Serv it up
In the Magazine’s Future Alumni Essay Contest, fourth- year Abby Seiff won $500 with an ode to enduring e-mail listservs and the activities that were—once.
I’m addicted to listservs. Until I checked the actual numbers, I was sure I held subscriptions to a good third of the e-mail groups hosted by the U of C. As it turns out, there are 1,966 list-hosts, ranging from Studentsforkucinich (Students for Dennis Kucinich in 2004) to Mdclassof54 (ex-Pritzkerites who must be pushing 80). My dozens are piddling in comparison. And yet, as my in-box would attest, they add up to loads of seemingly useless mail.
Abby Seiff, ’06, from New York, New York, graduates in June with an anthropology degree. Although she plans to look for reporting jobs around the country and has applied to work as an English teacher in France, she really has “no idea what I want to do.”
Each day I pore through messages about dance practices I’m not expected to attend, major requirements I’m not meant to fulfill, financial-sector jobs intended for those who didn’t nearly fail calculus. Sometimes I consider unsubscribing. Occasionally I do. But more frequently I feel the impulse to sign up for more: for the listserv of a publication I haven’t helped out in years, another club sport dropped after Day 1. As I race closer and closer toward graduation, I find the listservs becoming snapshots—tangible, hourly reminders of my life at this school.
I am a dabbler not in that charming, jack-of-all-trades way. My dilettantism takes the greedy, must-try-everything-once form. Once I went out on the lake with the sailing club. I ducked my head when told, desperately tried to remember which way port and starboard aligned, and prayed for a speedy death should we capsize in the ten feet of water. Fun, but not for me. And yet three years later I find myself unwilling to cancel the weekly posts of wet suits for sale and the latest crew job offerings.
The e-mails have become reminders of what I’ve missed out on (four years of meaning to go and not quite making it to figure drawing Thursday nights) and what I’ve saved myself from (education job opportunities that would have wrecked plenty of childhoods if I’d followed up). Once I left voice mail for my congressional representative. I allowed my more conscientious friend to drag me to the Point, made awkward, politically themed conversation with some grad students, and nervously read from a script in lieu of leaving a more personalized indictment on the answering machine. The experience failed to set me on the righteous path of activism, but at least it left me with a lifetime supply of anti-Bush e-mails.
And once I considered a double major in history—showed up at the free-food-provided introduction, gawked at the BA topics of that year’s graduates, and imagined wood-paneled classrooms where professors smoked pipes and murmured about Churchill. I’m happy about my decision to stick solely with anthro, but I’m equally glad of my continuous notifications of dissertation defenses and internships at British archives (I knew the Churchill thing wasn’t far off).
The listhosts don’t only remind me of the past; they help me, amidst the chaos and stress of life here, to maintain a measure of calm. While we worry about jobs, careers, futures, “life-paths,” the listhosts stay comfortable in their positions. They couldn’t care less who their subscribers are, how dedicated they remain. They serve only to show what’s out there, how many opportunities are available. If these chances should fall through, if it turns out academic reviews aren’t your cup of tea or news photography isn’t for you, the listhost will gladly still keep you in the know. Meanwhile you’ve become a little more knowledgeable—and a little closer to finding what does work. Maybe photography leads to reporting. Maybe one publication leads to another. All you can do at this point in life, the listhosts seem to chant, is be willing to try. Don’t not join an activity because it isn’t what you do. Don’t not apply for a job because it won’t turn into a career.
There are endless options in college—1,966 listhosts representing that many clubs and classes and contacts—and we sample them without hesitation. But we speed toward graduation, toward the real world, and become nervous, closed. So the listservs hang around my mailbox, and when I start panicking about what’s next, I check my e-mail to find one or another of those messages with neatly bracketed titles and am reassured: if I could try and fail then, perhaps now I can take a deep breath, hurl myself at something completely unknown, and allow my clogged in-box to convince me that it will work out in the end.