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Signs and Symbols

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities imagines a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which the explorer describes the many cities he has visited on his expeditions. One is the metropolis Tamara, where “the eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things.” One recognizes the dentist’s house there by a sign depicting pincers. The tavern is represented by a tankard, and the various temples are decorated with the attributes of their gods so the time-pressed worshiper knows where to direct her prayers.

In retrospect, Polo realizes that even the forms of the buildings and their locations in the city announce their function. No one needs directions to the palace or the prison.

I got to thinking about Tamara today as I walked across the campus and stopped for a moment to admire the Chapel of the Resurrection here at Valparaiso—as I understand it, the largest collegiate chapel in the nation. The chancel’s hundred-foot stained-glass windows are clearly visible from the highway, and indeed it’s hard to miss what this building says about the institution around it.

Standing on the lawn this morning, I also recalled the opening convocation held in the chapel and the ceremony in which a series of emblems were presented to the students, then linked together to form the Shield of Character.

All institutions layer their symbols, and most of the time it’s easy to miss the bulk of them (or simply to block them out). Occasionally, though, they seem to leap from the background to play a strangely active role in shaping the ways we view our colleges and ourselves in them. I’m thinking here of the current debate on this campus over the future of the university’s longstanding honor code, or how at Texas Tech a few years back one donor demanded that a symbol he designed be attached to the scholarships and research he was financing.

In such cases it can be hard not to get caught up in competing emblems. Calvino describes the effect this way: “Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: The city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself ….”

When you walk across the campus, do you see signs and symbols? Are they meaningful representations of your institution or just part of a marketing campaign? More practically, how should faculty respond to symbolic representations of their institutions? How should job candidates appraise the symbols of the colleges they’re investigating?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Steve A. Johnson.]

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