A column about columns

Since I started writing for The Chronicle my sophomore year, one of my friends has insisted I write a column about columns. The closest I’ve gotten is an OP-Ed about the QuadEx arches, but with my final piece for The Chron now here, I figured it was time to finally write my column column. While I know he means the doric and ionic variety, I must, as always, write what I know, which is the type of column you’re reading right now.

After writing OP-Eds for three years, I’ve realized I don’t have an opinion on everything, nor do I need to. This may sound rich coming from someone who’s posted 40 of them — yes, the amount is so large now that I can use numerals rather than letters to represent it — but it rings true. I only really have opinions about things for which I have a horse in the race. I don’t know much about architecture, so this piece will not be about columns of the pillar, post and pole variety — sorry for the Connections spoiler for April 17.

Many seniors still involved in The Chronicle have probably gotten very different things from it than I have. When reading farewell posts in years past, I’ve always noticed the personal element of it all — i.e., it’s been about the friends we met along the way. For me, it hasn’t been about that. I’m friends or friendly with many other Chronicle writers but rarely interact with them in Chronicle contexts. Writing my OP-Eds has been a means of deep self-reflection, and that’s what I’ve gotten from my time as a columnist.

Since September 2021, I have published an article every two weeks, except for school breaks. I have never skipped a cycle or turned in a piece late. Doing this has been a major exercise in self-control and motivation in a space where it’s not required. It has been important to me to show myself that I can prioritize something that no one is making me do and has no consequences for incompletion.

Because I made this commitment to myself — and commitment is hard! — I grew immensely as a writer and person through this experience. It’s not easy to think of something mildly-Duke-related and somewhat substantive every other week, but it has forced me to pay attention to my surroundings. What are people angry about? What are people excited about? What do we unquestioningly accept? I’ve had a lot of good conversations with friends that give me the seed of an idea for a piece or gotten a new perspective on one of my opinions from someone who reads it and starts a conversation.

After so long, my column has shown me the power of writing. Sometimes, my pieces struck a nerve, and sometimes accord, but the act of consistency allowed me to develop a platform of sorts that, if nothing else, got many people on campus thinking about the things I wrote. I always have to laugh when one of my friends texts me that they heard someone discussing one of my pieces around campus or I meet someone and they say, “Oh, you’re the Heidi who wrote that Chronicle piece” (that Chronicle piece typically being “Go to class”). Honestly, I’m tickled that people outside of my immediate friends read what I have to say.

I thought I might like to reread all my columns for this piece and reflect on how I’ve grown throughout the years. However, at about 1,000 words a pop, they total the length of about half a novel, which feels outrageously long. I’m not a huge researcher when it comes to writing things like this — and I usually have to force myself to find some statistic that supports the argument I’d rather prove through my rhetoric — but what I’ll say is that, in rereading a few of my pieces, I was able to see the longitudinal impact of creating such a breadth of similar works. While I’m no diarist, when I read an old piece, I’m reminded of who I was when I wrote it — where the idea came to me, the writing process, what the reception was. My column has preserved the various selves I’ve shed and morphed into in the past years. While some OP-Eds I wouldn’t rewrite today, I understand why the person I was at that moment needed to write them.

While not a literal column, my biweekly OP-Eds have proved to be a point of stability in my life. No matter what else was going on, I always ensured I would have time to write my piece and that it would be time spent doing something for myself. If I could make time for this, an extracurricular activity that was for no one but myself, I could make time for anything if I cared about it enough. It doesn’t matter what it is, but you need to care about something to make the hard work worth it.

In this, one of many lasts I will experience in these weeks, I am saying goodbye to a form — the OP-Ed — that I may not revisit. I am grateful for the discipline being a columnist has taught me and for the fire that has been lit under me to continue developing my writing through whichever mediums are most relevant to my current life. I am grateful for the support that friends and strangers have shown my column and the constructive criticism that certain pieces have elicited alike. My goal with my pieces has often been to open a dialogue about campus issues, and I hope the opinion section of The Chronicle continues to embrace productive discourse.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. This column marks the end of her three years writing for The Chronicle's opinion section, whose editors will miss her consistent contributions as one of the longest-standing current columnists.


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