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So What Do You Do, Alex Star?

The Boston Globe's "Ideas" editor on the death of Lingua Franca, not going to grad school, and the calm of crushing deadlines.

By Lizzie Skurnick - June 3, 2003

In October 2001, when a key financial backer pulled out, Lingua Franca, the venerated—and mercifully jargon-free—magazine of academia, closed its doors forever. Helming the fallen mag for its last seven years was Alex Star, who had brought succor to grad-school dropouts everywhere with his incisive and cogent dispatches from the Ivory Tower. The fall of this celebrated magazine of intellectual life occasioned an enormous hue and cry, particularly from The New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum, whose long and tormented paean declared, "Lingua Franca had been an absolutely invaluable and highly influential resource, searching out the genuinely important controversies over ideas emerging from the academic world."

Star, who grew up in Cambridge and went to Harvard, got his start as an editor after teaching history for a year at his alma mater, Boston's Commonwealth High School. He worked first at The New Republic, as an assistant literary editor under Leon Wieseltier, and he soon carved out a niche for himself as a journalist and editor who could make news of the world of ideas. Since the fall of 2002, Star's weekly "Ideas" section at The Boston Globe has emerged to fill the hole LF left, featuring both controversial and recondite news and analyses, including the work of powerhouses such as geneticist Steven Pinker, essayist Michael Berube, and the excellent staff writer Laura Secor. Almost a year into his tenure, Star talked to recently about mags versus newspapers, African vistas, and not going to grad school.

For readers who have never seen the "Ideas" section, how do you describe it?
On the one hand, the section is trying to provide depth and perspective on important issues by trying to get the insights of academics and people who think on a conceptual level, not just the level of, "What happened?"—as important as that is. You know: Does the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad remind us of the revolutions of 1989, or doesn't it? But the second goal, which is a little bit different, is to assume that what goes on in academia and in the intellectual world is itself news, even if it's not always seen that way. And to find ways to dip in there and tell stories and present things from that world people might otherwise miss.

I feel like you bring academia to the people who are interested but don't necessarily want to read 300 books a year. To what do you attribute your profound interest in academia?
I think a lot of it has to do with how my generation was sort of tempted by graduate school, but was also somewhat disenchanted by both the horror of the academic job market and some of the dominant trends in certain departments. I think that I probably would never have pursued this kind of life if it hadn't been for the existence of institutions as different as the books section of The New Republic and Lingua Franca itself. They both set different but stimulating models for how one can take academic evidence, argumentation, obsession, and turn it into kinds of writing that are not strictly what we once used in an academic journal, and reach a small but really highly receptive audience.

Did you consider going to grad school yourself?
Eventually, yeah. But I didn't have it very clear. I actually filled out applications to American history programs. But I held back in part because I really liked working at The New Republic and I had the opportunity to stay there a couple years, and in part because, when I actually sat down to think about how to write an application essay on what I would really want to study and write a dissertation on, I had a hard time finding the thing that I thought was fulfilling.

Can you describe the fallout from that final period at Lingua Franca—both what you were thinking and what you did? Try to be as emotionally distraught as possible.
Well, after 12 years, it was a sad thing for the magazine and for all of us who worked there. Hopefully it was a sad thing for the readers, though I can't say for sure. I'd been working every day of my life in a magazine office for 12 years, so having a little time to do something else was not horrible, and I can't say it was a period of utter despair. But I called a friend of mine who lost her job and said, "What do you when you're not on a job? I suppose you spend a third of your time anxiously figuring out what you might do next, a third of your time working on some project of your own that you're not quite finishing, and a third of your time just doing nothing." And she said, "Yeah, that's about right."

The main thing that occupied my time in that period was editing the anthology of Lingua Franca, called Quick Studies. I really got to spend several months looking back over the history of the magazine, writing an introduction, giving my own sort of history of what the magazine was about, and what was going on in academia in the '90s. Getting to sort of re-experience the whole history of the magazine rather than just forgetting about it—as a form of mourning, it was highly effective.

The bankruptcy proceedings eventually resulted in The Chronicle of Higher Education purchasing one of the properties that Lingua Franca owned, the Arts & Letters Daily website. It's a great site, and actually I think they're doing a superb job of continuing it and managing it, so I'm really happy about that.

