Why We Feature: Former editors recount experiences with section

The Features section today is a collaborative effort among all of the writers and editors of past and present. For the final issue of the school year, we invited two former Features Editors, Laila Volpe ’19 and Matt Stein ’18, to reflect on the changes and innovations to the section. Volpe, currently studying abroad in Paris, was the Features Editor in Fall 2017 and is now an incoming Contributing Editor. Stein took over the Features section in Spring 2017 and served as an Assistant Arts Editor this semester.

Laila Volpe

During my first semester at Vassar, I didn’t join any extracurricular activities, and I found myself with more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. I had always wanted to work on a paper in high school, but our journalism club and class were pretty cliquey, so I never got the chance. I knew about The Miscellany News because some of my friends always filled out the weekly crossword, so I sent in an email asking to join copy staff. It was a nice beginning position, although the drawback is that I had almost no contact with anyone else except the people who copy edited at the same time as I did. Even so, I loved my role and the fact that I was contributing. Then I became Assistant Copy Editor, and I saw a little more of how the Misc worked. I mainly supervised some of the copy staff time slots, and it wasn’t until I moved up to Head Copy Editor that I actually met other editors or stayed up late working during Production Night. At that point I really didn’t know how the Misc worked. Even as Copy Editor, I had a different schedule than the other editors: I showed up around the time they left, working from midnight to 3 a.m. I thought that was a difficult schedule until I became the Features Editor.

Matt Stein ’18 had taken over for the previous Features Editor, but he moved to a different section, and I had some ideas I wanted to try out. However, moving from a position where writing wasn’t required to a section management role was confusing. Although I had written some articles by the time I officially became the editor, I hadn’t started out as a writer, so I didn’t know how articles were assigned or what the schedule for the paper really looked like. I didn’t know how much time I should leave for my writers to finish their articles, and I wasn’t even sure what “Features” was: something I was asked a lot during that semester. It settled on somewhat of a “student life” section, which I think is especially important for a school paper. One thing I loved about editing Features was that I found every article I received to be interesting and relevant. It was a pleasure working with the writers, especially people new to the Misc, and learning more about my school and community through their articles was a great experience. However, at the start I certainly didn’t realize how big of a commitment it actually was, because as Copy Editor I was only working one day a week. Being a section editor is a full-time commitment. My only respite was Thursday, because the previous paper had gone out, and I had already assigned articles for the upcoming issue. I also had to write articles myself every week, which I actually enjoyed because I got more experience with writing, but writing weekly and managing a section took its toll. I had to find my way relatively quickly and independently because everyone else was working hard on their own jobs despite their willingness to help. However, even though it was one of the most time-consuming and stressful things I’ve done at Vassar, superseding a lot of my classes, I enjoyed every moment of it.

One particularly harrowing moment was the first issue that came out during my time as editor. I had planned on having a full spread featuring various people’s summer activities, but I wasn’t familiar with the lengths of each article. Each piece ended up coming in completely under, and it was at that moment that I got the most intensive editing experience of my semester. I learned how to shorten or lengthen articles while keeping the voice of the author intact. I learned how formatting works and how important the Design Editor really is. I spent one of my longest nights in the Misc office, from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., but when I left, everything was in working order, and from then on I had learned my lesson about article length. This experience helped familiarize me with how the Misc worked, a perception that has changed constantly throughout my time working on the paper.

Serving in such different positions also taught me how much behind-the-scenes work goes into certain jobs or projects. Most of the time what we see is just the finished product, and we don’t realize just how much effort was put into it until we see it firsthand. I know it’s the same with theater, for example, and actively appreciating all the work that’s put into something is so important. It’s easy to think you know everything you need to from an outside perspective, but all the nights when we had last-minute crises, or there were controversial articles to be discussed, I got to appreciate how much passion everyone puts into the Misc. I saw the community, the Misc family, that spans from a one-time writer to the Editor-in-Chief, and to the readers themselves, as everyone works tirelessly and selflessly to produce this weekly paper to the best of their ability. My experience as Features Editor was truly inspiring; if I could do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat.

Laila’s mom took this lovely photo of Laila in a Parisian cafe with the caption “Avec ma fille” or “with my daughter.” / Courtesy of Laila Volpe

Matt Stein

Being Features Editor was very difficult because we didn’t really know what the section was about. Usually we’d cover whatever events News or Arts didn’t take, and we vaguely revolved around student life, but vaguely.

I originally got involved with Features when I joined the paper my sophomore year. Julia Cunningham ’17 was the Features Editor at the time. At first, I only wrote for Arts, but the section was short-staffed, so each week I would contribute articles to both sections. Then I spontaneously stepped in to become the Features Editor toward the end of my junior year.

The hardest parts of this role were coming up with article ideas and finding writers to recruit. Often I would contribute two articles a week for the section in order to fill space. Luckily, other members of Exec Board offered to assist with each week. Over the course of the semester, I tried to shift the focus of the section to spark more interest and fill in the gaps of coverage that I felt the Misc was missing. In working towards the Misc’s goals of accessibility to the campus, I tried to use this switch within the section to tackle a variety of issues. One of the recurring columns I added was “Org of the Week,” since that would allow new writers to cover any group on campus and not be concerned about it being time-sensitive while also giving student orgs an opportunity to promote themselves.

We also experimented with reaching out to other orgs on campus to write columns for us. At one point, TBD, a pre-org that seeks to improve policy related to trans and gender-nonconforming students at Vassar, had their own weekly column where they wrote either personal narratives or policy recommendations for the administration. In general, I tried to make Features serve a broader focus around student life. I even had one person write about the longboarding community at Vassar. I was very proud when we covered the Trans Allyship workshop because the article wasn’t as focused on the event, but was rather focused on sharing the information from the workshop.

Easily one of my favorite parts of being Features Editor was the opportunities for creative freedom. I’d made it clear to Ed Board that I wanted to transform the section, and they willingly gave me free rein. It was because of this leniency that I got to write some of my favorite articles. We had someone write the Food column every other week, and so I would fill in the gaps with humorous food-based articles, like how to make a grilled cheese that evokes your personality or a step-by-step instructional manual on the complexity of using the stir-fry station. The article I enjoyed writing the most, though, was about my experience with the waffle machine, but told in the style of “Moby Dick.” As the editor of a struggling section, I was forced to have a stronger sense of responsibility to keep everything functional and earned greater appreciation for whenever anybody would offer to write. There was a running joke throughout this time at Paper Critique when we’d go through each section. Instead of commenting on the individual articles of my section, I’d just express relief that Features survived another week.

It was overall a very stressful experience, but one that both allowed me to grow as a writer and, hopefully, for the paper to grow in its coverage.

This photo is from Philaletheis’ Spring 2017 production of “Time Long Past,” where Matt routinely had a flowerpot fall on his head. / Courtesy of Matt Stein

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