I Will Never Sing Adviser Karaoke at Yearbook Camp

June 14, 2016 | 1 9 min read


I sprinted down the dark football field. I don’t remember if I’d hopped the fence or walked through an unlocked section. The campus was quiet. It was late July, the air thick, mosquitoes snapping like pellets against my skin. This was Gettysburg College. Almost 60 years earlier my uncle had been a running back on this same field.

I was a 34-year-old man at yearbook camp. It had been billed as a “scholastic journalism workshop,” but the campus was full of teenagers, and teenagers don’t like euphemisms: this was yearbook camp. I’ve never been to yearbook camp before. I’ve been to basketball camps and baseball camps and soccer camps. I wrote much of the narrative copy for my college yearbook as a senior, but never advised a high school yearbook before. This was my basic training.

Our first day was spent checking-in, slogging through spotty wi-fi, getting t-shirts, listening to motivational speeches, and finding our dorms. I was in a suite with four other advisers. One had been his school’s football coach, and then he had kids and wanted to spend more time at home and not chasing teams across the state. We shrugged at each other.

Yearbooks are about students, and are best made by students. The kids write the copy, take the photographs, interview students and faculty, create the layouts and design the cover, edit the proofs, collect senior superlatives, and even plan and host our lone fundraiser: a quirky male pageant with performances that range from one of the best drummers in the state to a postmodern take on making a sandwich. My role as adviser is entirely behind the scenes: I recruit and train editors and staff, send endless reminders about meetings and deadlines, schedule professional photographers for school events, and mediate the occasional creative and rare personal disagreement.

The plan for camp: spend three intensive days developing the upcoming year’s ladder — a specific, paginated outline broken into sections — refining the theme, drafting the cover, and preparing for the busy year ahead. It worked. My editors were sharp and creative, way ahead of me. I needed yearbook camp. But I also needed to run sprints in a town full of ghosts.

Senior quotes. Goofy candids. Silly captions. With Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, why do we still need print yearbooks? Aren’t teenagers constantly documenting their lives already?

The history of the American yearbook dates back to 1860, when Boston photographer George Kendall Warren conceived of selling albums of images of graduating college students (they were known as “autograph and photograph” books; the first was published for Rutgers University). A portrait photographer of both Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain, Warren moved from the daguerreotype method to a newer technology that enabled faster production.

In the same way that the genesis of the yearbook began at a time of photographic innovation, an evolution of the yearbook is happening in the age of social media. Yearbooks are the messy yet perfect representation of high school, a snapshot of a chaotic time in our lives. This is not a new idea. What I’d like to stress is that the stubbornness of this supposedly archaic genre — since the late-1990s, people have been predicting the death of the print yearbook — speaks to its essential status in American high school culture, no matter how awkward the contents.

The “print yearbook is dying/dead” refrain follows a formula: budget cuts have led American school districts to choose between cutting courses and firing teachers or eliminating clubs and organizations of secondary importance, such as yearbook clubs. In an effort to cut costs and increase the perception of inclusivity within the yearbook, many school districts have moved toward both online production and publication, as well as student personalization.

This refrain of the dying print yearbook seems less about the quality of the printed yearbook and more about the desire to imbue current technology fads and interest into the yearbook. A 1991 paper from the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication notes how “a few schools even produce video yearbooks using electronic news gathering techniques. Now, as computer technology hurdles are cleared, interactive yearbooks on compact disks with sound and both still and moving pictures are on the horizon.” Fast-forward to the present, replace “video yearbooks” and “compact disks” with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and other social media sites, and you have the pulse of the current moment. Media predictions are legion, and often wrong; back in 2008, The Economist wondered if the print yearbook would outlast Myspace.

Although articles about the death of the printed yearbook have appeared sporadically over the years, they appear to spike on two different occasions: around 2007-2008, when colleges started to move away from traditional yearbooks, leading writers to wonder if the same would happen on high school campuses, and 2011, when TreeRing became established in the yearbook arena. From a Slate profile of the company by Farhad Manjoo:

TreeRing prints a book only after a student orders it. Digital printing also lets students customize their books — in addition to the ‘core’ yearbook produced by the yearbook class, kids can add more pages that they design themselves. Finally — because schools don’t have to bake in the cost of overprinting, and because TreeRing prints books in the spring, when there’s excess capacity at on-demand printing facilities — TreeRing’s yearbooks are often cheaper than those offered by traditional yearbook providers. TreeRing sells a 140-page hardcover yearbook — the average size for a high school — for around $50. That’s about $25 less than the price of a traditional high school yearbook.

Manjoo’s a convincing writer, and sells the company well. TreeRing offers an interesting model, but amounts to a redefinition of the American yearbook. Yearbooks have always been collaborative efforts, while a student’s social media feed is ultimately focused on her own life. If these highly personalized and individual books are merely extensions of the social media lives of students, then why pay anything for them? We often think that we are more accurate curators of our lives and the world around us than others, but scroll back through your Facebook timeline of five years ago to test that theory. Yearbooks are imperfect historical documents, but at least they are the work of several hands.

Edmund Sullivan, director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association since 1981, has said

Student publications will probably converge into a digital format that subsumes the functions of student newspapers and literary-art magazines within interactive websites or mobile apps. Yearbooks will still most likely publish in print, because there is still a market for print on at least an infrequent basis. The ‘year-in-review’ aspect of the best yearbooks is still an effective closure device for students for their school experience.

