Comment: A Year in Review
An editorial symposium of some 2015 highlights
When I asked Jamie Smith in the summer of 2012 to consider becoming editor, I challenged him to think of Comment as an intellectual storehouse that would challenge a Christian think tank seeking to live out of two thousand years of Christian social thought to be true to its roots. It's a place where we can think out loud and invite those from whom we might learn to think with us.
During Cardus's earliest days (then as Work Research Foundation), Gideon Strauss documented the influence of a group of New York intellectuals and their thought journals on the rise of neoconservativism during the second half of the twentieth century. Since then, publishing a thought journal has been a core part of Cardus's strategy, recognizing that ideas and influence don't come from a single "a-ha" moment but by ongoing reflection and conversation, applying first principles to the day's issues in ways wherein fresh insights emerge.
The joys of Comment are an ongoing rhythm for me. As it's published, I get to eavesdrop at various stages of the editorial process, watching ideas morph from pitch to production. I watch as a one-liner thrown out in the editorial meetings (or as frequently, an internal email) turns into a nuanced, carefully argued piece, the texture of which is almost always enhanced in the design process (a miracle I still don't really understand). There is a special joy in taking a few hours to read the finished product in a single sitting and reflect on how my understanding of topics as diverse as work, health, inequality, and memory have deepened, in some cases even changed, and always have prompted new questions on which to reflect. Which is why the joys of Comment 2015 are simply an anticipation of what is coming next year.
One of the coolest parts of this job is interviewing thoughtful, influential, and faithful leaders for the feature interview in each issue. It's still hard for me to hide how geeked I am to sit down with an intellectual superstar like Margaret Somerville, an exemplar for anyone who aspires to serve society as a public intellectual. Read the conversation to get a sense of both her probing insight and passion for the common good. But what's hard to reproduce on the printed page is the energy, delight, and sheer joy that accompanied our conversation—the encouraging, almost pastoral asides we had to cut; the laughter that punctuated our conversation; the hard-won hopefulness of a senior scholar who has taken her licks. My conversations with Brad Wilcox and Miroslav Volf had much of the same. What a job!
My "good deed" for 2015 was to let go of one of these opportunities and let senior editor Brian Dijkema interview Matthew Crawford for our spring issue, "The Work of Our Hands." As director of the Works and Economics program at Cardus, and someone deeply familiar with Crawford's work, Brian was the perfect person for the job. The result is, I think, one of the best things we've ever published—a ranging conversation with equal depth, pursuing challenging questions that get to the heart of what Comment is all about. As Brian gently pushed back on Crawford, Crawford found himself encapsulating the good news of Christmastide: "there's an inherently this worldly element in Christianity, the incarnation, that's worth thinking about." Indeed. That's why we're here.
My colleagues are probably sick of my gushing. There isn't a week that goes by at Cardus—the think tank that publishes Comment—when I don't implore my colleagues to go read, to go revel, in an article or an interview from Comment. I do it so much, and with such intensity, that a few of my colleagues now consider me part golden retriever. So be it.
Jamie's already noted the conversation with Matt Crawford that was a personal highlight this year, so I want to reflect on a part of our magazine that we don't talk about very much: our covers and art. Each issue, the Comment team asks: How can our cover art be more than just wrapping paper for the "real" conversation inside the covers, but a conversation in its own right. And we try to put our money where our mouths are—our cover artists get the same pay as our authors.
The issue that stood out for me this year was our summer 2015 issue, "Inequalities." The cover is graced by Nicholas Nixon's Covington, Kentucky. On the one hand the picture is simple—black and white, straight lines, and geometric shapes. And yet, as I was reminded by my wife when we discussed the cover: it's also highly complex. Do you see inequality between the boys? Is there jealousy? Is the inequality to be found in the picture's locale? Readers who do a bit of research on Covington, Kentucky, are soon drawn right into the debates about marriage, employment, and social justice discussed by Jamie and Bradford Wilcox inside the magazine.
I also found Kathryn de Ruijter's placement of Otto Mueller's Adam und Eva to be inspired. Did you notice what's happening in the text at the bottom of page 18 and the top of page 20? If not, I encourage you to do what we hope you will do when you "read" all of the Comment art: take a second look!
Five things stand out for me in 2015:
- 1. An economist in Syracuse wrote to us: "Whenever my issue of Comment arrives, I find that it is remarkably related to my work evaluating social policy and teaching students in public administration."
- Our subscriber base grew by 21 percent since last year at this time.
- An MDiv student in Louisville wrote, "Your publication is a constant source of encouragement, thoughtfulness, and cultivation of the life of the mind."
- We finally shelved our clunky old website in favour of a beautiful new one, this time with account login!
