February 16, 2015

By Madeline Ruoff ’18

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The Common founder and editor Jennifer Acker ’00 (second from left) laughs
with students and Diana Babineau ’14, managing editor (far right)

The Common, Amherst College’s literary magazine, was one of 55 organizations nationwide to receive a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) literature grant in 2014, the first year that the publication was eligible. The magazine received $10,000 “to support the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence.”

Jennifer Acker ’00 founded The Common in 2011 after noticing that despite Amherst’s “enviable literary history”—including writers such as Lauren Groff ’01, David Foster Wallace ’85 and James Merrill ’47—there was no College-based literary magazine.

The Common publishes works with a “strong sense of place,” Acker says. “A place is a location imbued with meanings. …The Common publishes pieces in which setting creates a worldview.” Although contributors to the magazine come from all over the world, this overarching theme keeps The Common connected to Amherst.

“There’s a strong community at Amherst,” Acker adds. “The College is based around a common identity, but its members develop individuality …. ‘The Common’ is also the name of the [Amherst] town common—it’s a public gathering space that fits with the mission of a liberal arts college.”

The NEA grant will be used to reach new readers by developing innovative online content and programming.

One such program is The Common in the Classroom, which offers detailed resources for teaching the magazine in classrooms from advanced high school to graduate level. Lesson plans for integrating The Common into classrooms have already been well received in schools such as the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Acker believes that work in The Common can be used to “spur classroom discussion in a variety of fields and provide ways to engage with literature that is supported by the College.

Additionally, money from the grant will support The Common’s podcast series, started last summer, where contributors to the magazine discuss each other’s work. These podcasts have a “conversational feeling of a live interview with the authors and reach a lot more readers.” Acker notes that “not a lot magazines do this. … It’s a way to bring literature to a new format.”

The remainder of the grant funding will go toward publishing more free online content, such as book reviews and interviews. Specifically, Acker would like to increase the number of long pieces available online, where space is virtually unlimited. “The Common’s ‘Long Reads’ tend to have a strong first-person voice and can also be more timely” than stories and essays in the biannual print magazine, she says. “The conventional wisdom is that short pieces are better for the Web, but longer pieces written engagingly have been very well received.”

In just a few years, The Common has already made a rich contribution to Amherst’s literary legacy. The grant money will be used to reach more readers worldwide, furthering the magazine’s mission of giving a global community a sense of place.

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