Is the Union Book being bullied?

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By Nick DAngelo

Anyone who has read this column over the past year knows that I am a passionate defender for those causes I see as particularly important. My first “note” of the year, then, is certainly true to theme. After receiving a tip last week that the Union Book is allegedly being “bullied” by members of the Office of Student Activities, I was intrigued.

Disappointed with the ongoing production of the 2013 issue, Student Activities engaged in alleged strong-arming, including remarks over the defunding of future books, a move that was mostly counterproductive. At first, I was fed the fabled defense that I had bad information and that there was no story. However,  that tune soon changed, exposing a larger story on the varying views of the importance of a college yearbook.

After listening to the thoughts of Matt Milless, Director of Student Activities, hearing the contrasting views of Professors Martin Benjamin and David Ogawa, and receiving some personal memories from Dean Stephen Leavitt, it became clear that the Union Book can play a critical role in the preservation of our campus history, but to do so it will have to overcome some significant obstacles.

During my sophomore year, as a then member of the Student Finance Committee, I followed our Student Activities budget through every step of the process and was one of the committee members who voted to reestablish the yearbook after years of poor management and disarray. In 2012, the Finance Committee recommended, and Student Forum granted, a sizeable budget to ensure a successful revitalization. And it was, in all respects. The 2012 Union Book was a celebrated revival of its predecessors, even compared to the 1968 issue, part of a collection on groundbreaking college yearbooks in the Museum of Modern Art.

In fact, Leavitt referenced the 1968 Union Book in an e-mail, writing, “The impact is to give the impression of giving some interest in life beyond Union, something that was more common when external events impinged on campus … It also conveys a sense of intellectual engagement.”

Milless, who has no power to cut any club budget, says that despite criticism that he would prefer to completely defund future productions of the Union Book, he has “no strong feelings on defunding.” Instead, Milless advocates reforming the traditional yearbook. “For five years we’ve explored a digital project,” he told me. A major concern for Student Activities is whether the expense is worth the student dollar. Despite its budget, the Union Book has been unable to sustain strong interest from the student body.

This phenomenon is not new. “The interest has not been there,” Milless said, attributing the reason to a genuine disinterest in yearbooks, not the $25 fee per book. In the past, the yearbook has been provided for free or the cost billed on tuition, similar to the campus Green Fee, but both attempts failed. “Eventually free stuff just becomes garbage,” Milless added.

Benjamin, professor of visual arts and an advisor to the Union Book, is open to the idea of a digital yearbook, but also skeptical. “[Physical] books last. Books are important,” he said.

Ogawa, associate professor of art history, agrees, “As someone who still loves the look and feel of printed books, if I were a student, I’d consider it important,” Ogawa said. Benjamin added, “Photographs do make a difference in our lives and in the perception of what it is like now … A college yearbook has the potential to make a difference.”

But, in an era of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, students have the ability to create their own college yearbooks, according to Milless. The statement may seem strange coming from a professional photographer who spends his free time capturing important Union memories, but Milless freely admits he is “probably the wrong photographer to ask.” Pressed to explain why he spends his life devoted to the art form, Milless kept it simple: “Because I’m getting paid.”

Whereas Milless believes technology is making traditional yearbooks obsolete, Ogawa says that the opposite may actually be true. “How could anyone possibly look at all of those images and think any of them are special?” He said, “A yearbook represents the concentrated efforts of people who care, not just people with cameras.” For Ogawa, the hard copy layout requires significant skill and deliberate strategy that may be sacrificed in digital form. After all, what’s next? E-mailing diplomas? In many respects, the permanence of a hard copy trumps the convenience of modern mediums.

That permanence is key to Benjamin. “A yearbook is more than an ephemeral piece,” he wrote. “It becomes history. It is important to have a documented piece that will end up in the college’s special collection for future generations to have access to for research, reflection and the marking of time.”

Leavitt agreed with the importance of a yearbook in his written remarks. “I find these yearbooks a great resource for anyone interested in the college, mostly because of the photos, and I encourage students to get involved,” he wrote, also noting that he maintains a healthy collection in his office.

Milless may not be “bullying” as much as challenging the Union Book, but it’s a challenge worth undertaking. When a bully steals your lunch money, does it matter why he did it? Instead of harsh words and a condescending attitude, some positive mentoring may be helpful. My Nana always told me, “You’ll attract more bees with honey than vinegar.” It’s important to remember that the revitalized yearbook is still in its infancy, forced to create not only a product, but also a staff and management strategy. Regardless, the challenge has certainly been accepted.

At Friday’s Club Expo, the Union Book recruited more than two dozen new members. It’s an important start to a promising legacy and a reminder that student initiative can overcome some of the greatest bureaucratic barriers.

 

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