“All right, guys. Ideas.” So began nearly every meeting of my two semesters on Spectator’s editorial board. Walking up the cold, marble stairs to the Spec office on a Tuesday night or a Sunday afternoon, I would rack my brain for that elusive object, that spark that would light 10 minds on fire for a brief hour.
“All right, guys. Ideas.” College brings us together, not only so we can learn from our professors, but also so we can learn from each other. The ethos of the editorial board is exactly the same. Every one of us is meant to have an idea. Ten ideas may not be better than one—it’s generally a bad idea to try to fit 10 ideas into one article, although JUST YOU TRY AND STOP ME—but having 10 committed voices makes it much more likely that we can find that one good idea. Learning from each other, moreover, means learning that we’re sometimes wrong. Columbia doesn’t do a great job of keeping us humble, generally. But being forced to have your ideas and opinions challenged by nine other students, twice a week, can have that effect. I’m reminded of the moment, in the midst of a heated debate, when one of my editorial board colleagues began his sentence, “When I was in Fallujah … ” Oh, right. It turns out we have a lot to learn from each other, if we’re forced to listen.
“All right, guys. Ideas.” What makes an idea worthwhile for this paper? Sometimes the idea is big, broad, philosophical: “solitude” was a favorite of one colleague. Sometimes it’s small, narrow, meticulous: the F@CU budget process, for instance. The one requirement, of course, is that it be “Columbia relevant.” This need for “Columbia relevance” is a constant thorn in the side of a Spec writer or editor. It’s the most common admonition I’ve heard as an opinion columnist, sports columnist, and Spectrum opinion blogger (the other Spec hats I’ve worn). In a way, it seems so antithetical to what college is supposed to be about: our classes take us to other continents and other centuries; our lives lead us across the city, the country, and the world; our ideas span such broader spaces than this campus. But the blue boxes where Spec is delivered each day tell us that what we are reading is “the newspaper of Morningside Heights and Columbia University.” It’s great to read Plato, or to travel to India (or even Brooklyn!). But it’s just as important, too, that we come back to our quirky community. Spec, at its best, is truly a campus newspaper, keeping us grounded in the space between (and just outside) our gates.
What does it mean to write a campus newspaper? And why do we bother? It’s really a narcissistic endeavor, at first glance. We’re “just” college students, after all—immature, impatient, selfish. But in that “just” lies our potential. Sometimes our impatience is exactly what’s needed to stir a passive administration to action. Sometimes our immaturity humanizes the structures that threaten to suck the life out of this place.
Over the last two years, I’ve gained more and more respect for the mission of a campus newspaper. We operate in a tremendously hierarchical and often unaccountable institution. Little information is shared with us, and our input counts for even less. Many of us go through weeks and months without giving any thought to the decisions that shape our lives here. Without paying attention, the life of the school can easily pass us by.
But if we don’t write Columbia, the stories will still happen. They will happen to our financial aid packages, our Core Curriculum, our administration. They will not appear in print with a student’s name in the byline. They will not show up in those blue boxes every morning. But they will still happen, and we just might not know it. If we don’t write Columbia, someone else will.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. He was an opinion columnist, opinion blogger, sports columnist, and member of the 135th editorial board.