My McSweeney's/Education Story
Two of the most meaningful things in my life are more similar than I ever thought.
So I am listening to an episode of the podcast that Stephen Colbert is producing prior to the commencement of his new late night television show, and he is interviewing two of his new writers, one of whom is named Jen Spyra.
Mr. Colbert asks Ms. Spyra how she got into writing comedy and she replies, “When I found out about McSweeney’s in college…I thought that was really cool, so I started doing those, and then…”
And then I couldn’t pay attention because I was too busy freaking out about how one of Stephen Colbert’s writers had just said she was inspired by something I’ve been intimately involved with for a long time.
I built that, I thought.
In 2003, Dave Eggers called and asked if I wanted to “help out” with the McSweeney’s website. At the time, it was a kind of Internet curio, with a bit of an audience, and some cachet among a certain type of reader.
I said yes because the website had been important to me. It was one of the first places where my own work had been published, a necessary encouragement to my personal progress and I wanted to see it continue. I was a fan.
Dave asked what I wanted to do with the site.
I thought for a bit and came up with what I thought were two necessary necessary requirements for our possible success:
First, we must be focused. Up to that time it had been an interesting hodgepodge of odds and ends, sometimes a humorous list, other times an in-depth piece of investigative journalism.
We hadn’t yet entered the time of a viral culture – most links were emailed still, rather than “shared – but I had a sense that the funny stuff had the best chance of bringing the biggest audience.
I figured if we played our cards right, we could become the go-to place for bored office workers and distracted college students looking for Ayn Rand jokes.
Second, we must also be “open.” I would not prejudge what form the humor might come in (save brevity conducive to being read online), or who it might come from. Each submission would be screened on its merits as subjectively determined by me.
In that spirit of openness, I tried to remove as many barriers as possible for the contributors. I answered every submission personally, taking no longer than a week to reply, often responding much faster than that. I encouraged people who I thought were promising to submit again. I suggested edits for pieces that felt close. If I hadn’t heard from a submitter/contributor in a while, I would email, asking if they had anything in the works.
I created categories like “Reviews of New Food” and “Open Letters to People Or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond,” as templates for the less experienced. Not everyone could conceive of a original piece of humor from premise to execution, but the open letters often seemed to write themselves, the humor unfolding from an initial inspiration, as in “A Letter to Optimus Prime to His Geico Auto Insurance Agent.”
My sole motive was to just keep the thing running, putting something interesting on the site every day. I had no particular vision that extended beyond the need for the best content possible.
It worked. Over time, we became something meaningful to some people. Our popularity may be cultish, but it is real. We published an anthology of 15 years of our best work last year.
The website has been an incubator to people who have gone on to work for The Daily Show, and Last Week with John Oliver, both of Stephen Colbert’s shows, Bob’s Burgers, The Onion, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York Times and dozens of other places of note.
I still remember receiving the first submission from someone named Ellie Kemper, who went on to be featured on The Office, and is now the star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
A dozen or more of our columns have been turned into books. We helped resurrect the sestina. The most recent success of one of our alumni is one of our 2010 column contest winners, the wonderful writer Casey Plett, who is now recapping “I Am Cait” for the New York Times.
Perhaps more importantly, it has been an outlet for people who work as teachers or archeologists or lawyers or stay-at-home parents or any number of other things. Sometimes we are the only publication credit in that person’s life. It did and does not matter to us who people were or what they would go on to become.
I also know that despite my spasm of ego triggered by Ms. Spyra’s answer, I did not build McSweeney’s. I played a role in helping establish the institution, as did Dave, who originated the site and continues as its chief patron, as does Chris Monks who has done the heavy editorial lifting since I handed him the reins as editor in chief in 2007.
But credit for its ongoing success also belongs with the contributors, and even the audience. Without each of them it falls apart. The site is a collaborative effort among all these groups, made possible because everyone who has joined in – regardless of how they joined – has done so in a way consistent with those original values: focus on humor, openness.
The connections to education seem clear. Our public institutions must exist as collaborations that serve all of our constituencies, while at the same time, focusing on our core, student learning.
Too often for my comfort these days, that core is reduced to credentialing, or assessments of dubious value.
How did “ROI” become an education buzz phrase anyway? Why is the only return we measure monetary? As a non-revenue-generating entity, McSweeney's Internet Tendency has never been able to pay its contributors, and yet most of them have received value for their contributions.
Narrowing education to the qualities and metrics that are most easily measured threaten the values that make education meaningful.
Maybe we should be looking at ourselves as incubators, as sources of inspiration, where we introduce students to what’s possible and set them on a path of their own choosing. Maybe that’s more important than credentialing. Maybe this also allows for a much greater return on investment, including in the monetary sense.
This does not mean education should be haphazard, or without organization. The reason the McSweeney’s website has been able to succeed over such a long time is because we have developed a process that is consistent with our values and anything we add builds out from that core, rather than compromising it.
How many educational institutions really know their core?
I am a broken record in this space on this front, but I’ll say it again. When we talk about education, we must do it from a place that is rooted in those things that we believe are most valuable.
If we start there, we may be able to find solutions that preserve those things that are most important to the growth and welfare of the students and public we serve.
 For those unfamiliar, McSweeney’s is a publishing concern and website (McSweeney’s Internet Tendency) founded by author/activist Dave Eggers in the late 1990’s. The publishing concern does more things than can be reasonably summarized in such a small space. The website primarily focuses on publishing short humorous writing on a week-daily basis. We also feature themed columns by individual authors on subjects ranging far and wide.
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