A flawed Record

The Record sucks. You should write for the Record.

About that first statement: if you disagree and think the Record is great, email me. I’ll buy you dinner, and also try to convince you that you’re wrong, last week’s excellent CC election coverage notwithstanding (“Emergency CC meeting annuls election,” March 4, 2015; “CC election campaign tactics come under fire,” March 4, 2015).

That said, I don’t intend to spend much time here discussing the current Record’s deficiencies. That would take a lot of time, it’s been done before (“Letter to the Editor: Do better,” Oct. 29, 2014) and really, the specific problems don’t matter that much. What I want to do is explain why my first statement implies the second.

Here’s what does matter: In 1904, The Williams Weekly became The Williams Record. That first Record looked pretty terrible. Most of the sheets of the eight-page March 24 edition are filled with ads, leaving the main content shoved into a tiny box in the middle. The editors’ main concerns, in order, were: sports, sports, incredibly dull campus goings-on and sports. It was pretty unappealing.

A decade later, the Record looked a lot better, and its articles were, uh, interesting. The March 14, 1914 edition devoted its main story to the buildup to the Cane Contest, a bizarre old Williams tradition in which the first-years try to sneak a bunch of canes past the sophomores to Williamstown from an off-campus location. In 1914, though, the sophomores got proactive: as the first-years tried to leave campus, there came, “A sharp whistle from [class] President Brown [’16], the signal for the sophomores to charge” (“Cane committee eludes capture,” March 14, 1914). This sparked a massive free-for-all in which the sophomores beat the living crap out of the first-years. All this is relayed, in gleefully earnest detail, in the Record.

Immediately, President Harry Garfield canceled the Cane Contest forever. The Record editorial board was not happy about this. In response, it solicited and printed angry letters from alums who were stunned and infuriated at the idea that the administration could just cancel events any time it pleased just because students were physically harming other students. Garfield didn’t budge. Pretty much nobody walks around campus with a cane anymore.

My belated point is this: even a century ago, the Record had major issues. Its editors covered the news they felt like covering and were completely cool with open violence between class years. But at the same time, the paper was a lot more fun to read. The editors tried new, unconventional things.

There’s a tension there, one that’s not going to go away. Throughout the Record’s history, its content has varied from serious, thoughtful journalism (for instance, “Students reexamine Moore’s term as College professor,” Nov. 18, 2009) to space-filling lecture recaps (yep, those have always been there!) to niche news stories laced with dry humor. Contradictions and confusions of this sort are embedded in the Record’s DNA.

Something else that’s embedded in the Record’s DNA: its focus on being a thing produced by students, for students. Perhaps the most succinct statement of this purpose came in November 1944, when an interim board revived the paper following an 18-month, world-war-induced hiatus. “Like the Record of old we want first of all to stress the fact that this is your newspaper,” the editors wrote. “Its success or failure will depend as surely upon you as it does upon us” (“The old and the new,” Nov. 21, 1944).

True to form, the first revival issue ran on its cover a straight-faced article chronicling a snowball fight between residents of Morgan and West with vivid and utterly tactless war metaphors (“Gory details of pitched battle reveal chief missiles high velocity snowballs,” Nov. 21, 1944). The aforementioned editorial got many dates in the Record’s history completely and inexplicably incorrect. The Record was up and running again, doing things right and wrong all at once.

I keep coming back to that line: “Its success or failure will depend as surely upon you as it does upon us.” That sentence is as true today as it was over 60 years ago. Even when it vehemently defended school traditions that led directly to violence and animosity between students, you could always count on the Record to represent the pulse and the rhythm of the student body or something resembling those things. Somewhere along the line, it lost that all-important quality.

The Record is our responsibility. The students on the paper’s board are the few among us who properly recognize this, and they work hard to keep it going. The Record board, whatever faults it may have as a unit – and I have no doubt there are plenty – is not the problem. We are the problem.

Yes, we’re all busy. But the Record is important. It’s our most effective means for recalling the best and worst of the College through the years. It provides a tangible thread that connects the Williams of the past to the Williams of the present. We, as a student body, are not doing our part to maintain it. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves and to generations of future Ephs.

So I challenge you to do something for the Record in whatever time you have left here. Contribute an article. Pitch the editors a story idea. Write op-eds that self-righteously and pompously explain how to fix the Record, as if you have all the answers. (That last one is meant for me, by the way.)

Seriously, write something, draw something, whatever. Contribute positively. Once upon a time, the Record was capable of being funny and serious and meaningful and boring all at the same time.  It was perfectly imperfect.

It could be that again. But it needs your help.

Elliot Chester ’15 is a history and math double major from Brick, N.J. He lives in Wood.