The University of Chicago Magazine December 1995
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Issues of the Day

By Harper L. Hutchins

For a school with no journalism program, the University of Chicago kills an awful lot of trees. Besides the undergraduate paper, the Maroon, students in the business, law, and medical schools produce their own newspapers. A superior coffeeshop meets the Divinity School's communication needs, but competition from the new campus Starbucks may yet force them into print, too.

From time to time, additional "alternative" papers spring up--such as the Grey City Journal, a colorfully written, fearlessly antiestablishment publication--a Maroon with a conscience--that raised hackles a few years ago by questioning the competence of one of the University's Nobel-winning economists. (For reasons unrelated to that expos, the Journal is gone, replaced this fall by the appropriately named free press.)

Somehow, despite course reading lists the size of God's cv, midterms, job interviews, extracurricular activities, the first winning football season in living memory, and the lures of the city of broad shoulders and the World Wide Web, students still find the time to communicate with each other in print. The Maroon often exceeds 20 tabloid-sized pages and comes out twice a week, chock-full of college sports and movie reviews and the latest on bands that have already faded into obscurity. Chicago Business, about the same size and filled with movie and restaurant reviews, is published twice a month.

The law students, who don't watch movies, didn't get out their first eight-page issue of the Phoenix until the end of October, and devoted most of page one to excuses for running late. The editors "have all been abducted by aliens," pleaded the editors, who also argued that, "our dog ate it...nothing has happened yet...after the O.J. verdict, none of us could find the courage to go on." Overruled. By press time for this magazine, the medical students had yet to produce the first issue of their occasional paper, the Caduceus.

With campus as with national media, anyone who relied on just one source of information would remain, maybe not in the dark, but in deep, deep shade. Each outlet has its own style, its own point of view, its own quirks and concerns.

Take the coverage of what has mysteriously become a pressing campus question: Are we having fun yet? After placing last on a nationwide survey of the most fun places to go to college, the University has been striving to improve its social image. The concept of making the College fun--even if simply by providing clean, well-lighted places to complain and drink coffee--was so staggering that it gained national press.

The University's official house organ, the Chronicle, had a series of articles on improvements in campus life. The undergraduates were more skeptical. "Something strange is afoot at the U of C," began suspicious Maroon author David Bird. "The administration and a few well-meaning student enthusiasts, petrified and outraged by meaningless social-life rankings in silly magazines, are bent on making the U of C a friendly, cheery, home-away-from-home for the outcasts of the Ivy League.

"Part of the fun of going to the U of C," he insisted, "is whining about weird neighbors, stress, and miserable weather." He did admit, however, that it was more fun to whine in a comfortable place. For reasons at first unclear, Bird was particularly impressed by swiveling, high-backed chairs in the renovated North Lounge. "Swiveling," he swooned. "As in 360°ree; rotation. These chairs are a childish, guilty pleasure, but they make sitting, reading, or talking more fun." The professional schools were too busy for swiveling.

Another example of journalistic diversity was the response to the Trial of the Century. Desperate to fill space and get back to their study carrels, the law students didn't have time not to take it seriously. They devoted an entire page of their only October issue to the verdict, with quotes from students about what it all meant and photographs of bewildered barristers-to-be viewing the decision. The Maroon, on the other hand, offered a more contemplative, detached view, approaching the trial not on its legal merits or societal implications but journalistically, through its coverage in Playboy.

"Honestly, I had never read it for the articles," began author Josh Ryan, with the best lead of any article in the week of our survey. Determined to boldly go where no man had gone before, Ryan actually read not just the photo captions but entire articles in Playboy. He also studied the pictures, and found a troubling lack of editorial consistency. How can a magazine, he asked, "reconcile a nude pictorial of the accused murderer's main squeeze with a frank indictment of the man two issues later?"

Each of the student newspapers combines straightforward reporting with freer, more imaginative pieces. Creativity is encouraged; proofreading gets a lower priority.

The business and law school papers, directed at small audiences, are most inclined to chattiness. "Hi there, kids," began a regular Chicago Business column. "It hardly seems like two weeks since we last talked. So much has happened, it seems more like two months...Anyway, there's just oh-so-much to talk about this week. I can hardly wait." Close attention to details may be important for budding lawyers, but did we really need to know, as a Phoenix columnist persisted in telling us, that four new light poles have replaced the old parking-lot poles, that the amperage in the basement has been increased to accommodate two new microwaves, or that the chairs in the classrooms have been "proactively reinforced"? Perhaps that was to prevent swiveling.

Regular readers can thank goodness that students are still obsessed with sex. One can usually count on the Caduceus, when it comes out, to include at least one anatomically correct figure drawing. The Phoenix has a regular column about law students and their search for significant others, while Chicago Business has a column that examines contemporary workplace and gender issues--as raised by the sex-driven TV show Melrose Place. "How can Billy take his work and himself seriously?" asks author Millie Park. "He's slept with all the women he currently works with. He got one pregnant, one left him at the altar, and one is now the bane of his existence. Wow, work was never that interesting for me."

The Maroon, always eager to push the boundaries, even printed a favorable op-ed piece on having sex in the library. "U of C students aren't having regular `Northwestern Sex,'" admitted author Mike Bufano, "but they're having real sex. They have sex in the Reg." The author, who never actually witnessed any stolen moments in the stacks, recounts a series of probably apocryphal stories about College couples caught coupling in carrels or on counters.

Bufano professed surprise at the sheer number of such stories, "not because I'm naive and think that people don't do it there, but because I thought people would be more discreet." His favorite involves a student who went into the A-level stacks "looking for a certain book that he vitally needed at that second." As the student turned down the aisle, Bufano recounts, he beheld, to his shock, a pair of luststruck scholars happily engaged upon a swivel chair. He returned an hour later to find the same couple, same pastime. Bufano was appropriately skeptical of this tale. "Where," he asks, "did this couple find a swivel chair in the Reg?" And was it proactively reinforced?

Of course, no one who has ever had sex or attended this University could believe these stories. No self-respecting Hyde Parker would refer so nonspecifically to "a certain" book.

"Harper L. Hutchins" is the pseudonym of an alumnus and regular observer of the U of C scene.

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