Emma Swislow: Taking on All The World’s Weird and Wonderful

Emma Swislow: Taking on All The World’s Weird and Wonderful
Swislow approaches all she does with a quiet appreciation to absorb all that she can about the topic at hand. Photo Courtesy of Emma Swislow ’20.

My earliest memory of Emma Swislow ’20 comes from before I even knew who she was. Early in my first year at Amherst — her sophomore year — we both frequented the first floor of the library, where we’d sit at the wheeled tables near the periodicals. Emma would sit behind her brightly stickered laptop, laughingly commanding a table full of 19-year-old college boys. As I sat tables over, behind the screen of my own stickered Macbook, I was so captivated because it was everything I so badly wanted to find for myself. She seemed so cool and comfortable in herself, which could not be further from the adjectives used to describe me that September of my first year. Her laptop stickers proudly announced that she was from Chicago (a sticker of a bright baby-blue flag across the middle), a fan of “Game of Thrones” and a reader of Aldous Huxley; she reigned over this table with such certainty, seemingly unbothered by the boyish taunts and teasing of her tablemates. Who was she, confident in her own niche nerdiness? And how could I be like her too?

Come spring, Emma and I both found ourselves in the basement office of The Student — she was a fresh news editor and I was on arts & living. Still insecure and uncertain, I saw Emma as someone who I could easily recognize myself in. We were both literary-minded, dabbling in the ultimate frisbee team (which neither of us really stuck to, ultimately) and interested in natural sciences (she as a geology student and I as an environmental studies major). I looked up to her as a role model then, and I still do. Three years later, as I sat down to write this profile from the suburban house where I grew up, I wondered what those versions of ourselves would think of us now as we’ve both grown and taken the helm of something far greater than a table full of sophomore boys.

Life On and Off the Page

Swislow’s tenure on the newspaper defines her time at Amherst. Starting off as a news writer in her first year, she stepped into the role of news editor in the spring of 2018 as a sophomore and then served as the editor-in-chief, from the fall of 2018 to the fall of 2019.

The road of editorship has been rewarding, but certainly rocky, Swislow says. Her introduction to The Student was through writing on fairly light topics like our Fresh Faculty and Thoughts on Theses series; her introduction to news editorship was a little less rosy. Specifically, the campus faced two student deaths only weeks apart, and Swislow grappled with how to cover that in a newspaper, on a campus where everyone seems to know everyone else.

“I think both of those deaths were felt really, really strongly by the entire community, and figuring out how to cover them in a way that both respected the privacy of the students and the families but also provided information that was important and impactful to the community was something that taught me a lot,” she said. “It was tough. I mean, I wrote the article about one of the memorial services, and I have to admit I was crying through the entire thing because it was just so emotional.”

And it did not get easier going forward. The next year, Swislow and her fellow editor-in-chief Shawna Chen ’20 oversaw the coverage of the controversy surrounding the college’s Common Language Document, sexist and transphobic remarks about it in the Amherst Republicans GroupMe, the visit of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, anti-semetic harassment by men’s lacrosse players, Chen’s series on tenure for faculty of color and the report of some faculty opposition to an affordable housing development in town. Each came with its own fresh batch of ethical questions.

It’s hard, being at the head of a newspaper and knowing that you can’t pass off tricky choices onto anyone else higher up the ladder, as Swislow explained and as I’ve come to know. She looked to her parents, who both led careers in journalism at the Chicago Tribune for some answers, but the workings of a big city paper are not a one-for-one match for the ethical questions that plague a tiny college newspaper. Often, it comes down to what feels right.

“I have my gut instincts,” said Swislow. “Often, if you think about it for a while, and you talk to a few people, lay [the situation] out and think through some of the possible scenarios, you can come to a pretty solid conclusion on what is mostly right and what is mostly wrong. You know, nothing is ever black and white.” (Even newspapers…) 

But, for all these challenges, Chen was in it right alongside Swislow. “I could not imagine being editor-in-chief with anyone else really,” Swislow said. The two have known each other since before coming to Amherst — they met at a journalism summer program run out of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (“We’ve known each other since we were 16/17… Oh my god,” she laughed). When Emma arrived as a student on campus, Shawna was the only other person she knew.

Chen had joined the paper as a news editor a little bit before Swislow, and the two held the position side by side for most of their sophomore year. “We’ve basically been working together intensively since the beginning of sophomore year, which is a really long time,” she said. “It was really, really wonderful to sort of have that person throughout basically my entire time in the newspaper. It’s so important to just have someone who understood what it was like. My friends are amazing, but also, they don’t always get it. Newspaper can be really intense; it can be really draining; it can be really rewarding. And so having someone else that got it was really, really important.”

