Campus reaction to a recent poll by the blog Gawker naming Wesleyan “America’s Most Annoying Liberal Arts College” can best be characterized by the words of President Michael Roth.
“I don’t know that I have much to say about this,” Roth said in an e-mail. “Gawker is trying to be annoying enough to get noticed (to make some money), but why even pay attention?”
If the title itself has largely been met with dismissal, however, the underlying assumptions about Wesleyan and its students that led to the distinction inspired more complex reactions amongst students, faculty, and administration.
Gawker, the New York City-based blog which describes itself as publishing “daily Manhattan media news and gossip,” began its search for the most annoying liberal arts college in America in mid-July. Responding to an e-mail from a recent Oberlin graduate complaining about Gawker’s treatment of the school in its posts, associate editor Doree Shafrir decided that the blog might need a change of pace.
“Maybe they’re right! Maybe we shouldn’t be picking on Oberlin,” Shafrir wrote in an e-mail. “Maybe there’s another liberal arts college out there that’s even more annoying than Oberlin.”
Shafrir laid out some initial schools before compiling a final list of candidates based upon both her previous list and write-in votes from Gawker readers. Voting tallies soon showed Wesleyan and Sarah Lawrence College in a near-tie, prompting Shafrir to initiate a second “death-match” poll.
When the poll closed, Sarah Lawrence had won by a slim margin. However, Shafrir bestowed the dubious honor to Wesleyan after receiving an e-mail from a Sarah Lawrence student which expressed her excitement at being named the nation’s most annoying liberal arts school.
In a post announcing Wesleyan as the winner, Shafrir congratulated Wesleyan on the distinction.
“Your graduates will forever be known not for their naked parties, or their stints in a alterna-frat, or for chalk, but rather for beating out Sarah Lawrence on an annoying technicality to be named America’s Most Annoying Liberal Arts College,” Shafrir wrote.
When asked to comment upon the title, Interim Dean of the College Mike Whaley was more than happy to return the favor to Gawker.
“I admit that some of the descriptions were moderately amusing, but I think the entire bit gets my vote for the most annoying school stereotyping,” Whaley said in an e-mail. “And, like most stereotypes, the entire ‘article’ seems to be based on ignorance and/or malice – the desire to foster misinformation and to detract from the incredible educational experience Wesleyan (and others) offers seems clear.”
Given the source from which it came, Assistant Professor of Religion Mary-Jane Rubenstein wondered if the award might not be a kind of inverted compliment.
“Does being called annoying by an annoying blog actually mean being called lovely?” Rubenstein asked with a smile.
As president of Eclectic, one would think Hunter Craighill ’09 would be displeased with Gawker’s less-than-complimentary references in their posts to the organization’s parties and reputation. Sitting in Eclectic’s newly-renovated library with several other members, however, Craighill remained largely nonplussed, even mildly amused, by the issue.
“It definitely walks the line between funny and a little annoying,” Craighill said.
When discussing the blog itself, though, Craighill spoke bluntly.
“It [the poll] speaks to the ignorance of Gawker readers,” Craighill said.
Reading through both Shafrir’s posts and comments from Gawker readers, one begins to notice many of the presuppositions other have of the Wesleyan popping up. Assumptions regarding rampant drug use, self-absorption, and ludicrous political correctness abound.
“[Wesleyan is] our instinctive favorite to take the crown, if only because if we have to hear about one more awesome party at Eclectic we might slit our wrists,” Shafrir wrote of the University when laying out Gawker’s initial list of nominees. “Also, heroin is all fun and games until you can’t get out of rehab, isn’t it?”
A Gawker reader whose screen name reads KTHNX exemplified the trend of relaying the experiences a friend or acquaintance that either currently attends Wesleyan or had graduated from the University.
“One of my friends goes to Wesleyan and lives in the Buddhist House,” KTHNX wrote as a comment accompanying the Gawker posts announcing Wesleyan as the winner. “She is white and not a Buddhist. Everyone in the house is white and none of them were raised Buddhist. If that doesn’t sum up Wesleyan I don’t know what will.”
When asked to comment on these perceptions, members of the Wesleyan community often tempered their responses, acknowledging that certain aspects of Wesleyan’s reputation can be based upon truth while still not getting the whole picture.
“Wesleyan is a refreshing place to be because people are open-minded. At the same time, it can be annoying when they yell about the same issues of political correctness for four years,” said Margaret Mitchell ’08. “I agree with what’s being said, but I get tired of hearing it.”
Commenting upon a perception of hyper-political correctness, Rubenstein added that people tend to look at certain elements of Wesleyan campus behavior without examining the deeper motives.
“I find it frustrating that Wesleyan’s ‘weirdness’ is so often reduced to naked parties and whatever goes on at Eclectic,” Rubenstein said.
“Some expressions of political correctness might seem strange or even ridiculous,” she said. “But they come from a place of deep concern for the different kinds of lives people are trying to live.”
In an e-mail to the Argus, Shafrir pointed to the popularity of the poll and insisted that the true satirical target of the search were graduates of the skewered institutions.
“I think that there is a stereotype…of the liberal arts college graduate who moves to Williamsburg [Brooklyn], gets a job in publishing or film or what have you, and is supported by his parents,” Shafrir wrote. “There are enough of them in New York that, even though it may be a stereotype, it does ring true for some of our audience. Is every liberal arts college grad like that? No. But I think part of the reason why these posts struck such a chord with our audience is because people really do seem resentful of the stereotypical liberal arts college grad. Hence, annoying.”
Director of Admission and Financial Aid Nancy Hargrave Meislahn seemed confident that Wesleyan graduates would take the Gawker posts in stride.
“Wesleyan alums are creative, innovative, and enjoy humor,” Meislahn said. “We all are comfortable enough in our own skins to poke fun at ourselves.”
As for current undergraduates, however, the ramifications of Gawker’s poll and posts have seemed to only have strengthened certain perceptions others have of the University.
Discussing the article in the Eclectic library, Eclectic member Ethan Berger ’10 mentioned a recent encounter with his mother’s business partner, who had read the Gawker posts. Jokes about Eclectic and heroin use then followed.
Gawker’s article, insisted Eclectic member Ted Feldman ’09, will do little to dispel such perceptions about Eclectic or Wesleyan in general.
“Once this is written, people can Google it forever,” Feldman said.