“Working with the writers is probably my favorite part. [The HPR] keeps me involved in something that feels somewhat service-oriented…I like being able to provide not necessarily a ‘service’ but an experience they can look back on, such as having the opportunity to speak with somebody that [writers] never thought they’d get in contact with…I’d like to think of [the HPR] as tangentially a campus service.” - Marty Berger’19
“I came into college thinking politics was cool, but not knowing much about it. But the HPR has defined my trajectory to a certain extent, of being really interested in journalism. That was not a thing I would have ever thought of before college, but I did a journalism internship last summer. While I’m a computer science major, what I do long-term I want to go into journalism and media..That was because of [the HPR].” - Sam Kessler’19
“I think the HPR surprisingly changed what I planned on focusing on in college. I didn’t really think about journalism before joining, but it’s definitely something I tried out that I wasn’t expecting to spend so much time on. I can probably see it changing what career path I end up deciding.” - Alicia Zhang’21
HPR is more than just politics because…
It’s also people.
All the sections write about such different stuff, covering diverse topics.
You make friends.
Many important stories, especially personal narratives, are not political.
Those who have little interest in politics can meaningfully contribute.
Interviews with Masthead members and staff writers revealed a range of opinion on what the HPR has allowed or motivated people to do, its role on shaping campus thought versus its influence on members, and suggestions for change. For instance, some stated that the HPR makes them stay on top of current events, allowed them to have intellectually rigorous discussions about key issues, or provided the platform for perspectives on those central issues. What many pointed out as the hallmark of the HPR’s relationship to the individuals in it was that writing for the magazine instills a sense of confidence and agency. Publishing one’s written work in a relatively well-known undergraduate publication rewards the hard work they put into the piece. We do not mistake ourselves as The New York Times, but take pride in our widespread readership; Alicia Zhang even mentioned in her interview that she had known about the HPR because she used to quote from it during her high school debates. The prospect of having one’s work publically featured and displayed incentivizes us to produce good-quality writing.
Marty Berger offered an interesting perspective on the topic of the HPR’s role on its members’ experiences at Harvard. He mentioned that although the HPR is different from “service” in the conventional sense, HPR serves students in that it trains students to write commentary on issues they are passionate about in an analytical, empirically sound manner. They also receive a lot of support of editors and co-writers, some even developing aspirations to go into journalism. Moreover, the HPR name, or the Harvard name, makes interviewees more willing to talk to students who reach out to them. Recognizing that our name value is not always warranted, we try to live up to that prestige by staying enthusiastic and humble about opportunities to interview incredible individuals.
The insights on what the HPR does for those who contribute to it helped me address one of my main quandaries about the purpose of the magazine. As the editor for the Campus section, I was most curious about whether the HPR has a significant impact on campus culture and opinion, or even shape decisions regarding the university. Frankly, I already knew that the HPR does not have a significant effect on student views and actions (although this is difficult to measure) or administrative policy, given that our readership predominantly comes from outside of campus and The Crimson serves as the primary source of campus news. However, the interviews affirmed the value of the magazine for its effect on individual writers in terms of their professional and personal development. Furthermore, I realized that participating in the operation of a publication, from generating pitches and designing the magazine cover to contacting publishing companies and updating the website, is incredibly meaningful in itself. I have learned so much from peers whose work for the magazine is very different from mine, such as high-end data analytics or contacting our publisher. I came to see that a publication, at least on the undergraduate level, does not have to have tidal wave consequences on the Harvard status quo or the rest of society in order to be considered important.
On a separate note, I noticed that for the most part my interviewees had similar views about areas of improvement for the magazine. I want to acknowledge, though, that I sometimes asked for their perspectives on things I assumed would be controversial (ex: the comp), so technically I cannot ascertain that they had already considered those areas to be problematic. Nonetheless, my interviewees commonly talked about the need to bring staff writers, not just Masthead, into the HPR community. Currently, the HPR’s weekly general and section meetings fall short of fostering a sense of belonging to the same organization, because staff writers end up not getting know each other or the Masthead very well. Many also noted the issue of lacking political diversity in the magazine, although its liberal leaning is mostly due to the political homogeneity of Harvard at large. Most respondents also called for reducing the workload and ensuring that the comp fulfills a worthy goal.
Other’s narratives: mini-ethnographies within my auto-ethnography
Interviewee 1- Sam Kessler
“In addition to informing campus discourse about politics and controversial campus issues, I think the role that the HPR has is people know that it is a place if you are into politics and and writing about politics, that it is the go-to place, I hope.” - Sam Kessler’19
Current role: President
Past roles: Senior Covers Editor
Starting with his personal development and newfound professional aspirations, Sam talked about the positive effects of being involved with the HPR including knowledge acquisition, which leads to more interesting conversations with other people, and meeting many fascinating individuals in the IOP. When asked about the influence of HPR on campus thought, he highlighted that the better metric of the magazine’s importance to campus is whether it provides a forum for expressing opinions—rather than the impact of HPR articles on the public opinion of Harvard-related issues. This question segued into his suggestions for making the HPR better, since one of his ideas was to expand room for opinions in exchange for lessening focus on analytical writing.
