Those Alumni Magazine Profile Blues

First word came from Erin Peterson‘s newsletter. Peterson wrote about how rare it is for a university magazine to write about failure. (True dat.) She cited two pieces by writers complaining about the profiles of over-achievers that alumni magazines had presented them. One piece, published in 2013 by Pamela Fickenscher in The Christian Century, is titled “The Spiritual Dangers of Alumni Magazines.” That overstates the content of the essay, in which Fickenscher seemed peeved that some unnamed university magazines ignore unsung heroes for sung — especially self-sung — heroes (heroes in the eyes of development, at least: the people the school most wants to be identified with). She began:

I went to two institutions of higher learning that were large enough to have glossy full color magazines (and another that was not that big). My husband went to two other institutions whose magazines are so glossy you practically need sunglasses. All four publications have an uncanny knack for arriving just at those moments in my life when I am feeling most unaccomplished, most detached from my dreams of earlier years, most stuck in the midlife rock-and-a-hard-place rut between family and career.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who experiences Alumni Magazine Syndrome. I mean, we can’t all be tenured faculty at the places where we studied, start our own non-profits by the age of twenty-eight, or give a few millions dollars away.

She continued:

But what bothers me most about the flavor of many of these stories is the impression that most worthy work is either publishable or highly profitable, when a lion’s share of what holds the world together is neither.  Some of the most brilliant people in the world are working on Apple patents that they simply can’t talk about, or formulating poems that will not make the Times bestseller list.  Some of our most gifted diplomats, counselors and chaplains are professionally bound to not talk  — not even to their dearest friends — about the most interesting parts of their work. And legions of managers throughout the world are taking care of their employees and their institutions instead of spending a lot of time blogging about it or accepting interviews.

The reasoning here is sketchy in spots and doesn’t suggest a sophisticated grasp of what makes someone the center of a good magazine story. My take was a sort of alumni magazine–induced angst. The second story cited by Peterson, titled “Diverse Futures: The Myth of the High-Stakes Smithie,” appeared on the blog of a writer named Mo Daviau. Daviau was writing about dealing with the aftermath of an abusive relationship, and her post included this:

This extra layer of shame we create for ourselves when we fall down the hill becomes a barrier to reaching out to other women in our times of need. How many times have our classmates said, tongue not so firmly in cheek, that they don’t feel worthy of attending a reunion, or of sending in news to the Smith Alumnae Quarterly? That their accomplishments thus far had not earned them some illusive sense of permission, or that Smith’s classrooms, free of males taking up space and dominating discussions, were underground bunkers in which we were given the secret code for never, ever making a mistake.

Smith claims to have a commitment to honoring diverse backgrounds, but honoring diverse futures? Not so much.

Again, I found the reasoning spotty, as if the post had been written before the author fully thought through what she wanted to say, but it’s an emotional response and the emotion, not the logical rigor, carries it. No argument with that, and that last bit records a hit — I think Daviau is right in regard to most of our magazines. We do have an obsession with post-graduation accomplishment, especially any of us laboring under the senior administrative mandate of all brag all the time.

Daviau then fired a torpedo:

You have to remember this about the Smith Alumnae Quarterly: it’s a fundraising organ, targeted at women between the ages of 21 and 101. It has to please everyone, so it pleases no one in particular.

Ezra Pound has that line about aiming for the middle. That.

It is largely written and edited by writers and editors who are not alumnae. They are writing to please their employer. They are not writing from the soul of our collective experience.

It’s a pretty fabrication. It isn’t real. Read it or throw it in the trash the minute it touches your mailbox. It doesn’t matter. It’s all myth. So don’t feel a corrosive sense of failure if you fear you haven’t done something to get you in those pages. I’m not going to tell you that you’re enough out of some hippie self-help Oprah horseshit sense of obligation, as if some platitude from Mo Daviau is going to save you from yourself. I’m just going to tell you that the SAQ is plastic made-up garbage and nothing you should ever measure yourself against.

Wham!

The core of Daviau’s post is her struggle to deal with past abuse, and it is not my intent to be churlish about that, in any way. It sounds like she experienced a lot of rough years, and that shouldn’t happen to anyone. But the way she brought Smith’s magazine into it fascinates me, and points to why favoring conventional alumni magazine articles over genuine stories, promotion over engagement, blows back in a magazine’s face. I am not picking on Smith Alumnae Quarterly here. I don’t know what sort of mandate senior administration imposes on the editors as SAQ, but it probably does not differ markedly from what most of us work under. What interests me, and what is instructive, I think, is what sticks in the craws of Fickenscher and Daviau and what that can tell us about how some readers respond to our work:

— The only people who university magazines ever write about are people who will, in the estimation of someone at the school, generate checks made out to development — and that’s the only reason they appear in the magazine. (Unless they’re in the magazine because  development wants to kiss up to a big donor.)

— The alumni magazine is only a fund-raising tool. That is, it’s not really a magazine at all.

