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When A Student Newspaper Stumbles, Who Is To Blame?

October 20, 2011, 3:32 pm

Long-time readers of the Radical know that I rarely write about my own institution.  There are good reasons for this, other than getting raked over the coals by the National Review Online, which can really bump readership big time.  But today I want to stand up for a student who did kind of a dumb thing. Since this was an entirely public thing, is all over the interwebz, and the student is not my student, it falls well within the boundaries of Good Taste to comment on This Bad Thing.

Yesterday a friend posted this piece about single-sex education published at Jezebel to my Face Book page.  With a zinger headline you couldn’t resist, “Women’s Colleges Promote Sweatpants & Poor Tampon Hygiene, Says Wesleyan Student,” (October 18 2011), blogger Margaret Hartmann, a Wellesley grad, takes on Zenith soph Vicky Chu. A Zenith transfer student, Chu trashes the single-sex school where she spent her frosh year, making it sound like an out-of-control minimum security women’s prison. Highlights of the piece? Bryn Mawr is full of dykey-looking broads who wear sweatpants and ogle the profs, who are probably giving them a little tea and sympathy in office hours.  Heeding advice to not flush the ‘pons, Bryn Mawr women throw them on the floor instead, forcing those with more delicate sensibilities to step around clumps of gory cotton (the field hockey team probably just stomps right through all kinds of female waste on their way to practice.) The occasional cluster of (loser) straight chicks at Bryn Mawr have a hormone derby every time a MAN shows up in class from Haverford or Swats; Teach alters her lesbian ways to allow him to monopolize the discussion. [Truth in advertising:  I am very familiar with all these colleges and none of the things that I am spoofing from the Hartmann post on Chu's piece are in the least typical of them.]

Go to the article if you want to know more, because skewering Vicky Chu for making a fatal error in judgment, or hating her time at Bryn Mawr, is not my point.  My point is this:  why did the editors of the Zenith newspaper publish it in the first place?  Editors, even student editors, are supposed to edit, which means telling writers when they are about to do something stupid, ill-informed and/or wrong.  As someone who operates in three distinct publishing spheres (the unedited interwebz, newspapers and traditional scholarly presses), there is one thing I know: an editor’s chief function is to restrain people from publishing crazy-a$$ things that do not reflect well on them or on others.

My second question is, having allowed Ms. Chu to publish it, why did the editors make her retract it? What they say is that “concerns about generalizations that were used as evidence in the author’s argument” caused them to remove it. But this is something you would imagine they would address prior to publication, not after their cell phones starting dinging wildly with angry college administrators on the other end.

The original piece is gone, unfortunate for the historian who always craves access to primary sources.  The link from  the original Jezebel article will now take you to Chu’s apology for having written the piece and her explanation of what she really meant, which may be as hopelessly confused as the original piece.  She also apologizes for having gotten Wellesley involved when her bad experiences really happened among those skanks at Bryn Mawr.

Interestingly, she doesn’t say that her opinion piece wasn’t true, although she does say she was wrong to generalize about Bryn Mawr from her personal experience (which she claims was true.)  It’s an interesting distinction. “Like any opinion piece published in The Argus,” she writes “’Wesleyan v. Wellesley: ‘Rather Dead than Coed?’ does not reflect the views of the general student body at [Zenith] or the newspaper’s staff. I apologize to the University for causing unnecessary animosity between liberal arts institutions.”  (Does this mean that we aren’t going to be sued by Bryn Mawr? Or Wellesley?  Thank God.)

Ms. Chu also points out that she just tossed “Wellesley” into the headline, even though the article was about Bryn Mawr, because people often confuse Wellesley with Zenith. Again you wonder:  where were the editors when Chu was choosing her header? Did anyone say, “Hey, it doesn’t look like this article is about Wellesley after all,  maybe it could get us sued.

What strikes me as the heart of the problem, other than the cluelessness of the editorial board about why a student newspaper might promote accurate reporting and civil discourse, comes after Chu’s apology.  ”I sincerely regret the generalizations I made in this piece,” she writes; “and apologize to students and alumni of women’s colleges who do not share these experiences.”  She continues:

My intention for the article was to showcase some of the stereotypes I encountered as a student during my first two years at Bryn Mawr and to explain why a women’s college was not right for me….While I should not have generalized beyond my own experiences, these assertions were based on incidents that I witnessed during my time at Bryn Mawr.

The bigger issue for me was how men viewed Bryn Mawr women as a result of our single-sex experience. [emphasis mine.]What initially appeared to be quirks that were not necessarily representative of the majority of Bryn Mawr students nevertheless become a starting point for Haverford and Swarthmore students to ridicule us. We were looked down upon for our lower liberal arts college ranking and mocked for wanting to study at their institutions. At Bryn Mawr, my fellow hallmates were harangued by a female Swarthmore student at a party (“You don’t go here, do you? Oh, let me guess—Bryn Mawr!”). I was told by another male student that he intended to take a class at Bryn Mawr “because it was an easy A.” It was through degrading experiences like these that were imposed on Bryn Mawr as a result of reinforced stereotypes that I came to believe the self-segregation of women’s colleges had backfired.

In other words, the point of the piece wasn’t a critique of single sex education at all, or the claim that it empowers women, but rather how nasty some men and elitest women are towards women who go to single sex schools. What Ms. Chu experienced was sexism, inflicted on Bryn Mawr students whose big mistake, other than wearing sweatpants to class which men never do, was seeking out a feminist education.  A good editor might also have pointed out that people who are being bullied do not create stereotypes about themselves; instead, stereotypes are fictional characteristics that are woven into a generalized and derogatory narrative that is categorically untrue and designed to marginalize people.  In a nutshell, if I understand the issues Ms. Chu was encountering in her first year of college, the problem with Bryn Mawr women seems to be that men are tools they live, dress and think for themselves.

To come back to another question:  why was the piece retracted?  Certainly not because it was ill-informed and rude; or because the author’s analysis of the problem was insufficient and lacked a feminist perspective that might have helped her understand her experience. Many opinion pieces published in this same newspaper over the two decades I have worked Zenith have been offensive in far more troubling ways.  The lack of editorial control that the Zenith newspaper chooses to exercise over opinion pieces has not infrequently resulted in uncivil, unfair, untrue and mocking attacks on faculty, administrators and other students.  When I have objected to such pieces being written about me (twice by cranks who had no affiliation with the university but were published anyway) I have been told that the paper has a policy of not restricting authors who write opinion pieces in any way, not informing people in advance that they are about to be attacked in the paper, and not retracting false statements made in these pieces.  To the best of my knowledge that policy has not changed.

So why was this piece retracted and replaced with an apology from Ms. Chu alone? Enquiring minds want to know.  Could attorneys from the other colleges have become involved?  A final note is this:  there are consequences to becoming a college well known for its, er, lively undergraduate culture.  Zenith’s higher public profile, something that has been cultivated assiduously for the past five years, will cause the free-to-be-you-and-me Zenith student media that now automatically goes on the internet to be under far closer scrutiny. Things Zenith students print will matter to a degree, perhaps, to which they are unused. One place to start thinking about this is that Ms. Chu should not be the only one taking the fall for this:  it is the editors of the newspaper who owe everyone an apology.

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