Arranging Things

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My first layout shift was the night after Ahmadinejad spoke on campus. With little experience in newspaper design, I moved around boxes of text and photos aimlessly on a computer until 2 am, when the editors realized a novice was in charge of the front page and had to politely take over.
Dejected, I signed up for more shifts. I soon fell in love with being part of pulling together a daily newspaper. Long nights of production became a staple of my college experience.
My story at Spectator isn’t adventurous like that of many reporters and photographers. Rather, my journey at Spectator involves a lot of figuring out the best way to arrange things.
I remember meticulously arranging photos of and briefs on Columbia dorms, laboring until wee hours until declaring it aesthetically pleasing—only to realize the next day that I neglected to include Schapiro dorm. There was the weekend of the Year in Review issue, when I spent 20 hours with the photo editor experimenting with arrangements of photo cutouts of influential people at Columbia. I remember all the countless other layouts and designs that worked well—and also those that didn’t.
I learned what I could about graphic design, about white space, dominance, and balance. I learned that good design communicates concisely and cleanly, and learned that good design is hard to describe, but is instantly recognizable where it exists. Once, I found a book titled “Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement” on a field trip to the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum with the design staff, and laughed delightfully at the design wisdom in its title.
It wasn’t long before I found some of my closest friends at Spectator, and found it comforting that there was always a place at Columbia where I would find people similarly fascinated by media and design. For me, the appeal of Spectator was magical; it served as a professional training ground, a hobby, and a social club, all arranged in a neat package.
I never thought of myself as a manager, but by junior year I found myself in a newly created position in charge of building the staff. That progressed with long meetings with editors discussing the appeal of Spectator to students, and devising strategies to recruit and keep them on board.
But despite the many students who expressed interest in Spectator, not many more were staying around. I was disappointed as sections continued to suffer from understaffing and stressed resources for training.
It took me three years to realize that no singular story explains how or why students become dedicated to Spectator. I took me just one month to realize that there’s no way to generalize it in an evangelical recruiting pitch.
An editor said that Spectator is valuable because it endows “hard skills” in ways that few humanities classes could teach. As a computer engineering student who spends many of my wakeful hours staring at code, I made Spectator my classroom for looking at my world in more complex ways. It was the way I could escape the technical world of engineering and anchor my work and in something I was passionate about.
However, no rule exists to prescribe the most enjoyable or healthy way to incorporate Spectator in college life. Some gain professionally while learning editing skills. Some find passion in journalism. Some relish in having a space on campus where pizza parties and friends can always be found.
At Spectator, I learned that discovering the best arrangement of where to place one’s professional, recreational, and social lives is difficult. What is striking about Spectator is that of the students who pass through its doors, no two find the same value in joining the student organization, and no two put forth the same aspects of their lives to the newspaper.
For me, I am deeply grateful that I had the magical experience of having all of these lives overlap in a singular pursuit.
But I have also learned that perfect overlap is not the only, and certainly not ideal, way to arrange these lives. As evident in the imperfect staff retention rate at Spectator, and in the anxieties many students feel about careers, interests, and friends after college, finding the best arrangement is a process of aesthetic experimentation, which may seem arduous and aimless. A good arrangement like Spectator is hard to describe, but is instantly recognizable where it exists.