Thanks for the Memories

As the recent Senate confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrated, yearbooks are documents that can go beyond casual nostalgia, writes John R. Thelin.

October 24, 2018

Campus yearbooks are in the news. This unlikely attention came about with recent media coverage of Senate confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court nomination. For several days, The New York Times provided readers with front-page articles featuring clinical dissections of the biographical profiles of graduating seniors. Reporters analyzed yearbook inscriptions with the care usually reserved for decoding the Dead Sea scrolls.

The spotlight was surprising because higher education usually relies on databases such as the National Center for Education Statistics’ IPEDS, which lead to projections on enrollments, percentage returns on endowments, scorecards on institutional compliance or rankings of federal research funding. One of my colleagues, who is a statistician, exclaimed, “Yearbooks? Is this some kind of a joke?”

It was no joke. Yearbooks from high school and college are an American tradition, familiar to alumni whose photographs and captions lead them to say, “Thanks for the memories!” They also are documents that can go beyond casual nostalgia. Yearbooks have potential for serious research, but only if handled with care in analyzing their scripts of stilted, ritualized images and selective coverage of student life. Reliability, consistency, validity and significance -- the concepts that shape statistical analysis -- are equally pertinent in the content analysis of yearbooks.

These dusty, heavy bound volumes that end up in used bookstores, garage sales and library storage centers can be thoughtfully mined to reconstruct campus life and student cultures. They are simultaneously a source about the biography of an individual as well as a key to understanding the statistics of group patterns and dynamics of a college or high school class.

From Personal History to Prosopography and Social Network Analysis

Yearbooks kindle a temptation to look first at your own profile. The challenge is to go beyond reminiscing about your autobiography and ask others -- classmates, friends, colleagues -- for their varied impressions as you leaf through the pages of activities and accolades that were part of a college’s record.

A second temptation is to scour yearbooks for pictures and profiles of famous figures, to see how they looked and what they did in high school and college. A counter to is to figure out who were big men (and women) on campus whose achievements in adult life did not match their being voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Many colleges used to publish 25th-reunion albums in which alumni updated their yearbook profiles, providing an excellent source of comparative biography over time.

Although a yearbook’s photographs may be idealized depictions, they gain analytic energy when connected to detailed student memoirs. The late Philip Roth’s memorable early novella Goodbye, Columbus had little to do with explorations of 1492. Rather, he used the record album packaged with Ohio State University’s yearbook to trigger the protagonist’s response to the intense events of his own senior year that endures for its insights on social class tracking and dating within campus life.

The records that constitute an individual’s biography or autobiography (a category called “personal history” by archivists) often were presented with a head-and-shoulders photograph in a student’s profile. You can collate the individual entries to create a collective profile of, for example, college teammates or even an entire graduating class -- what historians call “prosopography.” An added touch ultimately is to subject the various biographical profiles to systematic coding and social network analysis. This algorithm gains in credibility if you make estimates on the “context of the text” -- in other words, track down what you can find out about the publisher, the editors, the faculty adviser and the administrative censors.

Yearbooks have been a staple in academic life, both at high schools and colleges, for over a century. In the early 1900s, yearbook publication surged as a lucrative industry in which a handful of commercial publishers dominated the national market. That consolidation led to standardization of yearbooks across colleges and over time. The publisher’s representative would provide the campus editor a template of formats. A further influence on the standardization and conformity was the tradition and inertia of school-year events, all of which had been staked out in previous editions. Certain activities and groups were routinely included, whereas new, upstart or rebellious activities were ignored or censored.

That led to a predictable, enduring formula used by schools and colleges nationwide over decades. Perhaps the best interpretation of a yearbook appeared in 1975, when the editors of The National Lampoon published a detailed parody of a fictional school: the 1964 yearbook for Estes Kefauver High School of Dacron, Ohio (home of the “Fightin’ Kangaroos”). Some of the same staff members later collaborated to create fictional Faber University and write the script for the classic campus movie Animal House.

