“I am not interesting,” I said firmly in French, my syllables clipped and assertive. The Senegalese salesman dangling fabrics in front of my face looked at me curiously. “Look, I said, I’m not interesting,” I repeated and turned sharply away, back into the bustle of the market.
As anyone who has spent a long time abroad knows, there are moments as a foreigner when you feel remarkably in control, coasting through an unfamiliar place as if you’ve spent a lifetime doing it. Throughout my four months in Dakar, Senegal, I experienced many such instances—bargaining for taxis like a local, eating with my hands and politely declining marriage proposals in three languages, to name a few.
But that ease is deceptively fragile, toppled by the tiniest of mistakes. You mix up two little words in French, for instance, and suddenly instead of letting vendors in a market know that you’re not interested in what they’re selling, you’ve expressed an apparently emphatic belief in your own dullness. But to me, this particular mistake felt somehow appropriate. Excuse me, everyone, my subconscious seemed to be announcing, but lest you be confused, I’m just not that interesting.
As a reporter for The Chronicle during the past three and a half years, I’ve more or less operated under that basic assumption. I’ve interviewed Mormons and civil rights photographers, transgender students and undergraduate military veterans, local politicians and President Brodhead. I’ve traveled to the Democratic National Convention and the North Carolina Seafood Festival, and I once pissed off a legion of frat stars by getting their crude party invites re-posted to Gawker.com.
But never once have I written about myself. It’s the curious thing about being a journalist—everything you write is at once yours and not yours at all. Although it’s not always obvious, reporting and writing the news is a deeply personal endeavor, born of conversation and observation, of probing niches and dark corners and trying to streamline an impossibly complicated world into manageable, 500-word chunks.
But it is also a craft that calls for an almost superhuman level of detachment and objectivity. And though we rarely get credit for it, the job of the college journalist is even more difficult, because the people you report on don’t just disappear into the ether when you publish the article. They’re in your econ class or sitting right across from you on the C-1. The words we write in this place, just like the words we say (or the words we commit to detailed, graphic PowerPoint presentations) can easily ricochet off the gothic stone walls and zoom straight back at us.
In my time as a student journalist, I’ve always sought to juggle the different voices and perspectives I encounter here, presenting them and then stepping back to let them jostle amongst themselves for the reader’s opinion. But constructing article after article this way, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the one voice that was always left out—my own.
I’ll tell you one reason why that gets on my nerves. As a student body, we have a remarkably short institutional memory. Already, there are no undergraduates left on campus who were here to witness the long and painful debacle of the 2006 lacrosse case. Even for my class, which arrived in Fall 2007, this event exists only as a kind of vague shorthand for injustice, a logo we wear on T-shirts and appropriate in a world-weary way whenever the media maligns Duke again. The Campus Culture and Women’s initiatives have slid even further from our collective consciousness, and by next year, a fourth of the student body won’t have lived through Karen Owen or Tailgate-gate.
Maybe this is just the history major in me talking, but if those of us about to graduate don’t speak up and make our own experiences at this university known, we risk letting events that were important to us be inherited by the next generation as blurry, secondhand impressions, void of specificity and nuance. We risk letting them hash out our battles and make our mistakes all over again. And in doing so, we’re letting the outside world continue to see us as a campus of sex-crazed, hedonistic douchebags from New Jersey (when everyone knows we’re actually all from California).
In the grand scheme of things, of course, the issues I’m proposing to tackle here are small, self-centered and privileged—in other words, First World problems. But if we don’t discuss and sort out the messes on this campus, how do we expect to discuss and sort out the messes in the world?
Until we figure ourselves out, the bigger problems will just have to wait. For now anyway, I’m just not that interesting—er, I mean, interested.
Ryan Brown is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday.
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