For my “field” research, I interviewed the Chief of Staff of the Brown Political Review, Ashley Chen. Upon researching student-run publications at other colleges, I identified the BPR as an appropriate external partner: a counterpart to the HPR in that it is produced by a fellow Ivy League institution, but sufficiently different based on a cursory survey of its website. During the interview, I realized that there were many aspects of the HPR that I had assumed to be customary or same for other publications of its kind. The differences I discovered through our conversation forced me to contemplate and reevaluate the reasons that the HPR does or does not operate in certain ways.
I. Entry Point
- How does one get involved as a staff writer?
- Comp v. Application: Different levels of Access and Rigor
Unlike the HPR, the BPR does not have a comp process and instead grants the staff writer position on an application basis. While one needs to fill out an application (google form) and go through an interview, the process is much shorter and less stressful than the comp, which runs over an entire semester and requires people to write four analytical pieces. A comper writes articles just as he/she would as a staff writer, but with the added stress of having to write four in a row, each with multiple deadlines. The thought of not having the burden of four article credits, during a semester of rigorous academics, made me rethink my defense of the comp as a cumbersome yet still necessary part of joining the HPR.
In an access standpoint, though, the comp is not necessarily more stressful than an application process, as it is focused on the completion of requirements as opposed to how an application that could be rejected. The comp is technically designed to allow anyone to become a staff writer as long as they complete their assignments, measuring the willingness to commit time to the magazine and learn the HPR writing style in due time. In other words, the comp process expects is primarily a test of effort.
At the same time, this is not to say that the BPR’s application-based system is highly exclusive, considering that anyone in the Brown undergraduate community can apply to write for the magazine without becoming designated staff writers. The HPR solicits or receives articles from non-staff writers at times, but our core principle is to publish writings from those who have finished the comp. While the HPR has never presented the comp in such a way, its implication is that individuals needs to earn their right to write/ their membership, with the perks of being able to contribute and publish any of their work, at any time (given that their articles are of acceptable quality). In contrast, BPR does not have a barrier akin to the comp, extending the opportunity to contribute to the magazine to a much larger pool of student; students who cannot or do not want to commit to a semester-long comp process could still have their work published. These benefits are partly offset by the fact that the magazine only selects some of the submisions each cycle, and that unless you are a formal staff writer of the BPR each article you submit has to go through a review.
While I acknowledge the need to ease the demands of the comp, I did not emerge from this conversation in support of a system where people apply to become staff writers. I do think that the comp is useful as a training session that allows to-be writers to see their work in print or online (so their work is not just practice, but material for actual content), also giving them a sense of the rewards of being a staff writer. I am, on the other hand, more receptive to opening up the opportunity to write to the undergraduate community so that we can draw from a wider pool of talented writers. If this change were to happen, I would be cautious not to undermine the hard-earned staff writer position by making sure to recognize staff writers and give them perks. Otherwise, there would be no incentive for people to comp the magazine.
II. Elections or No Elections: A Reflection of Differing Priorities
- How does one take on a Masthead position?
The BPR fills its Mashtead roles via applications to specific positions, whereas the HPR holds day-long elections at the end of each fall cycle. Again, given the risk of rejection that comes with any application, the BPR’s system of choosing its board members draws from a much wider pool of candidates than the HPR does. First of all, you have to be a staff writer already. Also, the requirement that candidates have to be present for the entire election (at least 9 hours) could deter some people from running; running in absentia is an option, but doing so significantly lowers one’s chances of winning.
Whether the election process can be made more efficient is a seperate conversation, but it is more noteworthy that the HPR guarantees that everyone who eventually get on Masthead have at least finished the comp—they have basic familiarity with, or level of investment in, the life of the magazine. In contrast, anybody can apply for a BPR Masthead position without prior involvement with the magazine, which Angela did not seem to think was problematic, saying that one does not need to have had experience writing or editing to the magazine to carry out the responsibilites of Masthead roles. I realized that I had thought of a baseline prior activity in the HPR as an essential pre-requisite for a Masthead member, largely because we require completing the comp to even become a staff writer.
“Well, I think that giving people Masthead positions on a application basis has worked well so far, even though they are almost always becoming involved with the magazine for the first time. Familiarity with how student-run papers operate can be helpful, but you learn that in no time once you join, and many roles don’t require having that broad institutional knowledge.”
The straightforward process of getting on BPR’s Masthead made more sense for positions that are primarily administrative, like Ashley’s Chief of Staff role. Yet in the end, I thought that both the HPR and BPR’s election protocols did not expect extensive prior experience in a role similar to the one people are running for. Those who have just finished the comp are encouraged to run for Masthead, and in fact the majority of the current Masthead comes from the most recent comp class. Overall, I do not think the application system by position would be suitable for the HPR, because the magazine strongly values that its leaders have institutional knowledge of the magazine, for instance the workflow involving a chain of editors, comp requirements, and how different meetings are run.
III. Meetings: functions of the magazine beyond writing
A difference that I think most differentiates one's experience with the two magazines, regardless of his/her role, is that the BPR does not have regular meetings. I was frankly shocked that different Masthead members meet with each other or with writers they are working with on an ad hoc basis, as opposed to having consistent general or Masthead meetings. Meetings were definitely something that Angela was interested in implementing in the BPR, especially for the sake of getting to know fellow contributers to the magazine. She talked about how she has met everyone on Masthead in small groups or as individuals, but not all of them at once. On the one hand, she mentioned that the absence of a Masthead- or magazine-wide meeting does not hinder each person’s ability to carry out his/her role; for instance, members who are in charge of editing a particualr article can get together however many times becomes necessary, and the same goes for pub-side members whenever they need to work with data or do layouts. However, the challenge lies in the disconnect between the various subsections of the magazines who would benefit from openly communicating about their respective projects. At any given cycle, the making of a complete print magazine, or even one complete article, involves many different parties’ contribution at various stages. After section editors’ revisions, articles go to the managing editors, and once the ed-side work is complete the Tech team creates any relevant data for the articles before they are handed over to the Design team.