Chen agreed: “Because of newspaper, there’s a dynamic of partnership that really played a big role in my life at Amherst,” she said. “Having that partnership, having that support and knowing that she had my back no matter what was really important to me and helped me get through a lot, not just with newspaper but personal matters too.”

“We work really well together,” Swislow added. The two have different approaches to journalism that made them complement each other so well .

“It was so easy with her. The type of partnership and rapport I had with her was so easy. I keep returning to the word easy but I think just because it was like two pieces of a puzzle, as cheesy as that is. We just fit really well,” Shawna said.

Their relationship, to me, stands out about what is so uniquely special about working at The Student: It breeds this deep intimacy and closeness among people whose lives overlap only in this one intense project. The friendships that come out of newspaper are ones that would not exist in any other context and operate unlike any relationships I’ve had, in the most wonderful way.

“One of the main things that I’ve just loved about being on the newspaper were production nights. I love when everyone is in the office. Sometimes people talk too much, myself included, but it’s just so much fun to all be together, working on creating that week’s issue,” Swislow said. “I love being with the staff of the paper. I mean, I just loved everybody who was on the staff during my time as editor-in-chief and so that was just so much fun. I miss that a lot, honestly, because then at the end of the night, Shawna and I would send the paper off, and it’s like one in the morning, but we just did something. And it was a really, really great experience to have.”

“I think [Swislow] was really instrumental to making sure that our newsroom felt like a family, that it had a comfortable dynamic that felt like a family,” Chen said. “She very readily strikes a conversation with people and asks questions about themselves. It was very easy to fold everyone into the conversation, into the dynamic we built together. She was always really really awesome with that and made sure that everyone felt included.”

The Past, in a Modern Light

As Emma and I spoke, the shadow of the coronavirus and its effects hung over our interview. Instead of talking in person, I spoke to Emma over Zoom in her childhood bedroom at her parents’ house in Chicago, where she’s been filling her days searching for jobs, jogging around Chicago streets and baking with her mom’s sourdough starter. She’s lived out most of the senior milestones she expected to experience on campus from behind the screen of a Zoom call, rather than with her friends in their neighboring Taplin suites.

Most notably, “I wish we [Swis- low and her friends] could have been together when we finished those theses,” she said. Swislow’s social circle is a strong and intense group of very different people, who are all academically driven, as she describes. Her close friendships have been another defining part of her time at Amherst.

Swislow’s own thesis, written in the English department, focused on the life and writing of Emily Dickinson, tracing desire as it relates to food. She divided the thesis into three chapters: the desire for desire (“very meta,” she said), the desire for control and the desire to shrink and vanish. Within these chapters, Swislow applied three different tools of analyzing (or different “buckets” as Swislow described it). The first was in close reading poetry. In the second approach, she looked at Dickinson’s letters and life, “both the times she lived in and her biography.” For the third bucket, Swislow wrote about her own life and her own relationship to food.

To her thesis advisor and long-time professor, Geoffrey Sanborn, Henry Poler ’59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English, this first-person writing in the thesis opened a window onto the thoughtfulness that defines Emma. “Her most salient trait, in my experience, is her quiet focus. All of her social qualities have a kind of interior depth, it feels like to me, because somewhere inside her is a kind of fundament, where things that have happened to her and things that matter to her have coalesced into something lasting,” he said. “In the personal-essay interludes that she began incorporating into her thesis last winter, that interior space became the subject of her writing, and it was incredibly moving.”

For Swislow, though, it was the collection of these little facts to build a greater understanding that resonated with her about the thesis. “I really loved writing those parts about her biography and her letters cause I feel like it just shows a side of Emily Dickinson that people often overlook,” she said. “[Dickinson’s] a very much mythologized figure in literature, and part of the goal of my thesis was to break down those sorts of walls that have been put up around her, and to see her in a more modern light. She is really modern. She’s not old like everyone thinks she is.”

The influence that Swislow’s other major, geology, has had on her thinking surrounding literature and her thesis is clear. Like these elements of Dickinson that resonated with Swislow, what captivates her about geology is how its lessons from the past can also help us understand things “in a more modern light.” She said, “A lot of what I enjoyed learning about in geology was learning about climate change in the past, figuring out how I could apply that to climate change now and then think- ing about first of all how to explain it, but also working to solve it.”