Yearbooks can be a source of what social scientists call “unobtrusive measures.” Whereas in the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings, the demand was for information that provided “corroboration,” sociologists refer to “triangulation,” in which multiple sources confirm information presented in the yearbook. Sometime that involves internal consistency. If Gretchen Scott has listed “varsity volleyball 1,2,3,4” by her senior picture and profile, then you can check that out by going to the sports section of the yearbook and looking at the volleyball team picture to see if, in fact, Gretchen Scott is featured alongside teammates.

Editors often played pranks on readers, including their classmates. In looking through a Rice University yearbook from the early 1960s one finds under “sports” a page for the swimming team, featuring athletes in swimsuits by the campus indoor pool. But the caption tells a different story, as the editor notes, “The university really did not have a swim team this year, but the yearbook staff decided to pose for a team picture …” At another college, the swimming team’s losing season led yearbook editors to comment, “At least nobody drowned.”

Calendar constraints limited what a yearbook was able to document for posterity. Since publication deadlines were in February or March, leading to publication and distribution in early June, spring activities were not completed when the yearbook went to press. The result is that you never know how the baseball team did for the full season, including the conference championship tournament. The best that yearbook editors could present was a preview: “Coach Armstrong’s horsehiders look forward to a great season on the diamond.” Early publication deadlines also meant that senior biographical profiles often could not include awards and honors presented at the end of the academic year -- including senior election to honor societies such as Phi Beta Kappa.

“Triangulation” encouraged extending the information in a single yearbook to its predecessors. An appealing feature of the yearbooks was that their standardization lent itself to a “run over time.” If you can tally information for a single student in one year, you then can tally comparable data for classmates. You can also compare those to the compilations of graduating seniors in past years. And then you can examine the success or shortfalls of a college’s programs and innovations at access and affordability. Consider assessing a college’s public relations claim that its admissions office is committed to diversity. You might test this through a systematic compilation. Were most classmates from prep schools? What are their geographical origins? The same can be asked about gender, race, ethnicity and religion to gauge changes over time.

In looking at the yearbook of the Harvard College Class of 1924, I found that the entry for each student includes a photograph and then vital statistics of birthplace, college address, home address, secondary school (or, rather, “prepared at …”), activities, concentration and plans after college. By chance, I came across future luminaries such as Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. But what was most significant was to look for patterns and clusters. Today, the affirmative action case at the university involving allegations of discrimination against Asian Americans has led to proposed restrictions on photographs that might reveal nonmeritocratic factors of a student or applicant’s identity. Not so in the old yearbooks. You can make a reasonable estimate to categorize the demographic makeup of a class from photographs in conjunction with the profile texts.

Content analysis also allows you to gauge the relative presence of some activities. In the 1946 edition of the University of Illinois yearbook, The Illio, fraternities and sororities received 64 pages of coverage. It also illustrated that within the American state university of the immediate post-World War II era, racial diversity was characterized by inclusion without integration: that yearbook included group photographs of one black sorority and two black fraternities among the total 57 Greek chapters on campus.

Elsewhere in the yearbook, eight pages were devoted to  photographs portraying “The Illio Beauties,” including group and individual portraits of the campus queen and her court. For the judging competition, the yearbook editors had arranged for legendary Hollywood movie producer Cecil B. DeMille to select “her majesty” from among 26 finalists. Gender representation in intercollegiate sports was markedly different. Typically, the men’s teams were covered in 45 pages of photographs, scoreboards and season summaries. Women as athletes, if represented at all, usually were confined to a page or two describing intramurals and “field days.”

New tools of social network analysis provide prospects for systematic research based on campus yearbooks. In the yearbooks from the early 1960s for the University of Mississippi, one finds a young Trent Lott as a cheerleader and a member of and then president and field representative for Sigma Nu fraternity. Here were the building blocks of affiliations that shaped his path to a career in Congress. The extracurricular life of American colleges and universities was not always academic in emphasis, but it was a powerful force in the socialization of future leaders. You can find, for example, that a particular fraternity at the flagship state university was the incubator for students who were being groomed to be governors and state legislators two decades after graduation.

Yearbooks are, of course, superficial and limited. But once you take those characteristics into account, they provide a lens into the world that students have created for themselves.


John R. Thelin is a historian who is professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky. His new book, Going to College in the Sixties, is scheduled for publication by Johns Hopkins University Press in November.


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