— Alumni magazines do too little to capture the soul of a university, in all its inclusive complexity.

— The stories in university magazines repel readers by doing little more more than hoisting impossible exemplars into view.

I know nothing about either of these writers. Perhaps nothing would induce them to hold university magazines in more esteem. But I believe the best way not to create this sort of response, but to create the engagement that should be at the heart of the enterprise, is to eschew the bragging, ditch the superficial feature writing that reduces everyone to a handful of cliches, and as editors find and present the sort of stories that bring readers into contact with people, knowledge, problems, and attempts at solution in all their complicated, messy, contradictory, inconsistent, puzzling, bemusing, laudable, exasperating, human glory.

3 comments

  1. Mo Daviau

    You nail it on the head with the last paragraph there. Honestly, that essay was always meant to be about recovering from abuse, never a critique of alumni magazines. At the time, several fellow Smith alumnae had contacted me about their abuse experiences and one had commented that “Smith would revoke [her] diploma if they found out” (meaning alumnae who make the college proud don’t do things like get themselves into unsafe relationships with abusers). This broke my heart and the heart of the fellow alum friend I was living with at the time. That blog post was never intended to be anything but a rant to my friends and yet went viral. It’s piqued different several conversations, I’ve noticed, including the one where alumni mags lose their readers by only telling stories of traditional success. But the conversation around the idea that abuse can happen to anyone despite how educated and self-assured they are was the original goal of that piece of writing. The SAQ rant was kind of a cheap shot, in retrospect.

    I would hold alumni magazines in higher esteem if they did tell stories of failure, or of uncommon triumphs. It seems there are a lot of missed opportunities for alumni mags to capitalize on some really strong, inspiring narratives. There is also Smith’s tendency to cultivate a rather fraught emotional legacy with its alums, which is an entirely different conversation, and one I’m willing to have with the staff of the SAQ if they ever want to have it. And for what it’s worth, I was a Class Notes secretary for my class for five years. I don’t hate the magazine. History shows I’ve been a faithful alum for nearly two decades. My road has been bumpy but I’m far from the only one. Maybe tell stories with bumps in them? I think that time has come.

  2. Heiko (Gary) Heisermann

    I am an avid purveyor of alumni magazines, mostly because I like graphics, I like universities, and I am just a curious person. I am an alumni of four different institutions (don’t ask!) and attended a few more. Plus as a college professor I sometimes get on alumni mailing lists of places I’ve worked, and other faculty get magazines from even more colleges in their mailboxes… so I have seen quite a few examples. Imagine my delight and pleasure at finding this blog! But enough about me — about this topic:

    1. Yes, the magazines are about raising money, and thus ultimately about the future of the institution (even to the possible point of “will there be a future?”).

    2. But should the editors just shrug their shoulders and say “oh well, nothing can be done”? This is a basic question I believe every person, and especially every faculty member (especially the tenured variety) should ask themselves: Is “good enough” really good enough for me? And believe me they (faculty) don’t ask this question often — their job performance just gets worse every year…

    3. From your blog and from many of the physical copies of alum mags I have run across (I often find them in recycling, near the faculty mailboxes) I have learned so much about humanity! For example:

    — (from the Brown Univ magazine — the best I have ever seen!) The Canadian Constitution was amended to give women equal rights just 1 year after women got the vote there — so ~ 1922. (and somehow they seem to have struggled through…)

    — (from Lesley Univ magazine) The story of a woman who attended college only after becoming a successful businesswoman. She had begun her career as a mason (laying bricks) but the gender discrimination was so severe she had to start her own company to find steady work — now she many many male masons working for her!

    — (from this blog) The story of how Korean Airlines came to realize that the Korean language itself was the major cause of their airplane accidents — a switch to English only in the cockpits fixed the problem!

    4. I agree with Mo Daviau that it would be nice to try to make the stories (some of them at least) more down to earth. I have sometimes found myself frustrated and angry when reading about successful young faculty who get to do amazing things, but who probably have little knowledge of the everyday lives of real people outside the academic bubble. I happened to have worked at “real jobs” for a couple of years before grad school — but that is very rare among members of my generation.

    5. Mo’s phrasing “uncommon triumphs” hit a nerve. I have had cause to reflect on “the human condition” quite a bit, and what I have concluded is that no one should judge another person. Do you know what happened in everyone’s life just yesterday, much less before that? For example — if many “successful” college grads are housewives or their male equivalent, then they should be championed and supported, not denigrated (even if they haven’t written any poetry, or started an amazing blog, or won a marathon in the past 12 months…). I do appreciate the challenge of how to fit their stories into the glossy pages of a magazine, but again — should we not at least try?

    Ok, that is enough…

    Heiko

  3. Erin Peterson

    Thanks for the shoutout, Dale. For anyone who wants to read that newsletter, I’ve posted it on my website, erinpeterson.com. There’s also a signup form for the newsletter at the top right — I send out stuff about once a month, but it doesn’t always make it to the blog.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>