Graduation has made me nostalgic lately, perhaps even a bit melancholic. I’m not sappy or sentimental, but I’ve had the urge lately to reread all the Flyer op-eds I’ve ever written. Reflecting on them now, I experience a mix of self-satisfaction at having been so visionary about what would become of the Obama presidency and regret at having had such harsh words on the subjects of gender and sexuality. I won’t say I’m enlightened since that seems to imply that in conceding how wrong I was, I now know everything there is to know about the complexities of gender and sexuality. Instead, I think I know just a little bit more than I did before and have since shifted by views.
In my previous two years with the Flyer, I felt that everything I was saying needed to be said. I fancied myself relevant and I never questioned that I was answering so what? That is, after all, the proverbial question of all professors. They’re always telling students who are writing essays to answer it in their papers. When you write editorials, you’re generally writing about something current. (Let’s hope that actually the goal of all newspaper contributors.) I felt that the leap from newspaper writing to so what? was clear, especially since it’s the readers who should be asking that question. But, answering so what? and what’s at stake? are two different questions. In classrooms, especially at the collegiate level, we’re only concerned with the former question. Why?
We need to be asking what’s at stake in a problem and the question we’re asking. Example: I write a history paper arguing that the American Revolution and the War for Independence are two distinct ideas and I even get ambitious and scour archives for some primary sources; I find letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson talking about the revolution as an intellectual movement and the war as…well…a war. It’s history for history’s sake. We need to think about how my conclusions translate down and out. By that I mean, I also need to be able to propose ways of translating this knowledge down to lower-level schooling: How do I teach revolution versus war to a bunch of sixth graders? By out, I mean, disseminating my knowledge to others. Hint: that’s more challenging than it seems.
Most newspapers don’t care what’s at stake. The journalistic profession prides itself on staying current. Stories are rarely connected back to older stories. It’s too complex, too muddled. That’s why so many people like Thomas Friedman’s books. He’s anecdotal, but each story is linked to another and that’s how we understand globalization. It’s also the same reason we love documentaries –they weave together all the things we kind of knew or had a sense of into coherent narrative (ideally). But documentaries can often seem like they’re talking about a conspiracy. Newspapers don’t want to seem like they’re talking crazy…that would make them tabloids. As newspapers strive for brevity and clear communication, they begin to lose focus of the proverbial big picture. Why is it that professors can be so admired for their tangents and nuggets of insight within long lectures or conversations but a newspaper, that medium through which we all get our news, must be brief and unabashedly to-the-point?
If we ask what’s at stake, our work becomes more important. We love it more when the answer to that question comes with a quick response. Knowing what’s at stake gives us purpose. Doing anything for the sake of doing it just leaves us wondering what’s the point?