Vassar, Booked: What literary references can tell us about attitudes towards our school

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Vassar?” For me and many other students, the words “home,” “community” and other fuzzy descriptors pop up as we anxiously long for our return to campus. But what about the general public? Do most people even know Vassar exists? 

As shown by the recent SNL diss of Vassar students (skip to 1:51), Vassar remains a part of pop culture discourse in some circles, largely as a locus of poking fun at young female activists. Evidence I collected my senior year of high school supports this; I noticed that upon revealing my commitment to Vassar in 2018, the response I received would be one of: “Oh that’s a good school!” or “Isn’t that an all-girls school?” or “Never heard of it!” So, if people do know about Vassar, they are likely to associate it with its history as a women’s college.

My anecdotal evidence is further bolstered by Google’s Ngram viewer, a tool that searches for the frequency of a word or phrase in a collection, or corpus, of books. For each year, the corpus keeps track of every book published and reports frequency as the percentage of all n-grams, or phrases of a certain length, that match the target word or phrase among those published books. The phrase “Vassar College” is a bigram, or two-part phrase, and it would be compared to other bigrams, such as “Harvard University” and “Yale University.” (See Figure 1.)

Despite this linguistic similarity between the school names, Harvard and Yale are of course very different institutions from Vassar. Accordingly, compared to Harvard and Yale, Vassar appears much less frequently in books, and, by extension, in popular discourse. This explains the lack of name recognition I observed; Vassar is simply referenced less. But let’s take it a step further; perhaps Vassar’s lower recognition numbers are due to its size relative to Harvard and Yale. For one, Vassar has no graduate students and a smaller undergrad population, so fewer people have written about Vassar because they did not have their own experience to draw from (in the case of writing a memoir or novel). In addition, fewer undergrads also means fewer theses, and grad students won’t be contributing theses or other academic works either—not to discount Vassar undergrads (such as myself!) picking up some of the slack by taking a portion of the research opportunities that grad students would have at another school, but they can’t do it all alone. 

Perhaps a better benchmark against which to measure Vassar’s name recognition would be drawn from comparison to some schools of similar size and prestige. How does Vassar compare with some of its peer institutions, namely Amherst and Williams? (See Figure 2.)

In short: More favorably, but it’s still less frequently referenced, especially early on in these schools’ histories. But why even this discrepancy? And what made Vassar begin to catch up? From 1861 through 1909, by yearly average frequency, Vassar occurred less than half as often (around .00000018% of bigrams) as Williams (around .00000046%) and Amherst (around .00000044%). This is not too surprising, given that Vassar had just been founded while Williams (1793) and Amherst (1821) were already established. From 1910 through 1968, Vassar (up to 0.00000030%) saw an increased frequency while Williams (.00000040%) and Amherst (.00000037%) saw declines, possibly as a result of other new institutions eating into their airtime. 

I chose 1910 as a cutoff because not only was Vassar becoming more established, but also the 1910s began to see popular support for first-wave feminism. This is relevant because Williams and Amherst started off as all-male colleges, while Vassar was initially all-female. First-wave feminism largely emphasized suffrage, but the movement certainly helped establish women’s education initiatives such as the beginnings of The Seven Sisters college consortium, which included Vassar in its original four-college iteration in 1915. So, Vassar was in a much different place as an institution and in the world beginning in 1910. Despite this, it still saw lower frequencies, perhaps because the feminist movement still had a ways to go. Regardless of a slight uptick from the previous period, women never published more than 20 percent of all English-language books between 1910 and 1968, making it less likely that Vassar alumnae would have a platform to mention their alma mater and have it counted in the corpus.

Furthermore, a significant percentage of books published by women were fiction. Vassar alumnae writing fiction may be less likely to mention their alma mater than if they were to write a memoir or nonfiction academic paper. This percentage declined between 1910 and 1968 compared to the previous period, but it still represented a large chunk. 

I chose 1968 as my next cutoff because the next year, Vassar went coed and began working towards having over 2000 students, a goal that it achieved by 1971. 1971 also saw a student body that was 40 percent male. 1971’s gender demographics were comparable to those of campus today, as well as Williams’ and Amherst’s student populations. Williams followed suit and went coed in 1970, while Amherst did so in 1975. I do not think it is a coincidence that around this time, the three schools start to appear in the corpus at almost indistinguishable frequencies, and continue to do so for the rest of the years in my study. From 1969 through 2008, the yearly average frequencies for Amherst and Williams each were 0.00000022% and .00000018% for Vassar. Why is Vassar still behind, even though its student population (2450) is now higher than both Williams (2150) and Amherst (1855)? One reason might be that its student body is still just over 40 percent male, while Amherst and Williams hover around 50 percent. While fiction books represent a much smaller portion now, the percent of all books published by women is still less than 45 percent, and it was much lower than that at the beginning of this period, in the 1970s.

Here’s another question the data from this period raised: Why did all of these colleges see declines in frequency? My theory is that while these colleges had populations that only grew slightly during this period, many other schools saw ballooning enrollment, and our country’s population as a whole grew, so more books were being published in general. Remember, the n-gram graph measures relative frequency, so while the raw number of “Vassar” mentions has been growing, it has been growing at a slower rate relative to that of other bigrams (especially other, bigger schools). Frequency is calculated as mentions (labeled as “count”) divided by total number of bigrams. Figure 3 plots the raw numbers of mentions, raw meaning without being divided by the total number of bigrams, for each of these colleges. For comparison’s sake, Figure 4 also includes Rutgers University, which has a bigram name and a huge and ever-growing student population.

As evidenced by one of the responses I often received my senior year when telling people I would be attending Vassar, many still associate the college with its former all-female status. You can find the most common words to appear after “Vassar” by searching “Vassar *” on the n-gram viewer. The sixth and seventh most common words are “girl” and “girls,” ahead of the more gender-neutral “students,” which is the ninth most common (“boys” is nowhere to be found at all). After spikes in usage in the early 1960s, both “girl” and “girls” in association with “Vassar” began to decline, probably as a result of Vassar going coed in 1969. However, more in line with the “Isn’t that an all-girls school?” response I had often received, this trend was reversed at the very end of the dataset, where the words experienced a resurgence. In the last year of the dataset, 2008, “girl” saw its highest frequency since 1992. 2007-2008 saw the highest two-year frequency for “girls” since 1992-1993. At the same time, the usage of “students” remained stagnant. On the other hand, “Miscellany” is the fifth most common word to appear after “Vassar,” and it too experienced a resurgence at the end of the dataset, seeing its highest two-year frequency in 2007-2008 since 1993-1994! (See Figure 5.)

The last answer that I often received, “Oh, that’s a good school!”, is the one I think best represents what my experience at Vassar has actually been like. As I dream of walking the well-paved paths and marveling at the beauty of the campus with my friends again, I hope that we all can continue to associate fuzzy feelings with our school and find comfort in the fact that we will return someday soon. Vassar is so much more than just the butt of a joke poking fun at young female activists—let us all work to show our appreciation from afar by standing up for it while we’re among non-students. And for those of us hard at work on memoirs, perhaps consider including the advent of Vassar boys.

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