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Against Apathy: The University of Virginia's Critical Mass

U.Va.'s first fully on-line magazine fights the status quo.

By Moira Koch

It is minutes before the Critical Mass meeting is scheduled to begin, and the room is surprisingly quiet. About twenty students are already seated at the small desks in the Minor Hall classroom, and several more trickle in: two girls in retro seventies' era jackets. A WASP in the standard University of Virginia fleece vest. A boy with hair a shocking shade of orange. Several Asians, one black, and one Hispanic student. They take their seats and talk quietly, or approach Mingming Wu and Breshen Rogers, the two student editors seated at the front of the classroom.

At the stroke of seven, Mingming stands up and approaches the podium. The other members focus on the slight Asian woman in hiking boots. The room grows quiet. "Tonight we're going to do editing workshops," she begins, explaining the formats for the workshops and the importance of tough criticism. "We're also trying to think of sexy ways to present the article on the page so it looks really smooth."

"Remember, though, with criticism," Breshen, the other editor, emphasizes quietly, "be heavy. Be firm."

Be heavy. The members of Critical Mass take themselves seriously. They are trying to establish the most progressive magazine at the University of Virginia, both in content and in presentation. Last year, they started the first completely on-line magazine at the U.Va. This year, they have both paper and electronic versions of the magazine available in an attempt to reach as many people as possible, both inside and outside the University. Their goal is not to produce another nicely-packaged product for students to skim during dry classes, but to cause rebellion in the minds of students. They are attempting to disturb hundreds of years of tradition, to crack the conservative mindset of U.Va. students, and to make readers respond.

Not surprisingly, Critical Mass is more graphic and controversial than any other magazine offered ata, including the often-offensive Declaration. And the content is much more varied. If you have strong beliefs, prepare yourself. Critical Mass criticizes everything, from the treatment of women in the University, to the use of bleached paper in classrooms, to the role of the free market in society. Some articles read like political treatises, others--well, if you cringe at four-letter words, be prepared. Here's an excerpt from graduate Ranald Woodaman's piece about the gay male body in America: "And so I have a cock and balls, not a pussy. Vive la difference-no. But simply la difference vive. If I didn't queer my appearance and my attitude so much I could further capitalize on my large hairy frame." Controversial? Yes, but it gets attention, and that's just what Critical Mass wants to do.

"We didn't think that there were any magazines devoted to progressive ideas and political issues," co-editor Mingming explains. Mingming--popular activist and political and social thought major--acknowledges that "progressive's hard to define. It's a strategic looses alliance of groups put together because of their common interests in having every human voice represented." In other words, all opinions are entertained. Environmentalists, gay and lesbian rights activists and community workers have an opportunity to share their views. Lipstick and hard-line feminists can both speak, allowing Critical Mass to avoid factions.

By starting Critical Mass, Mingming and the other members are filling a void at the university. U.Va students are known for their apathy. In a recent issue of Harper's Magazine, U.Va. history professor Mark Edmundson wrote about the blandness of college students in general and his own students in particular, men and women who are "very, very self-contained." The students Edmundson describes as typical "will not generally...indict the current system. They won't talk about how the exigencies of capitalism lead to a reserve army of the unemployed and nearly inevitable misery. That would be getting too loud, too brash. For the pervading view is the cool consumer perspective, where passion and strong admiration are forbidden."

It is against this mindset that Critical Mass works. Mingming's first editorial last year, written with Breshen Rogers months before the Edmundson article, sums up the goals of the magazine best: "It is our goal to invigorate political discussion, to offer progressive argument, and to transform the complacent atmosphere hereat U.Va. into one of active discussion and (dare we say!) dissent." Critical Mass has created what they call a "public space," a "soapbox" where students can be heard.

And, because the magazine began on-line where any member of the virtual community can have his say, Critical Mass is truly a cyber-soapbox. Mingming speaks of creating a "virtual community" on the Web, where anyone anywhere can use the Critical Mass Website to speak his mind, through e-mail, articles, and letters to the editor. And, because the Web is not limited to University students, Critical Mass has the potential to meet millions throughout the world, connecting activist groups and providing links to other publications. Websites such as these are the town squares of the global village.

