My first year at Oberlin, my friends and I had a little ritual. Every Friday, we'd pick up a crisp copy of the Oberlin Review, open it to "The Review Security Notebook," and look for signs of ourselves.
8:18 p.m. Officers and the Oberlin Fire Department responded to a fire alarm at Dascomb Hall. The cause of the alarm was found to be smoke from a dirty stove top. The alarm was reset.
And we'd laugh and say, things like, "When is Margaret going to learn how to cook?" and "Jesus, it's not that hard; just clean the damn stove," and "When we went outside, did you see Nick's bathrobe? It looks like something my mom would wear."
When someone we knew was mentioned, Ellen and Jenny would cut out the notice and pin it to their board. It started off as only a couple of clips. By the end of the year, their board was covered.
1:47 a.m. A resident of Dascomb Hall reported an unauthorized party on the first floor of Dascomb. Officers responded and found several underage students consuming alcohol. The alcohol was confiscated and disposed of. Attendees were dispersed.
In the margins, one of them scribbled, "Katy's birthday party."
12:19 a.m. A student reported loud music on the first floor of South Hall. Upon the officers' arrival, the door was locked, and individuals could be heard exiting through the window. Officers observed two individuals leaving the area. The room was secured, and the incident is under investigation at this time. ("Lucas runs away from S&S")
12:58 a.m. Officers were requested to assist a student who became ill from alcohol consumption while attending an unauthorized party on Woodland Street. The female was found to be reasonably cogent and was left in the care of her roommate. The party was closed down. ("Ellen learns an important lesson")
And on and on. Of course, I no longer have cause to scour The Review for evidence of me or my friends; to be blunt, I don't sneak out of windows anymore or know people who do. (I thought, back when I had occasion to sneak out of windows, I'd be sad when I stopped sneaking out of windows. Fortunately, I feel only a little nostalgia for the experience; I feel much more the bruises--both to my body and my pride--that come along with such escapades.)
Richard Rodriguez, writing in Harper's, says this about newspapers:
In truth, the noun "newspaper" is something of a misnomer. More than purveyors only of news, American newspapers were entrusted to be keepers of public record--papers were daily or weekly cumulative almanacs of tabular information. A newspaper's morgue was scrutable evidence of the existence of a city. Newspapers published obituaries and they published birth announcements. They published wedding announcements and bankruptcy notices. They published weather forecasts (even in San Francisco, where on most days the weather is optimistic and unremarkable--fog clearing by noon). They published the fire department's log and high school basketball scores. In a port city like San Francisco, there were listings of the arrivals of departures of ships. None of this constituted news exactly; it was a record of a city's mundane progress.
It goes without saying that The Review, Oberlin College's paper of record, doesn't report on births and deaths and weddings and the weather--at least not that often. But you will find sports scores, a list of who is and who has come to talk, recitals and plays and general goings on about town. The Review, every week, is scrutable evidence of the existence of Oberlin. And, every week, the list of infractions in the Security Notebook is scrutable evidence of the existence of Oberlin's students.
I suppose that, as much as anything else, is why we made those clippings: They were a sign, however small, however silly, that we existed. And somehow, the fact that someone would take the time to make some record of our existence made us feel like we were a part of something--not just that we existed, but that we existed in community with others.
Oberlin is blessed. The Review is free to Oberlin students. So is The Grape. So is Wilder Voice and In Solidarity and Headwaters and every other Oberlin College-based student publication. Even without a journalism department, even without any real administration support, we have all these newspapers, all these ways of describing ourselves, making ourselves.
And of course, there is the much-maligned Oberlin Confessional, its precursor (an old Livejournal thread), and its progeny (ObieTalk). More ways we describe ourselves. Or, if you're feeling glib, more ways we gossip and procrastinate.
It's worth noting that, pretty much everywhere else, newspapers are dying. Rodriguez's piece, from which I quoted above, was occasioned by the death of San Francisco's last daily paper. And it's not just that newspapers themselves are dying--the newspaper culture is dying:
In the nineteenth-century newspaper, the relationship between observer and observed was reciprocal: the newspaper described the city; the newspaper, in turn, was sustained by readers who were curious about the strangers that circumstance had placed proximate to them. [...]
We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper.
I doubt that anyone at Oberlin would cop to the idea that they think of The Review as Oberlin, or Oberlin as The Review. But the newspaper we construct from the snippets of The Review, that piece in The Grape, that article in Wilder Voice, that mention on OCon--that newspaper is Oberlin, and Oberlin is that newspaper.
In the growling gray light (San Francisco still has foghorns), I collect the San Francisco Chronicle from steps. I am so lonely I must subscribe to three papers--the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. I remark their thinness as I climb up the stairs. The three together equal what I remember.
Newspapers are a gift. I've been on this campus a long time, and all of the people--the friends--with whom I entered have now left Oberlin: That's the price I pay for taking a year off and being double degree.
I am so lonely, I read The Review cover to cover. I read The Grape. I read Wilder Voice. I read Headwaters. I read Oberlin's papers and feel less lonely. And every time I come across a stack of Reviews, I am brought back to those times in Dascomb, when we looked for record of ourselves.