Raphael rosen

As I was glancing at my department’s copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the following article caught my eye.

In the world of alumni class notes, Raphael Rosen’s updates stand apart. Forget weddings, new jobs, and babies. Mr. Rosen [in photo, distorted by a mirror at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, where he works] let people know he’d gone to Carson City, Nev., for the World Beard and Moustache Championship.

It was his answer to the class-notes conundrum: What do you say when your fellow alums seem to be traveling the world, becoming doctors, starting families, and saving starving children—all at the same time?

“In some ways, I had no choice,” says Mr. Rosen, Williams College Class of [‘]00. “I was not in a master’s program, not in a high-paying job. I just had to send in the stuff I had.”

In subsequent updates, that stuff has included watching a power-tool drag race, taking a Segway ride through San Francisco, and buying a five-pound pair of brass shears.

It is always difficult to find something interesting to say. My class notes input for the past year, and presumably for the next four, have consisted mostly of “Diana is still working on her PhD in math.” However, everyone else seems to be doing something brilliant. Kudos to our class’s correspondent, Matt Earle ’07, who occasionally comes up with a theme that makes it easier to find something awesome to say. He once asked us to tell a story of the most ridiculous thing that had happened to us during the previous three months. That one was fun to read.

The article continues:

No college may be as class-notes crazy as Williams, Mr. Rosen’s alma mater. Several years ago the college started printing a separate publication just for class notes—called Williams People—after the voluminous section threatened to take over the entire magazine and its budget. The August 2008 issue, full of wedding photos, obituaries, and news of mini-reunions, set a record at 144 pages.

The editor, Amy T. Lovett, says editors of other alumni magazines thought that one without class notes would fail. It didn’t. More alumni report reading the magazine, Ms. Lovett says, including one who said he had stopped reading it before the change because he felt too much pressure from the class notes.

With that, my issue of Williams People arrived today, and I read the entire section for my class. It was lengthy! I am glad everyone has so much to share. I was happily surprised to see so many 2007 alums as roommates and traveling around the world to visit each other.

Click below for the full article, which includes a reference to the Climb High, Climb Far stairs.

In the world of alumni class notes, Raphael Rosen’s updates stand apart. Forget weddings, new jobs, and babies. Mr. Rosen let people know he’d gone to Carson City, Nev., for the World Beard and Moustache Championship.

It was his answer to the class-notes conundrum: What do you say when your fellow alums seem to be traveling the world, becoming doctors, starting families, and saving starving children—all at the same time?

“In some ways, I had no choice,” says Mr. Rosen, Williams College Class of 00. “I was not in a master’s program, not in a high-paying job. I just had to send in the stuff I had.”

In subsequent updates, that stuff has included watching a power-tool drag race, taking a Segway ride through San Francisco, and buying a five-pound pair of brass shears.

Who hasn’t felt a tug of self-doubt reading class notes? Love them or loathe them, these boldface messages in the back of the alumni magazine have an uncanny ability to arouse our best—and worst—emotions. Pride or insecurity, joy or envy, nostalgia or navel-gazing: Class notes can take us back in time or make us question our present.

They inspire parodies and pranks—like the University of Missouri alumnus who submitted a note saying he and a buddy had invented a new kind of toilet. Editors checked that claim out and discovered it was bogus. A fake note that did make it in, implying that two straight graduates of American University were gay partners, prompted a $1.5-million lawsuit against the university. (The suit was dismissed last year.)

Enlarge PhotoJay PremackShortly after graduating from Smith College, Marnie Leavitt volunteered to compile her class’s alumni notes. Some of them intimidated her: “As a 22-year-old, how do you know how to start a nonprofit and be a consultant?”
One reason class notes may be such a big deal: They’re incredibly popular. This fall, as the latest crop of alumni magazines arrives with news of spring weddings and graduate degrees, and babies born last year (a time lag that would be unforgivable in other media), editors know we’ll do what readers have done since class notes started a hundred years ago: turn to them first.

No college may be as class-notes crazy as Williams, Mr. Rosen’s alma mater. Several years ago the college started printing a separate publication just for class notes—called Williams People—after the voluminous section threatened to take over the entire magazine and its budget. The August 2008 issue, full of wedding photos, obituaries, and news of mini-reunions, set a record at 144 pages.

The editor, Amy T. Lovett, says editors of other alumni magazines thought that one without class notes would fail. It didn’t. More alumni report reading the magazine, Ms. Lovett says, including one who said he had stopped reading it before the change because he felt too much pressure from the class notes.

At some colleges, the notes are collected and compiled by volunteers, known as class secretaries. They are not immune to the self-doubt the notes can create.

Marnie R. Leavitt was working part time as a manager at a paint-your-own-pottery store in Madison, Wis., when she started writing class notes for Smith College’s Class of 98. She remembers fellow graduates who were already starting their careers, working as consultants, and starting their own nonprofit organizations.

“As a 22-year-old, how do you know how to start a nonprofit and be a consultant?” asks Ms. Leavitt, now a labor-and-delivery nurse in an Arlington, Va., hospital. “I was living on $10,000 a year and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.” With her classmates out of the starting gate and racing to the goal line, she says, “I was the little horse off smelling the flowers.”

That kind of social comparison can actually be healthy, says Julie J. Exline, an associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, inspiring us to do things with our own lives. But “there’s no question this dark side is there.”

Why do people send in updates? Sure, there’s a minority of egotists who want to impress others, Ms. Exline says, but mostly people just want to share what’s going on in their lives.

Those with lots of good news can find it “socially dangerous” to outperform others, she says. And no one wants to sound like a braggart.

Bill Ryan, who has written the notes for Williams’s Class of 62 for more than 30 years, remembers a classmate’s getting upset over a caption for a photo with his family at the Hopkins Gate on Williams’s campus. Mr. Ryan had commented on how far the alumnus had climbed, a play on the gate inscription, which reads, “Climb High/Climb Far/Your Goal the Sky/Your Aim the Star.”

“He thought I made him sound arrogant,” Mr. Ryan says.

Then there are the serial submitters. After Ms. Leavitt limited people to one mention a year, she had to explain the policy to one alumna miffed at her exclusion from the latest issue.

Submissions decline in the decade or two after graduation, as people settle into one place and major life events (MLE’s in class-notesspeak) are fewer and farther between. As for any one-upmanship, “it really does fade,” says Mr. Ryan.

The notes become less about impressing people and more about sharing life-changing news with an extended family—some of it surprising, like the Dartmouth alum who wrote to announce his sex change, and some of it somber: chronic illness, the loss of a job, or the death of a spouse or a child.

That’s why Jon Pearson, secretary for Williams’s Class of 00, likes the happy wedding and baby announcements. Mr. Pearson wrote in a recent column that classmates who thought their section was “99 percent sunshine and rainbows and kittens” should flip to the older classes and see how life won’t always be that way.

That light touch with his column may be why Mr. Pearson counts Raphael Rosen, purchaser of the giant scissors, as his favorite class notes all-pro (his term for frequent updaters).

Mr. Rosen was flattered to hear that. He’s planning to apply for graduate school in science writing. Will he consider submitting a traditional class note when he goes?

Probably, Mr. Rosen says. “I would be proud of it, and I might want to boast a little bit. A small bit.”

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