Interviewee 2- Drew Pendergrass
Current role: Publisher
Past roles: Associate US Editor
Link to article list
Drew echoed the notion that the HPR is relatively well-known and considered legitimate in the eyes of Harvard students and circles beyond Harvard, although it does not always substantially impact student opinion. As is true for most undergraduate publications, the HPR may not often produce something genuinely new that has not been covered by mainstream media, but there is value in our commitment to producing good-quality writing and supporting students who are driven to write about socially meaningful issues. He also spoke about one of the biggest strengths of the HPR, which is the absence of barrier to becoming a Masthead member right after finishing the comp. Seniority does tend to give an edge in the election, but finishing the comp is the only prerequisite to running, and there is a range of roles, each with varying responsibilities and levels of commitment. While speaking about some of the HPR’s shortcomings, he talked about how the comp is not really essential, in the sense that the training or learning that is part of the comp can be done without being called as such. The same process as the comp cam be presented as a introductory session instead; whether or not this would make a difference in their commitment is hard to tell. Furthermore, he mentioned the heavily liberal composition of the HPR—representative of the political leaning of the campus as a whole—and some reasons behind the weak sense of community among HPR members at large.
Interviewee 3 - Alicia Zhang
Current role: Senior World Editor
Past roles: Comper
Link to article list
Alica spoke about how the HPR became a much more important extracurricular commitment than she had expected when she joined. Like Sam, she highlighted that she was initially drawn more towards the politics and discussion aspects of the magazine, then came to take on journalistic responsibilities of writing and editing. This may seems like an obvious realization. However, many people do not fully grasp the meaning of being a student journalist coming into the HPR, eager to delve into discussion about politics or more generally, to be a part of something exciting and well-known on campus. She also expressed the hopes that the HPR would foster a greater sense of community and bridge the gulf between the Masthead and the staff writers. At the same time, she qualified her support for events to foster community with the inevitable reality that it is very difficult to motivate people to attend social events for organizations that are not primarily social. Moreover, she offered frank commentary on the common confusion among students (not involved in the HPR) about the focus of the HPR. I had thought that we had the opposite problem of branding ourselves too narrowly—and thus, the emphasis of our slogan that we are “more than just politics”—but she highlighted that HPR's perceived identity by outsiders is much less distinct than the Crimson, the school newspaper, or the Harvard International Review, which people directly associate with international relations issues. Perhaps the broad concept of politics plays a part in obscuring what some people think is the HPR’s purpose.
Interviewee 4 - Marty Berger
“I do feel that our campus section is particularly valuable, because i see that more than any other section, people are bringing their own voice and their own experiences. You are putting out work that reflects real student opinion.” - Marty Berger’19
Current role: Interview Editor
Past roles: Staff Writer
Link to article list
Marty’s reflection on the HPR centered on his sense of appreciation for hardworking writers and for editors’ efforts to best support their process of producing their articles. It was validating to listen to him explain how the HPR give writers a positive experience, due to both the working relationship they form with the editors and the clout that the magazine’s good reputation gives to their writing. On that note, he suggested giving more “perks” to writers for not only their contribution but also for completing the arduous comp process. While he did not necessarily argue for eliminating the comp, as a comper he personally found the process to be very stressful and even counterproductive, leading to burnout. He implied that this demoralizing effect could lead writers to become inactive, which is why he is glad to see the comp moving towards a less stressful, more organized direction. By making the comp more accessible, more writers would have the chance to experience the positive self-formation that results from contributing to the HPR.
Interviewee 5- Will Imbrie-Moore
Current role: Staff Writer
Past roles: Comper
Link to article list
Will pointed to greater confidence as a key outcome of writing for the HPR, largely due to the prestige attached to the magazine and the IOP at large. In fact, he stated that students who are unfamiliar with the HPR primarily base their perception of it by association with the IOP, which is arguably one of the most respected bodies on campus. This observation echoed Sam’s understanding that the HPR is widely known to students as the organization they should turn to if they are interested in politics and in writing about it. On a different note, Will emphasized that writing, not meetings or other aspects, are the heart of the HPR; this is not to say that meetings do not serve a purpose, but that being part of HPR primarily means writing for it. And since writing is not usually a collaborative act, he noted that the HPR may be more limited in fostering community in comparison to other student groups. While his comments were unique in their emphasis on producing high-quality writing as the most important part of one’s involvement with the HPR, his critiques overlapped with what the others mentioned. For instance, he talked about how staff writers usually have no idea what the Masthead is up to, although there is not necessarily a power dynamic between the two groups. He had more positive thoughts on the comp than others, however, highlighting that as a comper, one is more focused on his/her HPR tasks and more likely to prioritize them. He stated that most compers do not end up being less involved once they finish the comp, and instead appreciate their newfound flexibility as staff writers.