It's like a living shrine, now, that you have. Now, let's talk about the "Ideas" section. First of all, how did it come into being?
It was something that the people at the Globe had been conceptualizing for a couple of years. They'd even put together a task force and done a prototype. The head of that task force was a guy named Peter Canellos, and he's sort of the instrumental person of the narrative. But first, in January, I went with my family to Africa for about three weeks, to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. We were doing various tourist-y things, but between Cape Town and game parks, and just traveling through cities and talking to people, it was certainly the most interesting trip I've ever had. It probably helped bring some closure to the Lingua Franca experience.

How did game parks and striking vistas provide the closure?
You really feel you're about as far from New York City as you could possibly get. Inevitably, that makes you think about things that are more timeless than even the most profound academic disputes. And the place is just so fascinating on its own terms that it's hard not to want to go back. It drives you out of the things you're thinking about when you're wandering around Brooklyn.

Now, coming back to the "Ideas" section. How did this job come about?
I got back, and there was a voicemail on my machine in Brooklyn from Peter. He was looking around for candidates for the "Ideas" editorship, and I'm sure my name had come up through various people. We probably had lunch a little while after that when he was down in New York, and that was the beginning of a process that led me to eventually taking the job, moving to Boston, and starting the section.

Now, I know there's obviously you, and you've got a full-time writer, Laura Secor. Is that the only staff?
Oh, no, the staff size is really quite good. There's a deputy editor named Jennie Schuessler—she came from The New York Review of Books, where she had been for quite a while. And then there's Josh Glenn, who is also extremely involved. He writes a column and works half-time editing as well. He's from Boston, and he's the founder of a 'zine called Hermenaut. It's a very excellent philosophy 'zine, for lack of a better phrase. So it's really Josh, Jennie, Laura, and me who run the section week in and week out.

You have a lot of people from the academy writing for you. Do you find they are able to shift their style to write for a magazine or to write for a daily?
At Lingua Franca, I think, we had relatively few academic contributors. It's sort of ironic—the closer what you're doing is to your academic work, the harder it is to translate it into something for a different audience. But when academics set out to write for the "Ideas" section, they know they're trying to think in a completely different way than if they were addressing their colleagues. And very often, you have people who can actually find a new voice and do something different that works.

You've been in the magazine business since before cell phones were everywhere and before everything was online. How would you say that's changed what you're doing?
I will emphasize that I do not own a cell phone. Whether other people's cell phones have changed my life I would hazard to speculate. When I first moved to New York to work at Lingua Franca in December of '94, I'd written a little bit about technology, but I had never actually been, for instance, on the World Wide Web. A friend of mine called and said, "Alex, you've got to come visit my office, I'm doing this book." I went down to this cubicle in the back of an advertising company in the Flatiron district and he had two computers, a dictionary, all the back issues of Details magazine, and nothing else. And I said, "How are you managing to write your book here?" And he went on the web and said, "What's the last record you were listening to?" I said Liz Phair or something, and he immediately went to this web page and found some student at Oberlin who had written down all of her lyrics and guitar chords and put them up. And I thought, This is incredible. But the impact of the web and email became much greater when I went to the Globe, because we're on such fast deadlines. Rather than having a fact-checker sort of painstakingly go to the New York Public Library, you really end up just doing the fact-checking on the web as best you can.

I know you're a weekly section, but how is it different working at the newspaper than at the magazine?
I refer you to a piece written about the differences between working at The Washington Post and The New Yorker, in which the writer said that at a magazine, people don't always have a huge amount to do—obviously, sometimes they do—but the psychology of the place is to feel like you're very busy, and if you try to talk to someone, they say, I'm too busy, go away. Whereas at newspapers, everyone has a lot to do, and is incredibly busy and always trying to meet the next deadline, but the culture of the place is to affect a certain easygoing repartee and joviality. The fact of the matter is that at newspapers, deadlines are so crushing that no one has any time to get upset or disturbed or fazed by the deadlines, so the result is, paradoxically, it's much calmer.

Lizzie Skurnick is a writer living in Baltimore.

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