These relationships demonstrate that the subgroups’ responsibilities are related to each other. When I relayed this interconnectedness to Angela, she agreed that instituting regular meetings would be beneficial for the BPR in improving the efficiency of Masthead at large, not to mention facilitating freindships between the members. She did not initially discuss problems arising from the lack of consistent meetings for executive board members. Yet after hearing about HPR Masthead meetings she recalled instances of miscommunication, for instance when the data team felt overwhelmed by the short notice from the content directors about the need for a visualization for an article, or when the content directors belatedly sent revised articles to the copyediting board.
Still, she was curious about the purpose of the general meetings, finding it hard to conceptualize what all members of the magazine do during their weekly gatherings. In the process of explaining that we have discussions on timely, important, and/or underrepresented topics by section, I realized how much I appreciate and enjoy the intellectually stimulating conversations that I have with my section over campus issues. These discussions have not only been therapeautic for its participants but also served as an incubator for ideas to improve the quality of life and mental health of undergraduates. If you think about it, there is a suprising dearth of spaces where students can talk about their observations, reflections, or grievances about Harvard, and be validated or challenged in constructive ways. You can even announce a proposition or question regarding the administration, student cultures, or Harvard mentalities, and crowdsource opinion from a group of people outside your friend circles. I shared a plethora of discussion topics that reinforced the significance of these meetings: the implications of HCFA’s decision to remove a gay student from its leadership position, steps moving forward from the Dominguez scandal, and the CPD’s latest arrest of a black Harvard student. It has been amazing to have students bring in a wide range of expertise, interests, and identities to the table and notice how those factors influence their approach to particular issues. To sum up, weekly meetings have been a testament to the wealth of human resource at Harvard in the form of our peers, although we do not take advantage of their insights nearly as much as we could.
At first I didn’t have any idea of what went on in your section meetings, but now that you’ve explained it they seem really unique, where you can talk informally and also meaningfully about issues or problems arising between students, students and administrators, or the College and local authorities. You can obviously chat with your friends about these things, but the environment is not the same because I feel like at the meetings you would still be striving to reach some sort of final agreement or conclusion.
Ashley agreed that designated spaces to talk about campus-related topics—more productive and focused than ranting about Harvard with friends, but still very much casual—are especially hard to come by, especially due to the absence of a Campus section in the BPR. Even for the HPR, a Campus section in a politics-oriented magazine has always held an interesting, if not ambigous, status. Our articles are not news reports, but they do not analyze campus news in the same political lens as articles from other sections do. What they do uniquely, however, is to delve into campus issues through the experiences of the humans of Harvard. Therefore, our articles and our meetings are part of the journey toward gaining a wiser, clearer grasp on Harvard. After conveying the centrality of meetings to the HPR, to the campus section in particular, I was glad to see that she wanted to institute regular general or Masthead meetings for the BPR.
IV. Other Points of Comparison and Learning Opportunities
The interview highlighted other areas of differences that gave food for thought for both Angela and me. She pointed out that, under the HPR’s current procedure for soliciting articles—sending out pitches written by section editors to the entire HPR, then having anyone claim/rank three of the pitches—editors basically know what articles they are going to receive. I had never thought about this process to be one-sided, because writers can propose their own article topics instead of choosing from the editors’ pitches. While her comment was not intended to be a critique of the HPR, it made me contemplate ways to collectively brainstorm good article topics with the staff writers. Although we have always allowed for free topics, writers tend not to propose their own topic, most likely because the average Harvard student does not habitually think about what ideas would make for a good story. In response to this challenge, Ashley and I came up with the potential solution of devoting alternating or at least some section meetings to brainstorm article ideas. Another idea we liked was to go back to the HPR archives to identify themes that have historically been under-covered or those that would be intriguing to cover in today’s context.
People are just...frustrating sometimes, and when they are slacking or not communicating that they are behind on their work you have to tread the balance between calling them out and encouraging them. You don’t want to make things awkward, but the bigger reason you try to avoid being too confrontational is that at the end of the day, they could just quit. Extracurriculars at college is important and people take them seriously, but they are “extra” things you pick up to enhance your experience as a student. The stakes are not as high as we often think.
The last of our conversation revolved around our shared interest in bolstering community, diversity, and accountability. She empathized with the HPR Masthead’s effort to cultivate more community within the entire magazine. We also agreed that there is only so much that the board could do in this regard, since students are generally overcommitted and are not looking to spend the little free time they have with people they know from their extracurricular activities. It was also interesting that she brought up the issue of diversity (or the lack thereof) in political orientation before I did, but I was not surprised to hear that a fellow elite instiution in the Ivy league also leaned heavily liberal. Within the constraints of political homogeneity in the larger student body, we came up with one intiative to promote ideological diversity in magazine content: introduce “HPR debates” that intentionally solicit polar opposite/ highly conflicting viewpoints, striving to have at least one person represent each side whether or not he or she personally agrees with the stance. For those who take on the less popular side, perhaps against their own beliefs, this initiative would be an exercise in putting themselves in other people's shoes.
Lastly, Ashley and I bonded over the struggle of keeping our peers accoutable, whether they are writers or in leadership roles. Meeting the deadlines for extracurricular tasks could take a back seat to completing academic assignments, and different club responsibilities also compete for students' time and energy. Similar to the challenge of community-building, we felt like our best means of strenghtening student responsibility was to check-in with people regularly, send frequent reminders, and make sure from the outset that they will not bail on their projects midway.