- We asked important questions at the right time, when the refugee crisis exploded.
This year I have been designing Comment from home while on the Canadian year-long maternity leave (yes, in full compliance with the CRA). When the articles for the next issue reach my inbox, they mark the start of a period of time that needs to be carefully balanced but that is also very welcome—supplementing children's books with thought-provoking and challenging pieces. Engaging with the articles as they come in from the authors and as they are fine-tuned by the team, searching for and choosing artwork, setting margins, and preparing the text for final print is something I love doing. For me it is a privilege to take the thoughts, musings, discussions, drafts, and hard work of our authors and team members and put them all together in a cohesive and hospitable way that I hope welcomes in our readers and shape the conversation at hand. There are hours upon hours represented in each print issue of Comment from our authors, editors, and team members, and it is quite an honour to be the one who gets to bring through that final mile. This year, I have especially appreciated the weeks that I can delve deeply into Comment and the learning that comes with it.
Also, the poem ["My Son, My Executioner" by Donald Hall] in the just-released winter issue was a gift to my soul as I navigate the joys, challenges, and everyday changes that parenthood brings. I wasn't sure if I should laugh or cry when I read it, but in the end I shared it with my husband and thanked God for these amazing team members that I get to work with who find these gems and enrich my life.
I came to Cardus fresh out of a postgrad in graphic design where I checked off all the program requirements to be eligible for a job. However that was only a small part of what prepared me for this job. I spent a great deal of my life learning to work with my hands in all mediums: be it digital or physical. I worked in a flower shop creating floral arrangements; I completed an undergrad in drawing and painting; I build useful items out of wood; I printmake, sculpt and illustrate.
I nervously interviewed at Cardus almost a year ago, and I was asked how I'd describe my design work. I answered: "It's made by hand." When I joined the ranks of Cardus at the end of February, Comment was just about to release the spring issue "The Work of Our Hands." This was timely. I came here without a degree in English or philosophy, but it was immediately made clear to me that my work was valued here, and that my team mates respected and continue to respect what I do and create. I was reminded that my work is not only relevant here at Cardus and with Comment magazine, but also in the kingdom. I am honoured to be part of a team that is able to bring that good news all over.
One thing I've always loved about Comment is that we try not to publish the same old stories from the usual suspects. Yes, we've had some really big names in our pages this year, but a real highlight for our whole team is when a pitch is sent—tentatively—to some up-and-comer and they just knock it out of the park like José Bautista. And this year was an embarrassment of riches. We were repeatedly blown away by pieces from Matthew Loftus, and Kevin Flatt, and even a few Comment readers—Bethany Hebbard and Joseph Elliott Schlabs—whose responses to our call for submissions made our (admittedly doubtful) team do a double take with their brevity, wisdom, and candour. Such moments make us grateful for such work, but also encouraged to see the small role Comment (alongside many other publications) has in fostering a new generation of Christian writers and readers.
And apart from all the beautiful cover art, wonderful poetry, insightful authors, and numerous articles our team published this year, for me a real highlight of 2015 was learning how each issue is a small miracle of so many hands and minds: from the rough ideas pitched over beers at a retreat; to Jamie's inimitable fashioning of a pitch that becomes an anchoring editorial; to the list of names we generate of established giants and, as I mentioned, yet-unheard-of gems who might actually write and review for us (well, for you!); to the cat-herding of so. many. deadlines; to the push-and-pull of editing and editing and copyediting; to the design wonders that Kathryn and Kira manage; to the marketing; to the mail; and—most satisfying—to the day the print copies arrive at headquarters and we get our fresh-off-the-press Comment with hardly enough time to enjoy because we're already deep into the process of the next issue . . . the cycle of each issue is an exhilarating ride. Our incredible, invisible team behind Comment has been a highlight of 2015, and it's what gets me excited for what 2016 has in store.
I suppose I'd have to say my highlight for 2015 was receiving the email from Dan Postma back in June offering me the position of copyeditor for Comment magazine. While I work far away from the team up in the Great White North (I'm from the Great Brown Center), it's been a privilege listening in on the editorial chatter that goes in to making a magazine. These people know how to work as a team, and they clearly love what they do.
Work as an academic copyeditor (which is what I do when I'm not editing for Comment) can sometimes get a little monotonous: applying a set of technical rules to a text, with little room or time for creativity. I usually have to settle for making muddy prose merely passable. Not so with Comment! Thanks to the quality of the authors Jamie and the team rustle up and the hard work of the editors to develop the essays, the pieces that find their way to my inbox already sparkle with lively prose. Editing good writing like this is not merely making poor sentences readable, or even making decent ones better; it's a collaboration in articulating truth and beauty and goodness. And in that it's a participation in the common good.