Originally, the five founders of Critical Mass didn't plan to go on-line. They wanted to distribute a purely paper magazine, but money was an obstacle. When they conceived of the magazine last October, funds for the year had already been distributed among U.Va publications. "It wasn't like anyone wanted to shaft us," says Mingming. "But we didn't want to lose our fire." So they moved to a free forum: the Internet. They applied for CIO (Contracted Independent Organization) status from Student Council, and wrote a required constitution, modeled, surprisingly, on their ultraconservative rivals, the Virginia Advocate. A month later, Critical Mass went on-line.

The biggest problem has been publicity. Students couldn't pick up the magazine on the way to class or off the news rack at the gym; they had to actively look for the magazine over the Web. "We had a huge publicity drive at first," Mingming explains. "We put cards on every computer and flyers everywhere, but being on-line definitely hurt."

Unlike hard-copy magazines, Critical Mass on-line is not limited by space requirements or printing costs, and the number of articles that can be posted is virtually unlimited. There are more opportunities on the Web. Mingming describes future possible additions to their site, including a guest list, more links to other liberal publications, and a sign showing the "hits," or the number of times their site is accessed. Working on the Web is a double-edged sword, however. "As a writer, you always want to write more rather than less. On the Web, we had a tendency to write as much as ten pages...The danger [is] that the Web isn't like paper. It's hard to read, and people don't want to scroll and scroll."

Finally, because the magazine is a CIO, Critical Mass "can't use the Web to its subversive potential," Mingming says candidly. The CIO requires the magazine to follow standards of good taste, though Critical Mass monitors itself so far through common sense and editing sessions. As radical as it is for U.VA., though, the magazine is positively tame for the Web, where lesbian love stories, psychic chat rooms, and decapitated bodies appear at the click of a mouse. Because they are competing against so many other extremist websites, it is easy for browsers to either ignore or to shrug off the ideas offered in Critical Mass. The ability to influence people, to be subversive, is "also the ability to reach people" Mingming explains. "[We're] easy to discount because you see so many wacky things."

Even with the first paper version of the magazine distributed in October, Critical Mass has not produced much change in the status quo at U.Va. The hard version of the magazine is close in content and spirit to the Web version, but has entered the classrooms and cafeterias of the University with barely a ripple. "The University ignores us," Mingming says plainly. Most students have not even heard of Critical Mass, much less responded to it. The day after the first hard issue of Critical Mass was available, a visitor to U.Va. could hear conversations about the football season, mid-terms, and, occasionally, the Virginia elections. Discussions about progressivism exist in the pages of Critical Mass, but cannot yet be heard on Grounds. The magazine has a long way to go before students begin to discuss anti-immigration laws over coffee.

Which isn't to say that the members of Critical Mass aren't making some waves. An informal survey at one staff meeting showed that almost all of the members first heard of the journal by word of mouth, or by locating it on the Web. And, last year, Critical Mass, led by members such as Mingming and Breshen, helped to organize the March labor movement begun by U.Va. professors and teaching assistants. In a week-long forum they protested labor policies at the University. The event was widely publicized, both in Critical Mass and in other student and local publications. Even Ralph Nader made an appearance as a speaker at the Chemistry building. Hundreds of students turned out for the labor rally, but "momentum was lost very quickly after that," Mingming says.

It is the staff's goal to keep the momentum for such movements going. In theory, Critical Mass should soon have the potential, through on-line and off-line versions, to physically reach more students than any other U.Va. publication. In the process, they hope to crack what Edmundson describes as the college culture, a "culture tensely committed to a laid-back norm."

Meanwhile, in Minor Hall 135, members are fighting the laid-back norm. After an hour of individual editing, and an hour of heated discussion and criticism about the contents of each article, the meeting is winding down. Several students continue to argue about the morality of political fundraising as they put on their jackets and pick up their bookbags. Their voices carry across the room, reaching the two male students in black discussing the Virginia Film Festival, and the three students to their left fleshing out racial attitudes at the University. Critical Mass members may not be the norm, but they are college students, and they are anything but apathetic. Though they have not yet caused widespread dissension, the seeds are there, in their website, the voices of their members, and now, the pages of their magazine.

Critical Mass is available monthly in paper, and on the Web, at http://scs.student.Virginia.EDU/~critical/. The staff welcome e-mail and comments. Meetings are held every Monday at 7 p.m. in Minor 135.

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