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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Alumni notes on alumni notes

I don't really understand why alumni magazines bother with maintaining the appearance of serious journalism when they could just devote themselves wholly to refining their alumni notes and obituaries sections. Does anyone really read the articles? They're all stock fawning profiles of various professors who discovered groundbreaking! new! cutting-edge! theories/genes/dinosaur bones. But alumni notes! That is where you learn what your alma mater is really about - facilitating institutional endogamy, certifying gastroenterologists, and fostering bizarre ambitions.

Alumni notes are just for updating you about your classmates' doings, but almost exclusively those doings which their authors feel proud of publicizing, and what they decide is worth taking pride in is in its own way strange and amusing. For example, from the U of C alumni mag, you can learn that 100 percent of alumni over the age of 65 (who bother to submit alumni notes) "remain very active" and "are living life to the fullest" by learning tribal dances, running marathons, and visiting Thai jungles, so take that, equally old but sedentary and even declining classmates who remain silent. If we just keep moving, we will never die! That is also where you can learn that Large Swimmingcanoe, AB '68 (formerly Bob Smith) has been fruitfully employed as a shamanic healer for the past decade, and that George Oager, AB '73, AM '75 has married a woman from Russia 25 years younger than himself who arrived with a 13-year-old daughter. How did that happen? Must be George's stunning good looks (not pictured). John Self-Important '77 (my dispositional but not blood-cousin) is working on a 900-page memoir of the first 18 years of his life, coming of age on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And at least seven people have self-published their poetry. Only the oldsters are interesting in this unexpected life story way though, because everyone who graduated after about 1990 is wholly pre-occupied with marrying, baby-making, and advancing their careers in gastreoenterology. I'd skip them, but they're the only ones I've ever possibly met in person, so skipping is impermissible.

There was a brief moment in the history of Facebook privacy controls, sometime around 2008 I think, when public photo albums were the default (or at least public to anyone with whom you shared a "mutual friend"), and a huge number of middle-aged people eager to showcase their family lives and upload their childhood photos joined without knowing to change the default, so Facebook turned into a vast archive of browse-able vintage family photos of near-strangers. I spent untold hours perusing your aunt's photos from the 1960s that year. And that was frankly the peak of Facebook's appeal to me, when it was a unintentionally open door into people's private homes just after they'd been scrubbed and brightened for company.

That Golden Age of Facebook came to an end, but its spirit survives in alumni notes, which also seem to be composed not for self-branding to strangers or mass public consumption, but for an audience of the Joneses - the sort-of and long-ago friends and unacknowledged frenemies to whom one is nonetheless tethered by weak bonds of common (in this case, educational) history that permit some openness and familiarity and encourage embellishment while preventing outright fabrication. And some people really are surprising and interesting, though I'm more partial towards conventionalists than converts to Native American tribal healing practices. It's the softer face of the phenomenon of alumni networks, most of whose other faces are of the more forthrightly instrumental, career-climbing sort. Flavia has also written in the past about Harvard's undoubtedly more jacked-up version of Chicago's piddling efforts in the field of alumni relations, which only recently became sleekly and aggressively professionalized, but the effect seems to be quite similar - you feel a strange tenderness for these absurd people whom you'd totally hate if they'd said the same things about themselves in a different sort of forum.

5 comments:

Phoebe said...

OK, so first off, my job for much of college was at the magazine you speak of, and it was not only a fabulous job, but an experience that led me to read the publication in question in more detail than most. So:

-Yes, oh yes, people read the articles, and I say this not just b/c of the bias of having written some of them. The letters to the editor in response to the articles can be quite passionate and voluminous, if I recall.

-Yes, the class-notes part is fascinating, and was, I believe, what drew me to that job in the first place. Although my personal preference these days lies in the class notes from my K-8 girls' school, which are amazing, which I suppose means I need to read AB '77's 900 page memoir.

Now, unrelated to alumni magazines:

-"I spent untold hours perusing your aunt's photos from the 1960s that year."

You've just reminded me where 2008 (or whatever it was) went. I will say, though, that despite the existence of privacy controls, a great many Facebook users continue to obliviously broadcast a great many albums, so if you're nosy re: random strangers (or looking for inspiration for fictional characters...) and not trying to look up anyone specific, it's still out there.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't know if I read the alumni mag while still in college, so I don't recall your bylines, but my impression is that ALL the articles are written by one very diligent woman. I do see that there are these letters and always wonder who can get so worked up about dinosaur bone discoveries. A lot of them also seem to be only tangentially related (to the article, that is) recountings of memories of the "When I was at the U of C, back in 1542..." variety. Like blog comments! But I can't get into that.

So if I just search random names, I can find old family photos of strangers' aunts? Is that less satisfying than when they're someone's aunt whom I sorta vaguely know? I imagine they would be, but haven't tried this approach yet.

Phoebe said...

Not strangers' aunts. Just not necessarily the aunts of the particular friend whose aunts you were most curious about.

bjdubbs said...

And I apologize for all of the tangentially related comments
beginning with "When I was" . . .
Now, for another tangentially related, when I was comment: Sweet Tomatoes are definitely the best Boston pizza place.

Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe: All the aunts seem to have wised up/freaked out about online security since 2008, and now I have a much harder time finding the vintage family photos. Maybe your friends are more relaxed about privacy settings, but it's the oldsters on my friend list who most frantically send out those OMG FACEBOOK IS INFRINGING US CHANGE YOUR SETTINGS NOW posts.

bjdubbs: What is Sweet Tomatoes? Is it in some faraway land inhabited by dragons, like Natick?