The print yearbook and social media can coexist; social media is encyclopedic, capturing many memories without an effective way to create a hierarchy of importance among them. A yearbook is selective and singular, and while it is not as personally exhaustive as social media, it can more accurately capture the atmosphere of the scholastic moment. Most likely, editors and advisers will learn ways to make the digital extensions and components of their print yearbooks more essential than ancillary and novelty. The continued cultural relevance of the print yearbook is both practical and symbolic: when social media has evolved in ways we can’t even imagine, print books will still remain.

The most common verb used at yearbook camp was survive. How to survive your first year as adviser. How to survive the surge toward deadlines (yearbooks are completed and submitted incrementally, which means the book is built over the course of the year).

Part of this was good technique: the staff at yearbook camp wanted to show us the worst case scenarios. Those scenarios are not the late-spring local news reports about illicit images that sneak into photos or foul language camouflaged in senior quotes; they are the exhausting minutia of everyday life as yearbook adviser.

In some ways, yearbook camp felt like an extended Tony Robbins seminar. A bevy of speakers with headsets clicked through obnoxiously skilled page layouts and grinning students. Each morning we met in the auditorium, where one of the staff led us in a group chant to get us fired-up for the day. I am from New Jersey, and only get fired-up for pizza and pork roll sandwiches. We drifted across the campus to different seminars, where instructors explained the many ways yearbooks fail: advisers who are too lax or too authoritarian and students who make promises they can’t keep. After the necessary business was done, talk turned to that night’s planned adviser karaoke. If there is one thing is this world that I am sure of, it is that I will never sing adviser karaoke at yearbook camp.

I get the point, as well as the paradox, of the pomp of yearbook camp. In product, yearbook is the ultimate extrovert document. In production, yearbook requires the patience of an introvert. I would never have joined yearbook when I was in high school. Back then, I was a jock who secretly read fiction and poetry and had a year-long independent study on propulsion systems so that I could research UFO sightings. Add to that mix my Garden State skepticism and my Italian stubbornness, and you’ve got the opposite of pep. But I do believe in kids, and wore my “Eat. Sleep. Yearbook.” camp t-shirt with aplomb.

I was offered the position of yearbook adviser when I was hired at my current school, but it was not pushed on me. The outgoing supervisor had advised the book for years; it had traditionally been mentored within the English department. There’s a precedent for this: yearbooks from previous decades were text-heavy. Now they look more like art books. Photographs splash across spreads. The most text in the book is in the sports section, where team captains — in possibly their most difficult writing assignment in all of high school — have to encapsulate a season in two paragraphs.

To borrow the language of yearbook camp, after my first year of being an adviser, I’ve learned that there are three steps to surviving this position. First, be organized. Organization does not mean look organized to someone else; it means finding a system that works. Keep records. Create files with calendars. Schedule as far in advance as possible and send everyone reminders. Be understanding and patient. Say thank you. Recognize that although a yearbook includes everyone in the school, it is merely a blip in their lives.

The second: It is not my book. Strangely enough, as a writer, this was very easy for me to understand and practice. The best feeling was knowing that my student editors made their own book.

The third: Accept help. The former yearbook adviser, now retired, has been an invaluable resource. Our company representative is a graduate of the high school and knows many of the people who still appear in the book.

After a decade of teaching elsewhere, yearbook was the fastest way for me to learn everything about a new school: its students, its faculty and staff, and its culture. While larger schools have particular struggles — representing thousands of students in a book is practically impossible — they also have particular advantages. We are a small school with several celebrated athletic programs so students are spread thin between sports and clubs. We got around this problem by having fewer physical meetings and moving online. We did no less work; in fact, we might have done more, because students collaborated and revised and double-checked each other’s spreads.

Small press and academic publishing has prepared me to become a yearbook adviser. Books are collaborative efforts, and the vast majority of work is not only unseen but thankless. Yearbooks always have mistakes, and often the quibbles outnumber the compliments — but that is human nature. Since my critical take on contemporary Catholic literature was published by a scholarly press a few years ago, I’ve heard from people who thought I was too positive and too negative. Who thought I should have included this writer and deleted that one. Although yearbooks are the most “mainstream” of books — the percentage of students who page through yearbooks outnumbers those who read independently — they are produced in a distinctly non-mainstream manner. It is a good lesson for students to recognize that often the response to something they create is inversely related to the care it took to produce.

Any administrator and teacher will tell you that the final month of high school is the most difficult. Seniors have been accepted to college. Teachers are tired. Warmer weather leads to absences, both excused and unexcused. Senior pranks loom.

Students get wild because the end is near, yet just out of their grasp. The senior trip and prom are close, and then finals and graduation. The end of high school is like jumping off a scholastic cliff into the unknown. Students say they can’t wait to leave, but the fact is that school has been a part of their lives for over a decade.

In the midst of all this, the yearbook arrives, quietly. I sneak with the yearbook’s business adviser and our editors into the stuffy custodial room, where boxes of yearbooks are stacked on carts. We love the cover, a crisp shot of a sunset taken by one of our editors. The spreads look better than they did during online production. We are perfectionists, and it is nice to let our guards down and page through something of which we are proud.

It is the end of the year, and although summer and real life loom, for a few days yearbook brings a pause to the rush. When so much of their lives flit by on smartphone screens, here are teenagers doing something that brings joy to the sights of English teachers — carrying around books. They fill these books with signatures and inside jokes that will have lost their meanings long before they stop, years later, to glance at these long-lost documents of their teenage years.

Yearbooks are not perfect, but they hold a certain perfect imperfection. For many of us, high school is one of the strangest, most awkward times of our lives. It is nice to have a book that captures a slice of that world — and even nicer to think that the book was made by students.

Image Credit: Flickr/John Philip Green.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.