions (including this one) in which what is done is counter to stated goals. Even the notion that our teaching is instrumental--that our students/readers "get it" and "will do something with it"--is a questionable one.

This conversation is invited to continue online and will conclude for the semester next Monday, December 8, when Paul Grobstein (Biology) will lead a discussion of "Quantity, Quality and Value: A View from the Brain."

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