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Friday, September 23, 2011

Reviving the Review

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

When I began my university education at nearly 25 years ago, Student Review, an independent, non-correlated, student-run newspaper at BYU, was a year old. I'd never heard of it before, but when walking through the parade of booths set up by clubs and other student organizations during Freshman Orientation, I spotted a man with a beard. Since this was Provo, that was, of course, unusual. I walked to him, and learned he was Bill Kelly, the publisher and one of the three key founders of the newspaper. (He had to shave the beard the next week, when the semester officially began.) I'd worked for student newspapers before, and like the--admittedly, rather self-congratulatory--feeling of being a bit of a rabble-rouser, so I immediately signed up. And that was it. For all the rest of my time as an undergraduate--throughout my freshman year in 1987-1988, after I returned from my church proselytizing mission in 1990, and until I graduate in 1993--Student Review (or "SR" as we near-universally referred to it) was one of the defining elements of my education.

At different times I, along with a constantly changing cast of dozens of talented volunteers and the occasional talentless hanger-on, wrote for the paper, edited it, did lay-out and design for it, sold ads for it, conducted meetings for it, delivered it to the printer and distributed it, and towards the end of my time in Provo briefly served as publisher of it. You can't be involved in something--especially something with as much financial stress and emotional angst as SR--for that long and not have conflicted and even intense feelings about it, and that certainly describes me. Consequently, I felt some genuine regret when, long after I left BYU, Student Review finally, after many close shaves and attempted re-boots, officially closed shop. And when I learned that a group of BYU students we're reviving SR, with an all-new look and a snappy new website, there was no question about how I felt: it was fantastic news.

I say that with almost no knowledge whatsoever about who these students are or what there plans are of if they even really know what they're doing. BYU is, for certain, a very different place than it was when me and my generation of SR conspirators were there; at the very least, the economics and mechanics of creating an open news and artistic forum are so different than they were in the 1980s-1990s that the very notion of actually putting out a paper with newsprint on it strikes some of us as pretty bizarre. But still, unless BYU is an entirely different sort of place today, then almost by definition an alternative media source is a good thing, a valuable thing.

Why? Because BYU's official student newspaper, The Daily Universe, as much as I enjoyed working there (until they fired me, that is), still isn't and probably never can be a truly broad campus voice, which means that there always going to be folks on campus who will want to add to the "official" story; because Provo, UT, despite all the changes of the last quarter-century, still isn't a particular diverse place whether speaking religiously or ethnically or ideologically, which means that there are all sorts of opportunities for sparking ideas and insights that students will miss out on; and college life, no matter where it is or who is involved, is still something that can use a little dissent and mockery once in a while. In retrospect I have no illusions that, in being part of the Student Review, I was engaged in some grand struggle over freedom of thought or the validity of the First Amendment; but at the time, and in that place, contributing to an alternative voice seemed really important. I don't doubt at all that such a need still seems important to hundreds, if not thousands, of twenty-somethings in Utah Valley today. There are many things that I did during my BYU years (often for SR-induced reasons) that, today, I feel rather conflicted and embarrassed about; Student Review is not one of them.

There are lots of stories I could tell about SR, but thinking about it now, most of them seem like dated in-jokes, tales told by a 42-year-old to other 30- and 40-somethings, laughing loudly and rolling our eyes and muttering regretfully over this outrageous editorial, that audacious bit of plagiarism, this disappointing discussion, that insightful interview, this hilarious bit of art, that party which got completely out of hand. But let me point you to some other stories: check out this fine Mormon Matters podcast with Bill Kelly himself, one of the ringleaders of the current SR revival, Craig Mangum, and two of the more famous/notorious SR alumni, Joanna Brooks and Matt Workman. Or check out this delightful reminiscence (and entertaining comment thread) by Kent Larsen, another member of the founding triumvirate, and the organizational rock upon which the financial success of the first few years of SR were built. Or just check out the Student Review itself online, and send some fond thoughts to those working to bring it back to life. In the meantime, here's a selection of some other points of view from a few SR alumni I've stayed in touch with:

Matt Workman--

As for as the Student Review is concerned, it was my college experience. With about two exceptions, my classes at BYU weren't worth showing up to. But at the Review, I learned how to become a writer (something I didn't even know I wanted to do), I learned how to write on a deadline. It was like a boot camp for humor writing. And it was fun. Some of the most fun I've ever had doing anything. One of the most fertile creative periods of my entire life.

Sean Ziebarth--

Back in the early '90s Student Review was to BYU what the Island of Misfit Toys was to Rankin & Bass's Christmas classic. Most of us didn't fit in anywhere else. And it wasn't for our lack of trying (I for one gave BYUSA the ol' college try, but just couldn't stomach their Big Brother practices). Student Review gave me the voice to explore my quirky tastes in art, music, fiction, gospel doctrines. That voice was powerful. In our heyday it lead to a radio show of the same name and eventually an entire AM station run by BYU students during a brief but unforgettable summer. Many of us used our new-found SR friends and skills to launch companies and careers. Not only did I meet some of my best friends in the world through the Student Review, I can trace every job I've held since back to my work with SR.

Matt Stannard--

Each generation is free to define what they believed the general philosophy of SR was. Our generation was far more openly political--not predominantly left OR right, but predominantly political. Of course, the very fact that we included left perspectives in our plurality opened us up to the charge of being "leftist" in the campus community, because any disruption of homogeneity will tend to seem subversive. But we published pieces for and against the Iraq war, for and against free markets, etc. I think different periods of time have relative luxories of being apolitical or political. If we hadn't published our pieces for and against the war while the nation was at war, that would have been inexcusably irresponsible. If we hadn't published feminist pieces at the dawn of VOICE and in the midst of sexual assault scandals on campus, we would have been irrelevant. If we hadn't run editorials discussing capitalism at a time (the early 90s) of waves of massive layoffs and increasing labor activism around the country, we would have deserved to be labeled ignorant, white privileged Mormons. I still consider the time I spent at SR to be among the most relevant of my life. And the friends from BYU I keep in touch with are almost exclusively the SR crowd, many of whom continue to write provocative, relevant commentary, now to a wider audience, with skills they honed at SR.

Kent Larsen--

The original Student Review didn’t have any agenda except giving voice to BYU’s students, and as long as its efforts were limited to that, instead of some other agenda, it had the ability to stay successful. So most of Student Review’s content was simply what the students in its audience wanted to hear—a lot of humor, arts coverage and discussions of campus life. I hope the new Student Review will maintain that focus.

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