She doesn’t expect to pursue a career explicitly in geology, but she sees how the skills she built in the major will equip her for a range of disciplines, whatever she chooses to do next. Her geology advisor, Tekla Harms, the chair of the geology department, sees it too: “I like to think that a background in geology helps prepare one for this kind of decision-making; the work geologists do is to identify the solution that best fits the often-incomplete data the earth preserves of its past. Looking toward the future asks you to identify the best option when you don’t yet know who you will become,” she said.

All the LittleThings

Emma holds such a strong passion, not just for the nitty-gritty nuances of geology, but also for sharing and explaining them. It makes perfect sense that she wants to find a career in environmental communications. When we spoke, she told me about a trip her family took last year to England’s Jurassic Coast, which is perhaps the most perfect place for geological and literary loves to converge. In Dorset, tourists can visit the home of Thomas Hardy and then walk along the Jurassic coastline, littered with fossils of trilobites, which are tiny, prehistoric arthropods. “Let me show you some!” she interrupted her story to dash across her room and retrieve the little rocks she’d taken home from the coast. She held them up to the laptop camera so that I could see. “Here’s your geology lesson,” she joked, as she launched into an explanation of how the fine-grained mudstone of the coast created layers so that when you split open a rock on the beach “chances are that you’ll probably find a fossil.”

Visiting the Jurassic Coast, Swislow stumbled upon fossils every few feet, to the geology student’s delight. Photo Courtesy of Emma Swislow ’20.

“It was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” she said.

Thomas Hardy wrote about them, too. “You would never expect to see that in a piece of literature but there it is,” Swislow said. She excitedly explained that the trilobites appear in the scene that’s regarded as the original cliffhanger from “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” where the protagonist hangs off a cliff on this Jurassic Coast, and as he does so, he is looking at the trilobite in the rock before him. 

Her friend and fellow English and geology double major, Raina Chinitz ’20 recognized this excitement to share knowledge as a defining characteristic of her friend. “When I think of Emma, I think of persistence, curiosity, hard work, organization and her tendency to fall deep into something and her drive to know everything about it and immerse herself in it. I’m trying to say like, obsessive, but in a good way,” Chinitz told me. “In her friendships, she’s the kind of person who remembers little things about you because she can fill her mind with little details but also because she cares about those little things too.”

“Emma gave our friend group a 20+ minute presentation over Zoom about Tik Tok drama and the world of Tik Tok, during the midst of finals and final papers and craziness,” she added. “Emma has a very large inventory of facts and interests and knowledge and opinions that filled those spaces and it truly amazes me how much she has to say — in the best way possible.” 

I asked Shawna if she noticed this with Emma, too, and she laughed, recalling Emma’s phone case with Larry David’s face all over it and her unabashed love for New York Times Washington Correspondent Mike Schmidt, “She’s so willing to share pieces of herself with people that it makes them feel like she places her trust in them and that they can place their trust in her,” she said. “It feels like Emma just has such an appreciation for the world, for the random things that other people may not see [which] she’s always had an eye on and takes a liking to in the most wonderful ways. That energy has given a lot to me through the years.”

This stands out in the classroom, too. “In my paleontology class, Emma decided to learn about a certain genus of extinct rhinoceros. I have seldom had a student delve so deeply into the paleontological literature to such enjoyable ends. Her presentation on Stephanorhinus (‘unsung hero of the Pleistocene megafauna’) remains one of my favorites,” said Associate Professor of Geology Dave Jones, who led Swislow and Chinitz on a research trip in Wyoming the summer after their first year. Throughout that trip, “Emma kept us all entertained with stories and conversations about books and cooking.”

It is so easy for me to imagine this scene — Emma trekking through Wyoming’s wilderness sharing little stories like this — because it’s the same Emma that I saw week in and out on Tues- day nights during the newspaper’s production. As we pasted text into InDesign files and hunted for stray commas, she would keep the mood afloat with stories of her family’s quest for soup dumplings or of some particularly provocative crumbs in an Emily Dickinson poem (pre-thesis, no less).

It’s this sort of pure excitement for the quirkiness of the world and the comfort she takes in knowing and sharing it that makes Emma, Emma, to me, and it’s what made her stand out to me, years ago, when she just had a cool laptop and enviable confidence at the other table in the library. I hope that now as she seeks a post-grad job, it’s what she finds in a career, too. Anything that allows Emma to bury herself in a subject and communicate its weirdness and wonder will be a profession that allows her and the people around her to thrive.