Julia Harrison (C’20), Jackson Harwell (C’22), and Elizabeth Chandler (C’20), begin their new independent study with The Sewanee Review. Photo courtesy of Hellen Wainaina (C’18).
By Claire Smith
Julia Harrison (C’20) has a theme for her senior year: challenging beige. “If I had to describe challenging beige, I would say it is diving into the slightly uncomfortable. Nothing crazy (beige) but new and difficult (challenging). It’s a compelling idea — deciding to be uncomfortable, looking for new ways to broaden your horizons, and creating opportunities to grow. So, maybe to grow as a student, a writer, a person in the world, the key is doing things that you know you will do poorly, that will make you question your abilities, but that ultimately will make you better off for it.”
That’s the trick to challenging beige, and that’s the ethos behind Harrison’s new job at The Sewanee Review.
The Review has had its own quiet revolution in the past few years: a new editor, new artsy covers, and an interest in presenting fresh new, writing to a younger generation of readers.
What better time to bring in some fresh new perspectives than now? Enter Harrison, an English major whose career at Sewanee has been punctuated by publishing jobs in New York. A job at the Review is a way to bridge the gap that she sees between the literature that she’s interested in and the coursework typically offered to Sewanee students. Not to totally disparage that mighty force, the literary canon, Harrison sees the value in reading modern, bad, and undiscovered writing.
“I came back and knew I wanted to work in publishing, and The Sewanee Review is right here. Also, the Review is publishing some of the most interesting stuff coming out now,” she said.
With this resource right here on campus, it’s about time that some undergraduates got to take part in it. Harrison contacted the English department about creating undergraduate opportunities at the Review, which led to herself, Elizabeth Chandler (C’20), and Jackson Harwell (C’22) all landing positions.
Classified as an independent study, the three undergrads meet in the Review office for 4 hours a week, reviewing submissions, editing content, reading from a Review-recommended reading list, and writing reflections on the works they come across. The independent study will allow the trio to assist over a full production cycle of the Review, which means soliciting, reviewing, and copyediting submissions for a final publication.
For now, their main job is to go to the Review office and read submissions to choose which should be passed on for further review by the main staff. As time progresses, the students will also work on social media posts for Review, coordinating events on campus, and helping editors with structural edits for the winter edition.
The new Review positions allow students to explore writing outside of the classroom framework of formal discussions, rhetorical analysis, and paper-writing. Rather than studying works that have already been declared great, undergraduates can be part of the process of finding new writers that excite them.
Harrison explained by saying, “I’m not scanning a story for syntax. I’m not scanning a poem for meter, I’m scanning a poem for if it’s good or not. Is it new, is it exciting, is it interesting, basically is it a compelling piece? And that’s not what we’re doing in the department because everything has already been decided to be a compelling piece.”
Students are also required to read published works that help them develop their editorial style. A quick scan of the reading list shows the novelty of the class, one won’t find Shakespeare or Chaucer or James; David Sedaris, A.E. Stallings, and Catherine Lacey are among the list of current writers who would typically fall out of the focus of English courses.
Harrison added, “What I like about the readings is that it’s all modern stuff that gets left out of the multiple canons we study here…When do we ever get to read anything that come out recently in the English department?”
Not only do they help with the actual production of the Review, they are also reading widely and writing reflections to develop their editorial style. In this sense it’s just like any other class — an opportunity to learn and to develop your skills.
There are two key takeaways from the new Review undergraduates. For fans of the written word, the Review has some exciting new job opportunities and some fresh perspectives on English; for everyone, maybe try some new things and don’t be afraid of doing a bad job along the way. Also, maybe read some Maggie Nelson.