Last month, my wife Jes and I answered a call to action from the good old alma mater. It seemed the Illinois Regional College Fair, an expo of Midwestern universities, was just around the corner, and Calvin had no one to represent it. Given that the fair was to be held six miles from our apartment, would we be willing to go on the admission department’s behalf? Admissions would of course mail us promotional doodads and see to it that we were properly outfitted for the excursion. But really we didn’t have to do much except be present. As “Calvin Admissions Ambassadors,” we needed only to be friendly faces for prospective students; we would answer the questions that our four years of undergraduate education had prepared us to answer, and for the rest, we could refer students to the college website.

Jes and I talked it over. On the whole, it sounded easy enough—and a good way to give back to the college we loved. More personally, it seemed to me a good way to expiate my criminally longstanding tradition of not answering phone calls from the Calvin College Phone-a-Thon crew. So we accepted. And on the evening of September 20, we packed up the college fair starter kit Calvin had sent us, and went.

The Illinois Regional College Fair was held in the gymnasium of Parkland College, a local community college not far from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign where I teach. When we arrived, the space was already a-riot with school spirit. At the rear of the room, like lords presiding over a banquet hall, Parkland and the University of Illinois took up two tables apiece and festooned them with bright handouts and pamphlets and neato upright displays. Meanwhile, running perpendicular to them were the vast majority of tables, which had been reserved for plebs like Jes and me—for the eighty-plus college reps from outside the immediate area. Draped over with tablecloths in school colors, these tables popped like brightly packaged items on a grocery store shelf, like candy, while behind each of them waited a smiling, sharply dressed representative eager to share what made their university special.

Collectively, this latter group of tables lined a series of wide, regular walkways meant to shuttle foot-traffic from the front of the gym to the back and vice versa, with all the efficiency of a supermarket’s aisles.

I’ll confess it rankles me to acknowledge that in the space of two sentences, I’ve dipped twice into metaphors of commerce to describe the IRCF. As an educator in the humanities, I like to imagine my work as being stubbornly outside—maybe even facilitating resistance to—the sticky, crass hands of the market. But in this case, the metaphor works too well to ignore it. Billed in its own promotional material as “an easy way to get printed information about several different schools in a short period of time,” the Illinois Regional College Fair presented itself as a kind of one-stop shopping center for high school juniors and seniors—a crowded, chattering marketplace where universities were for sale and where customer time and attention were divided. Most opportunities I had to pitch Calvin lasted no longer than two minutes. Some barely even made one. Often, after a conversation with parents (the students, the supposed clientele of this booming trade, were often shyly resistant to being courted by us admissions ambassadors), I was left wondering if my impassioned defense of Calvin had made even a lick of difference. Having passed out brochures and urged my audience to take pens, I’d watch disconsolately as my marks, armed now with all things Calvin, wandered off toward the next table, there to ask the same sort of questions they’d just asked me.

And this is to say nothing of my (many) gaffes. For instance, when one parent, whose kid Jes had gamely engaged in conversation, asked me vaguely to tell him about Calvin, I froze and almost took issue with the question. Later, when a mom and her son asked whether Calvin had a meteorology program, I nattered incoherently about the astronomy department’s observatory, all the while wondering despairingly whether it wasn’t actually astrology I meant.

Only after the mom-son duo departed in a whispering huddle did I recall that meteors have nothing to do with meteorology.

If nothing else then, the Illinois Regional College Fair confirmed for me what I already knew: I would make a terrible salesperson. That said, it turns out I’m not so bad at pushing pens at people. Indeed by the end of that September evening I had pretty much seeded central Illinois with Calvin College pens. So if, someday, one or two of those seeds begins to sprout—if, say, some high school junior or a member of their family pauses in the note they are scribbling and looks down at the maroon pen in their fingers and wonders to themselves, “What the hell is Calvin College?”—and if that junior or family member decides to take a look—you’ll know who to thank.

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