Sign of the Times?

Poster reading "$160,000" (and more) that appeared on several buildings at Brown is one student's commentary on campus life.
October 1, 2007

Let's see. What to make of "$160,000" as a higher education reference? Hmmm. Sounds like the cost of four years at a private institution. But, uh, what about...

" as to end up flaccid, immobile, alone on the carpet of a dorm room, shirtless, wheezing, intellectually menopausal, cutting lines on an iBook with a pre-paid Discover card, watching consecutive hours of user-generated porn, in the dark, in a hoodie, apolitical, remorseless, eating salt-and-vinegar potato chips from a bag without a napkin: like some hero, pretending to be otherwise, on a Wednesday, during discussion section."

That's the remaining text of a sign that appeared on four Brown University buildings last week. And, say what you want about the content or style of prose, it's quite a take on college life.

The statement comes courtesy of Adam Delehanty, a Brown senior taking a class called “radical media” that looks at the relationship between art, technology and politics. Mark Tribe, an assistant professor who teaches the course in the department of Modern Culture and Media, asked students for their first assignment to create a radical poster of any sort.

Some put their own twist on political and social issues through the posters. This particular project involved the student crafting a sign made to look like an official university plaque that you’d find nailed to an academic building. The sign captured significant attention on the campus, as crowds of students and others puzzled over it and the Brown Daily Herald reprinted it.

So, what does it all mean?

Delehanty said -- and most figured -- that the $160,000 corresponds to Brown’s overall price tag. Undergraduate tuition for the 2007-8 academic year at Brown is $35,584 x 4 = $142,336. Or, total cost is $47,476 x 4 = $189,904. Not quite $160,000, but you get the point.

As for the prose?

“That would be a description of the typical Brown student, or at least the stereotype," said Amy Chang, a Brown senior who’s Webmaster of the Daily Jolt, a popular student Web site.

Added Delehanty: "With the text, I wanted to create a nightmare about a worst-case scenario -- what some students devolve into," he said. "It's not about me or anyone I know. It's a satire in that nobody's actually that bad. The general themes are accessible, though."

Douglas Brown, director of writing support programs in Brown's department of English, said the text will resonate with some students but won’t capture the full experience.

"It doesn't seem to accurately characterize students as I see them," he said. "It has the quality of one who’s stepping forward and speaking for a generation, but that doesn’t represent the Brown student.”

Tribe said he sees Delehanty’s work as a statement not only about student life but about university officialdom.

“The prose seems to be like an excerpt from a memoir or autobiography or journal,” he said. “It’s fairly lyrical -- a stream-of-consciousness description of a student wasting his time doing something other than being in class. It’s maybe commentary on what students are getting for their $160,000.

“It’s taking the sign -- the official voice of the institution that’s about identifying a building -- and turning it into a site for creative activity, a recasting of official public space that’s usually a space of authority, and reclaiming it for art.”

Delehanty said he did intend to change the way people look at campus signs by spicing up the language.

Megan Algeo, a student at Brown, said making the poster is a "very Brown thing to do," and fits into the "hipster" image of the Modern Culture and Media department. She added that she appreciates the "weird manifestations of the quest for intellectualism and identity" from students at Brown.

Still, many people seemed less than impressed. Clifford Wulfman, who works in the Modern Culture and Media department, said the poster sounds like a protest against student apathy, adding that he doesn’t have anything else to say about “defacing university property or the like.”

Tribe said the projects are done with serious intentions. He’s hoping the poster will stimulate dialogue about the difference between public art and vandalism, and whether it’s appropriate to punish someone if it's perceived as the latter.

Delehanty said he expected some attention but didn't think the signs would generate the kind of buzz they did. At last check, he said, two of the four still remain taped to the buildings.


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