In each edition of “Old News,” Sonia Chajet Wides ’25 analyzes a past issue of The Amherst Student, published between 1868 and 2010 and selected by a random number generator. She highlights the historical context, adds comparisons to our world today and notes various hallmarks of the period (e.g., an abundance of cigarette ads or a lost-and-found section). The spark for the series came to Chajet Wides, a history major, while she was doing research in the Frost Library Archives. In reading past issues of the Student, she found herself getting distracted by everything else contained in its pages. The idea to use a random number generator, meanwhile, came from her other campus job in an environmental science lab. Et voila! “Old News” was born.
Q: You often draw parallels between themes covered in historical issues and those covered in the Student today. What are some examples?
A: I’m always amazed by how historical events tend to mirror things that are happening right now. Last year, in my first week of writing “Old News,” there was an article in our current-day paper about students trying to work with the Board of Trustees to gain some student representation or input. When I went to the March 4, 1976 issue of the Student, the exact same thing was happening. They even referenced other attempts that had been made over the years. Most students are only at Amherst for four years or so, so we wouldn’t necessarily have that context.
Q: What are some striking differences between the early issues and now?
A: I think the format of the paper itself and what its function is, especially, has changed. Now we have the Daily Mammoth, which tells us all the things happening on campus every day, and there’s an online calendar and group chats. In the past, the Student was the home to all of that. It’s also been interesting to see how the opinion section has been used over time. It used to be a much more casual forum of people sharing what they were thinking about in letters or op-eds. Part of [the change in] that is how things are disseminated online now. It feels like a bigger deal to write an article for the Student—you’re not just writing it for the people who are going to see it in print.
You can also see how the student body has changed. It’s very apparent in some articles (and even ads) when the College was working with a really homogenous population of students. It’s cool to see how these changes in the student body over time have made the College community more vibrant and more dynamic.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece you’ve read thus far?
A: The collection of articles that I read from the April 1968 issues of the Student around the time that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated have probably stuck with me the most. There were many really powerful opinion pieces and articles that reported on the tone of campus at that time. They emphasized all the change that was happening and how deeply this event was felt on the Amherst campus and, obviously, around the country.
In writing that “Old News” article, I also had the opportunity to talk to some of the authors of those pieces. It made me reflect on what an article can and can’t capture. Some had a strong memory of writing the article; some had totally forgotten writing it. And some had changed their opinions since writing. I gained a lot of interesting context from these conversations.
I wonder, when people look back on our current editions of the Student, what they will be able to see and what they won’t be able to see. This experience has made me think a lot more about what we choose to cover and what people might come back to look for. Now, I read and edit articles in the Student through the lens that it’s going to be in the archives.
It always trips me out to read about some big historical event or significant time period through the lens of people who are in the exact same place that I’m in. It reminds me of how long Amherst and its students have been here. Being rooted in one place is a cool way to connect to history.