Bowdoin College in fall embodies higher education fantasies: sprawling green lawns where students play spike ball; young women and men lounge nearby, staking out spots on the grass where they share snacks and laughter, breathing in air freshened by resplendent trees, complete with tips singed with the colors of a new fire.
Tucked away in Brunswick, Maine, a half hour drive from Portland, Bowdoin boasts a history that elevates and celebrates the liberal arts. Students can’t even declare a major until their second year, so intent is the college on encouraging free thought and exploration, development of the mind alongside development of community.
And for more than 200 years of that New England postcard existence, the rallying cry of the “Common Good” hearkened to the school’s identity as a bastion of a liberal education, as well as its aspirations to “challenge students to appreciate and contend with diversity and the conflicts inherent in differing experiences, perspectives and values at the same time that they find ways to contribute to the common project of living together in the world.”
At first, the student newspaper on this campus of fewer than 2,000 students seems an unlikely home to New England Press Association’s top student newspaper. There is no journalism major. No journalism professor on faculty. No adviser to offer critiques or coaching to teenage and slightly older journalists who find their way to the small, white clapboard Bowdoin Orient house, which sits on the outskirts of the quiet, park-like campus.
But the Orient, established in 1871 and named when Bowdoin was the easternmost college in the nation, is a storied publication. Published every week since 1899, it is the oldest continuously published college weekly in the United States. Editors and staff today speak proudly of their predecessors — thinkers and listeners and writers who have gone on to work for The Boston Globe, CNN, NBC, Fortune and City Limits, among others.
Many of the students at Bowdoin, where the acceptance rate now hovers at around 10 percent, grew up with parents who encouraged their curiosity, who regaled them with stories of fights for justice, who taught them to question the world around them. Many student journalists on this mostly white private campus speak eloquently of their consciousness of their own privilege and the rarity of the air they breathe. Many view the “Common Good” mantra of their college with an educated skepticism, seeing it as a marketing tool more than a genuine driver of institutional decision-making.
It is, in part, the student journalists’ take on and frustration with the trope of the “Common Good” that has brought us to train at Bowdoin. For the second year, the school’s student editors made a compelling case for inclusion in the Poynter College Media Project. Their need for basic reinforcement in daily journalistic practices remains, but this year, co-editors-in-chief Calder McHugh and Jessica Piper offered an especially meaty opportunity: following up in a meaningful and ethical way on an investigative story that made waves on campus last spring and led to consequences that rippled through the fall, both in the campus community and in the pages of The Orient.
Harry DiPrinzio, last year’s editor-in-chief of The Orient, wrote the story that sparked an outcry from students, alumni and even some staff. The president of the college had railed against inaccuracies in the story. (Piper noted that there were two in the 5,000-word story.)
The piece examined the pay and benefits of Bowdoin’s “support workers,” a category that includes the people who keep the pristine lawns manicured, who clean the dorms and classrooms and who work serving students and faculty in dining halls and other facilities. The story illuminated the complexities of the lives of workers who often build close relationships with students while remaining more often seen than heard on campus. It detailed workers’ struggles to pay bills and afford childcare even as they spoke of their appreciation for Bowdoin benefits alongside their admissions of saving money by eating food left behind by Bowdoin students.
The story hinted at the complexities of defining a “living wage” as it inspired alumni and students alike to publicly question the extent of the Bowdoin administration’s dedication to the Common Good.
This fall’s traditional back-to-school email from Bowdoin’s president included an announcement about nominal pay increases for some support workers. But Orient editors and reporters remained skeptical of the impact of the increases. They also questioned the work of new student activist groups in support of worker rights but seemingly not inclusive of worker voices.
Orient staffers now face new challenges from administrators who had spoken with them freely in semesters past. Now, these same sources had to obtain approvals from their superiors before talking with the student journalists — a result, Orient editors believe, of DiPrinzio’s article. As we suggested approaches to bridge divides with officials, peers and support workers, I recognized the value and the importance of the Poynter College Media Project’s core journalism lessons. As we updated our curriculum overnight to meet the opportunities of our second day at Bowdoin, I felt the power of journalistic questioning and adapting, of listening and learning, and how our teaching reflected those intrinsic best practices.
What we learned together was that the initial investigation about support worker pay and treatment had cracked open a door to new stories and perspectives at Bowdoin. The challenge of the year ahead is to shine light into the much bigger spaces beyond that door and find ways to answer new sets of questions. Those questions, we agreed, would often be uncomfortable to ask:
- Was the general student population at Bowdoin even concerned about support staff working conditions and pay?
- Did Bowdoin support staff workers view Bowdoin students as partners in their struggles for a living wage or as threats to their job security?
- Would new stories put workers — or students — at risk of administrative consequences?
What we learned together was that within this thoughtful and dedicated group of bright minds, the urge to remain polite often sits at odds with the need to question authority and even each other. The challenge to become better journalists requires acknowledging their personal privilege, yes, but also recognizing their personal biases.
At the end of day two, student editors and their staff members — inspired and committed — had developed a plan. They would break down their past coverage about support workers and about manifestations of the Common Good. They would include a wider range of sources, both inside and outside of their campus. They would accept discomfort as a part of their responsibility to tell wiser, more inclusive stories.
And while much had changed in both our conversations and their project plans since our arrival, I realized that an important element had been reinforced: Returning and new staff members of The Orient had gotten a taste of the power of journalism to hold the powerful accountable and to give voice to the voiceless — and they were hungry to learn, and to do, more.
The College Media Project is funded by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.