By Chris Bulfinch ’18
Opinion writing is something of a trope of college journalism, and ill-informed yet publicly-expressed opinions often return to embarrass (or in some cases haunt) those who are eager to share their youthful perspective. I am always reminded of the story arc in the first season of “House of Cards” wherein a scheming Frank Underwood unseats a political rival by digging up a college editorial from 1978, in which the author is critical of Israel. While the fallout was certainly beneficial for the unscrupulously charming South Carolina Democrat (who, at this point, looks more presidential than ever), it effectively ended a political career. Granted, the show is fiction (and for the last two seasons, poorly-written fiction), but the implications of opinion writing, even in as seemingly inconsequential a setting as one’s undergraduate years (which is not to say that I consider my or anyone else’s undergraduate experiences to be in any way trivial, but it is fair to say that the stakes are markedly lower here than in that oft-referenced “real world”) can have far-reaching impact, even years down the road.
I make this point not necessarily to decry opinion writing in a college setting, but to impress upon whoever happens to read this that students should be responsible with their writing. I would go so far as to argue that undergraduates are thoroughly unqualified to write opinion pieces, particularly about national and international politics. I believe that both a lack of well-rounded knowledge and a lack of self-awareness and perspective make any undergraduate opinion writing on most academic topics, particularly politics, derivative at best and downright foolish at worst.
None of this is to say that college kids should not have opinions. I would like to think that the reason that young people attend college is to learn, and that the educations that we have all received have imbued us with the ability to think critically about what we hear. Yet, when it comes to honestly assessing our own opinions, we undergraduates often overlook glaring biases and weaknesses in our arguments and defend what we believe in a bullheaded way. As someone who is capable of being quite stubborn, I am aware that my comments are lent a somewhat ironic character; my point is that it takes a degree of self-awareness to realize how arbitrary any of our beliefs are.
Compounding this propensity for two-dimensional self-analysis is a critical lack of robust information. Though access to information has never been greater than it is now, undergraduate willingness to engage with academic texts, and desire to listen to all competing arguments has not quite kept up with the availability of perspectives to take in. This is not to denigrate the intellectual capacity of undergraduates, but I would argue that the opinions of people who have spent their lives dedicated to the study of a particular discipline, who grasp the sheer complexity and multifaceted nature of the infinite areas of academic specialization. A PhD is eminently more qualified to speak on a topic than a hungover 20-something. Granted, we should not intellectually fetishize PhDs, younger and less experienced people can often have interesting and penetrating insight, but nonetheless.
Perhaps this realization, about the depth of undergraduate ignorance, explains the proliferation of Buzzfeed-esque anti-news sites; I see articles from The Odyssey about everything from stereotypes of studying abroad to “11 Ways to Tell you’re from [Insert Place]” all the time on every social media platform imaginable. These platforms afford millennials as good a place as any to practice their writing, without the weight of “more serious” issues weighing upon them. Whether this kind of writing is glib, facile, or “low-calorie” is certainly debatable.
I say none of the above to attack or in any way malign The Odyssey or any of its ilk; I have many friends that write great pieces for such outlets, and such writing can be informative, occasionally thought-provoking, and fun. There’s nothing wrong with that. And besides, its not like more “serious” college journalism is significantly less facile. Perhaps it would do well for everyone to take their craft a little bit less seriously. Less formal journalism is an accessible and engaging way to practice writing, and the success of the Buzzfeed and the cabal of online quasi-news outlets implies that their proprietors are doing something right (or at the very least tapping into the ever-shortening millennial attention span).
What I would like to see, more than anything in the context of this discussion, would be an academic forum where faculty and students could get together and share writing on a topic, critique one another’s ideas and arguments, and dive into issues of interest with a mind to examine the complexities and ambiguities of what we all study. Granted, those kind of conversations occur in the classroom (though, from what faculty have told me, discourse in class has suffered in recent years), but it would be wonderful to have the ability to engage in a less formal setting, one that still encourages intellectual seriousness but without the hovering axe of grades hovering over the conversation. This is not to say that faculty are not receptive to engaging with students outside of the classroom or do not encourage a robust exchange of idea both in and outside of class, but a written medium wherein professors and student could exchange ideas would be a fantastic addition to any campus.
Opinion pages of any newspaper, the Tripod or otherwise, could and should deal with issues of scale; the Tripod is not a great soapbox for national political discourse: no undergraduate publication is. Trinity students would to well to express their views about campus issues in the opinion pages of the Tripod. Arguments made here are often read by administrators and can spur quite a reaction, as evidenced by the Tripod-President Berger-Sweeney’s spat a few weeks ago. There are many stories on this campus that are worth telling, and many views worth sharing. Additionally, faculty writing about their own work and making provocative arguments both about their areas of expertise and goings-on on Trinity’s campus would spark an interesting conversation on campus.
By Chris Bulfinch ’18