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Is anyone reading this? Editing the opinions section of The Sophian was not the job I signed up for

  • Smith student Zoya Azhar, 20, outside the gates to the Northampton college. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Smith student ZoyaAzhar, 20, outside the gates to the Northampton college. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Smith student ZoyaAzhar, 20, outside the gates to the Northampton college. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Smith student ZoyaAzhar, 20, outside the gates to the Northampton college. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Friday, July 06, 2018

Editing the opinions section of The Sophian — the weekly newspaper of Smith College — was not the job I signed up for. I signed up for editing the arts section, but that job had been filled, so I got shoved into the assistant opinions editor position instead.

During my first semester at Smith in 2016-17, I was on the lookout for opportunities to write regularly, and contributing to The Sophian was a natural choice. If you sent in an article, it was almost guaranteed to be published, and this was encouraging, if slightly suspect. I wondered whether they were publishing me because I was worthy of being published — or simply because they had no one else to publish. Still, I had great respect for the editor-in-chief at the time, who, like me, was originally from Pakistan. I decided to stick with it. 

But I was daunted. The opinions section was then the most political part of The Sophian and made it seem as if Smith students discussed nothing on campus but politics, with headlines like: “Why did Trump win?” “We need to say goodbye to the electoral college.” “An open letter to those considering a Third Party vote.” And in the wake of the 2016 presidential election results, this was, to some extent, true.

Originally from Karachi, I had only been in the United States for about eight months when I joined The Sophian’s editorial board; I wasn’t ready to start airing my opinions as an international student viewing U.S. politics from the outside. I did not feel informed enough; I didn’t see how my perspective would serve any purpose. How was I supposed to engage my readers if I was unable to empathize with their disillusionment? 

Hoping to broaden the section’s scope, I began to pursue stories about life at Smith, a subject about which I felt more comfortable. I advocated for more food options on campus. For example, halal dining was nowhere near on par with kosher and gluten-free food, and I highlighted this issue. I criticized course syllabi in one piece, hoping to start a discussion about the importance of prefacing and contextualizing course content so that international students understand what’s going on. I mused about hot-button topics like affinity housing, which is dedicated housing for students of color — an initiative gaining momentum on campus. On my down days, I wrote satirical pieces, like one about Oprah ditching Commencement 2016 and President Trump stepping up to the challenge.

I realized I had preferred writing about the arts because it felt safe to have an opinion about, say, a performance. But writing for opinions was scary because my ideas could be attacked. Still, it was growing on me — even the part where I had to sit in the Campus Center and ambush people with copies of the newspaper, hoping they paid some attention to our journalism. 

It’s summertime now, so we’re taking a break (well, most of us; I’m currently an intern at the Gazette.) But during the year, we meet every Thursday evening: a staff of around 10. We don’t have an adviser. I recently got in touch with Smith alumna and Los Angeles Times staff writer Carolina A. Miranda (she covers arts and architecture), who wrote for The Sophian in the early 1990s. “I could have used a good adviser for those stories,” she said. “Back then, The Sophian didn’t have an academic adviser since journalism was considered a ‘trade,’ which is patently ridiculous. So the paper was a labor of love that we did with little in the way of guidance or supervision. Looking back, I could have really used a strong editing hand, someone who could kick back stories and say, ‘You know, this is good, but it’d be better if you did a little more reporting.’ ” 

It’s a labor of love for us, too. We pitch our weekly story ideas for the various sections: news, features, opinions, arts and sports. The opinion pages always suffer while, at least in comparison, arts pages thrive. 

But honestly, it’s a struggle to fill up space in any section. It has never made sense to me why The Sophian is consistently short-staffed and needing content — especially in the opinions section. The campus is always buzzing with dialogue and impassioned opinions about everything from the rights of refugees to the dire need for sesame-free dining options. This is the school that drove away Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, about a week before she was scheduled to speak at Commencement. This is also the school that helped shape world-famous feminists and activists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. This past year on campus, there were protests against Smith’s investment in the fossil fuel industry; there was anger about ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame’s visit; and there was a demonstration on Otelia Cromwell Day, which celebrates the college’s first-ever African-American graduate. When author Roxane Gay came to give her speech to mark the occasion at John M. Greene Hall, students in favor of affinity housing unfurled a banner declaring, “Otelia couldn’t live here.” (Before graduating in 1900, Otelia lived off-campus for two years.)

So yes, Smith students have a lot of opinions. And yet, we generally don’t hear from our peers about these issues they clearly care so much about. The paper gets by, and we eventually wrangle a writer or two to contribute a news or opinions article, but the passion that we see in student protests and on Facebook groups for Smith students is missing from our pages.

For most of my time as the assistant opinions editor, being short-staffed meant our website was not up and running, as we did not have a web editor. It meant I did not have an assistant opinions editor working with me when I moved up to opinions editor, and so the responsibility of filling up space in opinions was entirely mine. It meant we had to publish disproportionately large crossword puzzles to fill space on
page 4.

It became a constant, overarching worry: We need more writers. And we need more opinions.

If we didn’t get more writers, I would never be able to do my job as an editor because there would never be anything to edit. Suddenly, it made a lot of sense why The Sophian had published every single article I sent in during my first semester: a reflection on my experience at the international student pre-orientation; a review of Grammy award-winning percussionist Antonio Sanchez’s UMass performance; and an opinion piece about the veil ban that China had enacted. The editors probably loved me for being an overeager First Year. But when I became the opinions editor, I gradually realized that my role was no different from when I was an assistant editor; I was still writing an article per week, not getting a break, and I was struggling to stay interested. 

We were printing 500 copies of The Sophian per week and running around, dropping them off in campus buildings and dining halls. And I was fairly sure that no one was reading — not enough people, anyway. I would see the same pile of Sophians I had dropped off in Seelye Hall on Thursday lying there untouched on Monday. 

The new worry was the environmental cost of printing all these papers that no one was reading!

When I signed off for the summer — after staying back with two other editors to finish up the last issue, published during Smith’s reunion and commencement weekend — I was quite sure I would quit. 

But I think college newspapers matter.

Students have the time and energy to care about issues, and when asked, they are quite forthcoming with their opinions. When I began individually emailing friends involved in different campus organizations — everything from the House Presidents’ Association (each house has its own student government) to a group hosting workshops for sexual education and trauma healing for South Asian-Americans — they were happy to supply articles. The Sophian is unique because our editorial board is made up of a diverse group of students from all over the country and the world. We’ve had editors with origins in Malawi, Nigeria, China and Pakistan, and we’ve written local, national and international stories from a mix of perspectives.  

With all of these different voices represented, The Sophian can be quite powerful. And I now believe my perspective does serve a purpose. As frustrating as putting out the paper is on the best of days, I enjoy letting people know what I think.

If the deadlines and structure of the paper are cramping the quality of writing, we can just change it. And in order to push for change, I need to maintain my position on the editorial board. As the next academic year draws closer, I am planning to team up with one of The Sophian’s associate editors, Patience Kayira, and push for the newspaper to switch to a bi-weekly. This would take the pressure off us to constantly churn out articles. I also hope that we are able to convince students in writing classes at Smith, particularly those enrolled in the new (and only) journalism class, as well as creative nonfiction classes, to send in their work to be featured in the paper and on our website. 

And, just as importantly, I hope someone’s reading.

You can visit The Sophian online at thesophian.com.