Interviewee 6- Beverly Brown (not in-person; email correspondence below)
Current role: Staff Writer
Past roles: Comper
Link to article list
Having been a diligent staff writer, Bev shared that her primary involvement with the HPR is to write for it, although she also enjoys the current events discussions at weekly meetings. Her view aligned with Will’s in that the centerpiece of staff writer input to the HPR is writing, rather than contributing to the discussions. Thus, she found the HPR meaningful as a publication but not really as anything beyond that, which is a very reasonable view of an undergraduate publication. Her perception reiterated the idea that the HPR fosters growth in political knowledge and analytical writing, doing a service to its members in that sense. What complemented her viewpoint was her experience with submitting covers pitches and presenting them, which can be exciting and at the same time nerve-racking. You are talking amidst peers, but they tend to be incisive critics and politics gurus who are ready to weigh the pros and cons of each covers topic according to multiple criteria!
Here’s a link to her full email responses to my interview questions.
Interview responses in a nutshell
The HPR has/has been:
Served as motivation to be on top of the news and stay knowledgeable about the world
- Given people the opportunity to talk to renowned people
- Service-oriented not in the traditional “public service” sense but in terms of giving writers an experience they could look back on and feel proud of (the extensive process of interviewing, researching, writing, and editing)
- Increased encounters with members of other organizations in the IOP
- The go-to place for those looking to write about politics (and more)
- On political diversity
- Liberals are overrepresented at Harvard as a fact, and the same goes for the HPR. The HPR is for sure being a welcoming place for those with diverse political views, but that said, there is definitely room for stronger efforts to publicize the magazine as a platform for views across the political spectrum
- IOP at large has a politically conservative portion that is probably larger than for the entire college
- Overcoming the limits of a primarily analytical magazine- encourage OPINION-based articles
- Good news is that we have two new initiatives to address this problem: columnists and long-form journalists
- Promotion structure
- Pretty unusual compared to other publications: one can transition from comper to Masthead member, with no pre-requisite amount of time spent as a staff writer in order to run for Masthead
- Role on shaping campus thought
- Articles are mainly for the benefit of the writers themselves who learn a lot from the process of writing
- Each article generates its own pocket of audience based on the topic, whether or not from communities within Harvard; ex) Drew received a lot of vehement responses from insulin companies for “How Insulin Became Unaffordable,” my article “Food for Thought” was commented on by clinicians and eating disorder therapists
- Social media posting is often key to garnering greater attention and reaction; readers are mindful of the fact that an article is coming from a well-respected Harvard publication
- Most importantly, the lack of Harvard personnel in our readership is less important than our service to writers to express their views, hone their analytical skills, and develop aspirations to go into journalism. In other words, the HPR acts as a channel for communicating one’s thoughts on whichever issue they are passionate about.
Some shoutouts from the interview:
Dear Mila by Russell Reed- the day before her arrival, urged Mila Kunis to decline the Woman of the Year award by Hasty Pudding Theatrical, in the spirit of rejecting the HPT’s sexist and misogynistic policies)
Alabamification of America by Drew Pendergrass- how US politics was emulating Alabama politics)
Autocracy at Midnight by Richa Chaturvedi
Some interview questions asked:
- Entry into the HPR
- What got you involved? What was your initial understanding of what the HPR is and how did it change
- Place in the HPR, the importance of that role in Harvard experience at large
- What do you see as your role in the HPR?
- How did contributing to the HPR influence your Harvard experience?
- (a different version of previous question) Has being a student journalist influenced your sense of purpose or belonging at Harvard? Follow up: If so, has HPR strengthened your sense of informing students of important issues, of shaping public opinion? Or has HPR given you a community?
- What keeps you motivated in your role?
- Changing role and sense of place in the HPR
- Describe transition from comper -> writer -> masthead, how that changed your level of involvement as well as how you think about the organization and what it allows you to do?
- What do you think is the relationship between staff writers/compers and Masthead?
- Suggestions for change in this relationship?
- Thoughts on the comp process?
- Reflections on the HPR in general
Considering that HPR’s readership primarily comes from our online platform, from people outside of Harvard, how has HPR influenced campus opinion and culture?
Anything you’d like to see HPR achieve or improve upon (in addition to comp process, making community more inclusive of non-masthead, etc.)?
If you could complete the sentence, “The HPR is more than just politics because ~” how would you do it?
Favorite article ever, either written by yourself or others?