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J-School Confidential: Reading and Writing Over Reporting?

An overwhelming reading list leads our j-schooler to question why she's not penning stories

- October 12, 2007
In this edition of J-School confidential, our Columbia MA student attempts cope with the ever-growing pile of printouts beside her bed. As she sinks further under a mountain of paper, she wonders whether she should stop reading and start writing.


I am overwhelmed with paper.

Three weeks into my MA program and I'm already seriously at risk of becoming one of those little old ladies who meets her demise trapped under the mountains of printed material she lets accumulate in her apartment, only to be found weeks later, her eyeballs eaten away by her hungry, neglected cat.

The MA is a decidedly more academic program than Columbia's MS (note to everyone who wants to know who teaches me RW1, the famed beat reporting class familiar to all MS grads: I do not take RW1). That means while the MS kids are out reporting on the mean streets, filing stories about churches in Astoria and used bookstores in the Bronx, we MA students are reading 100-plus pages on the failure of Germans to properly process the emotional costs of Allied destruction, dense psychological studies on making faulty assumptions, and lengthy critical round-ups of the role of art in society.

All of these readings provided to us as PDFs, which then turn into reams and reams of printed-paper, littering my backpack, my dresser, and my bedroom floor. Then there's the Times, which I always think I'll get around to finishing, and thus let collect under my desk, not to mention the various magazines I pick up every time I'm out so I can familiarize myself with their content and the books -- the books! Powells.com sent me a used, low-cost tower of literature just this weekend.

And if you think I'm having trouble storing all of this written content? You should see me try to read it. I've always been a fast reader, and assumed the same speed with which I could tear through The Poisonwood Bible and David Sedaris essays would translate to Daniel Liebskind's treatise on memorial architecture and the Holocaust. It doesn't -- and as a result, I have faced several long nights and early mornings trying to cram it all in.

I'm a mouthy broad, and would rather participate in class than stare aimlessly out the window.

Sometime around the beginning of week two, I began to wonder if maybe I didn't need to read all of my assignments. The program is pass/fail, there were no written follow-ups, and there's so much assigned that we almost never got around to discussing it all during class.

I put my theory to work for a few days, and discovered I was right -- I didn't have to read it all. In fact, I could probably get away with not reading anything. But I'm a mouthy broad, and would rather participate in class than stare aimlessly out the window – especially when class lasts two to three hours. Even when I could fake it, making general points or bring up news discussions without directly referencing the reading, I felt like I was missing out. The literature my classmates were discussing -- though difficult and obtuse on first pass -- sounded fascinating; something I would benefit from knowing if I want to speak knowledgeably about culture and society.

Besides, if I want to compete with this class of all-stars, I need to keep up. The level of talent in my program is staggering -- award winners, world travelers, phenomenal writers. The goal now is to make enough of an impression, in class and out, such that they might remember me one day and offer me a job at whatever high-powered magazine they take over a few weeks post-graduation.

Straddling the line between diligent academic and charming, ever-present networker has been another challenge. Part of the value of J-school is meeting and mingling with future peers, taking advantage of the world-class staff, and doing non-school work for people that can help me publish in reputable magazines. So do I stay in and catch up on reading, or do I sneak out for a drink with my classmates, with whom I can bounce pitches off of and glean contacts?

That's why I found myself blowing off an assignment last week, when I should have been reading about the primitive media channels in eighteenth century France. The reading was due the next day -- but after a talk with one of my professors, I realized a think-piece I had been longing to write might find an audience in one of several well-regarded magazines. Instead of hitting the books, I cracked a bottle of wine and started writing, finally putting to paper some of the ideas that had been circulating in my head for months. It was thrilling to finally get it out, and to realize that I finally had the connections and ability to see this work from idea to print.

But by the end of the night, I still couldn't get that nagging sense of duty out of my head. I diligently printed out my history reading, read through as much as I could, and added it to the teetering stack by my bed.

Thank goodness I don't have a cat.


Kate Dailey is an MA student at Columbia University.


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