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Last Of the Routine

By Daniel Altman

Right about now, several thousand undergraduates are experiencing the terrifying phenomenon known as writer's block. Having to pump out paper after paper during reading period inevitably leads to writer's block; there's just not that much to say after a while.

But imagine having to write a three-page essay every two weeks for three years--that's what I've been doing. For a year now, I've also been trying to ensure balance and vibrance in the commentary on our opinion pages. But today, at least, I don't have to battle writer's block.

Since this is my last column for this newspaper, I'd like to share a few final reflections.

1. One of my greatest aspirations as a columnist has been to bring poorly publicized but still pressing issues into the collective awareness. Often, the people hurt by a particular injustice are those most powerless to defend themselves through legislation, finance and the media. It is important to give these people a public voice, however small, that they might not otherwise have.

2. The opinion page might be the place to expose one's biases, but the best opinion pieces prove their points without resorting to demogoguery. In a time when complaints about bias in the media are manifold, the appearance of level-headedness and true consideration catches a reader's attention. Besides, subtle editorials are sometimes the most persuasive.

3. Language itself plays a significant role in the evaluation of each editorial. I once dissented from a staff opinion on the grounds that its wording was too roughshod to be taken seriously. We all want to express our opinions as strongly as possible, but good language is the most effective entree into the minds of readers.

4. As columnists, we love to receive feedback. Even though we try to confront every single contrary argument in our articles, legitimate points always escape. What's more, a letter to the editors criticizing or, once in a while, praising a column means one thing for sure--someone read that column. For most of us, the knowledge that ideas have been transmitted is gratification enough.

In addition, I ought to reveal a few things about The Crimson that have never been secret but aren't quite public knowledge:

1. We print in its entirety every letter that is signed, pertinent to Harvard and written in terms appropriate for publication. We try to print them in order of receipt, but some letters are newsworthy in themselves and jump to the front of the queue.

2. Anyone can write a guest commentary, but we prefer that they come from members of the Harvard community with unique perspectives on issues particularly relevant to them.

3. We never censor the content of letters or editorials. Whatever stylistic decisions we make always have the full consent of the writers.

4. We try really, really hard to be fair. We have to give precedence for space on the opinion page to our own writers, since they're the ones who put in the hours for the comp. Sometimes we simply don't have the space to print letters on a given day, but we try to compensate with an occasional all-letters page.

5. We don't spend 24 hours here each and every day. In fact, only a few people come close to a third of that number--and we pay most of them. But we still enjoy a close-knit atmosphere here, and anyone is welcome to join. It's been my pleasure to work with the scores of bright and diligent people who have passed through this building over the last four years.

I'd like to add a few more parting shots before I sign off: perhaps a last jab at the Republican Congress that thinks it can cut taxes and the deficit at the same time; or a jeer at the Core program's limited choice and lack of a consistent mission; maybe even a bittersweet good-bye to the cash-strapped Undergraduate Council, which has finally taken the wise path of popular elections.

But I've been over that ground before, and it's time to find a new vista. Right about now, somewhere in the Caribbean would do nicely.

This is Daniel Altman's last column.

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