If someone has to write the ads for the New School, I’m glad it’s me. Over the years, I’ve been every type of stakeholder here at the university: student, instructor, alumnus — and now a senior writer for Marketing. Viewing our community from these different vantage points has granted me an unusually integrated perspective, one that lends to seeing very clearly the disparity between our reputation out in the world and our reality here at home. Lately, that chasm has seemed wider than ever.
This year marks The New School’s centennial celebration, a paradigm example of that disparity. For October, ads for our “Learn something New” awareness campaign and The Festival of New, a series of events reflecting on our past, made up the majority of advertising in and around Union Square subway station. I wrote most of this approximately 100-unit digital and print campaign that, in my opinion, successfully celebrates a century of New School students, faculty, and alumni that have disrupted convention and changed the world.
At their core, our students are activists and convention defiers. Their standards for intellectually and socially progressive values are so high that our faculty and admin will never actually meet their demands fully, including when it comes to advertising — and that’s exactly how it should be. Knowing this about our critically engaged community, I try to speak directly to their sense of urgency about the world, their desire to facilitate true progress, and even to their healthy distrust of advertising. I hear them. I am them.
So, for the MTA takeover, I kept this in mind, writing symbolic but fact-based headlines like AGE OUT OF AGEISM (featuring Bea Arthur, alumna), TAKE A SELFIE OF AMERICA (Norman Rockwell, alumnus), and LET FREEDOM SING (Harry Belafonte, alumnus) and pairing them with comparable headlines that elevate our more recent students to such legacy status, like DISMANTLE A WALL WITH WORDS, and CODE A FEMINIST MANIFESTO, real and relevant work by students who write speeches for the International Rescue Committee, and converge politics and cutting-edge web development in the name of equity. Each piece was intentionally rooted in the tangible, actionable accomplishments of our community across time.
But that’s not necessarily what our students saw.
Our school is a microcosm for America. Actualities never meet our aspirations. Students at times feel a lack of community here, obscured in a school in the middle of New York City, and often suffer from financial and food insecurity — not to mention their loan debts that are in direct correlation with the extent of their stays here.
Also, like the trend in most schools, our faculty are poorly compensated and rarely tenured or even full-time. They’re paid something like a month’s salary to stretch across entire semesters at a private school that increases tuition to a remarkable degree every single year. These tensions often go unaddressed by admin. That is not the hallmark of a university with its eye on its True North, progressive values. It is more the method of a corporation transfixed on the bottom line.
And our staff are being overlooked, overworked, and express feelings of marginalization and discrimination. As part of the Staff on Race group here at the university, I helped organize a panel at The Festival of New that focused on the history –and reality — of race relations here. The conversation was stunning that it was unusually candid for our community. We discovered the extent to which students of color felt unsupported, faculty of color felt endangered, and staff felt targeted. In fact, the crucial conversation unearthed ongoing aggressive interactions between white staff and staff of color, illuminating quotes like, “It doesn’t matter why you need to be there, just be there,” “You’re not here to think,” and “You’re not as important as you think you are.”
So, when they walked into Union Square station a few weeks ago, I can imagine some of our students and other community members might have “seen” that the university spent lump sums of cash on 2-dimensional ads while its very 3-D students and faculty are often broke and hungry in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Or that every day on campus they’re hit with racial micro-aggressions (because America) while we brag about alumni reclaiming blackness by creating initiatives like The Very Black Project. Or maybe they see how we publicly praise some of our richest and/or deadest legacy folks while some of their very alive classmates have to drop out of school due to a lack of funds. And on and on.
These impressions are valid, but so are the advertisements.
The idea that the struggle of another necessarily negates one person who is thriving rings false to me. The New School can be both an iconic force of good off-campus and also be struggling internally without our collective story being duplicitous. In fact, according to Fredrick Douglass, neither progress nor struggle can exist without the other. As an integrated community, it’s our job to narrow — to the best of our ability — the space between the two.
Life is riddled with such complexities.
I myself starved as a student at The New School. Heck, I sometimes starve as a staff member at The New School. But in coming here, I also met the only community I’ve ever really felt a part of (I don’t assimilate very easily).
And yes, between my two degrees, I’m nearly $100,000 in debt, and the American college system is broken if not entirely built to create an impoverished class. But I also received at The New School an invaluable, critically theoretical, and action-based education unlike any other in the world. Mind you; I can only say that “unlike any other in the world” bit from my own experience as Ricky the New School alumnus — I could never get away with such an oversell as the lead writer for marketing.
And like most humans, I both love and loathe advertising. I’ve always loved it because I’m good at it, or rather, I just know it so well. I loathe it because it’s so loathe-able. At its worst, it is trite and manipulative, at its best, an epiphany. However, as a writer and someone who is part of the demographic I’m trying to appeal to, circumventing the poor conventions of typical ads is like responding to a literary constraint, a challenge to try to imbue my copy with the same compelling honesty I yearn to see in other ads. It’s the same way I approach nonfiction. A lot of people say it’s a dry and boring genre, and I say they just haven’t applied the same amount of imagination to nonfiction as they have to other genres. Break it up. Turn it upside down. Speak from a place so viscerally astute that the truth feels fantastical.
Mind you, I apply this “write bold/honest ads” philosophy to my current role at The New School but would be hard-pressed to do the same for a brand with which I wholly don’t identify, like Coca-Cola, or Old Navy. In fact, without placing judgment on those that do, I’m fairly certain I would die on the inside and implode if I ever had to facilitate that level of corporate endeavor. It will never be my style, no matter my momentary level of moral relativism.
Then what is my style? Honesty. Illuminating and elevating what at first seems mundane. Sharing with the world the people, places, ideas, and initiatives I love. Phonaesthetics. I am never saying, “Well, sorry. That’s just how things work,” especially when it comes to ads, or capitalism, or anything really because I went to The New School and know that anyone saying such things is at a loss for answers because they’ve given up on asking questions. I know better than that.
My job will always be both a privilege and an uphill battle because that’s the gig, and that’s my audience. Yes. I play a huge role in defining who we say we are out in the world, a task that will never wholly square with reality. There will always be a gap between the two. Yet, successfully narrowing it will not come about by dulling our most shining achievements, but instead by boosting our commitment to internally uplifting our community.
It’s our job to aspire to get there.
Ricky Tucker is Senior Writer for marketing at The New School, and his book And the Category Is… Inside New York’s House/Vogue/Ballroom Community is slated for a 2021 release.