Sam Spratford: At the Intersection of Theory and Practice

Whether in reporting for The Student, organizing, or moshing at hardcore shows, at the center of everything Sam Spratford ’24 does is a genuine care for and curiosity about the world.

Sam Spratford: At the Intersection of Theory and Practice
Sam values journalism as a cornerstone of political discourse, pushing for transparency and accuracy of The Student's reporting during their term as editor-in-chief. Photo courtesy of Sam Spratford ’24

If there is one thing you should know about Sam, it’s that they love Kafka.

“When I read his work, I feel like I’m not crazy. Or like I am crazy, but at least someone else has been crazy in the same way before.”

While I often poke fun at Sam for their somewhat-parasocial relationship with a man who hasn’t been alive for the past century, they’re not wrong — they do possess a Kafkaesque craziness (though I might instead classify it as brilliance) that permeates their thinking and writing alike.

“Sam has this combination of both journalistic ethos — like a real attention to ongoing political empirical work — and this incredible creative theoretical ability,” Visiting Assistant Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought (LJST) Nica Siegel said.

I couldn’t put it better. Though Sam is someone I’ve worked with closely on The Student and in our editorial positions for The Common (a professional literary magazine based out of Amherst), I think of them first and foremost as a friend. I am often susceptible to Sam’s mind — and I am always enamored by it.

I and others who know them would certainly describe them as funny, but they are also so thoughtful and incredibly intentional about how they carry themself through the world.

“Sam comes to their decisions not just out of some sort of feeling,” said Cole Warren ’24. “They think a lot about how they participate in society.”

While Sam has strong moral convictions, they are “genuinely open to being changed by an encounter with someone else's thinking, willing to take on someone else’s idea and try it on for size,” as Siegel put it. Through this, they constantly push not only themself, but also those around them, to better themselves.

“Sam holds you to a high standard,” said Liam Archaki ’24, who was their co-editor-in-chief at  The Student, “but they do so because they just care.”

Description of a Childhood

Sam grew up in La Grange, Illinois, just 20 minutes out from Chicago, in a tight-knit suburban community.

“I’ve had people come visit my town and say it looks like The Truman Show,” Sam told me. “Which is creepy, but also objectively, that would be a nice neighborhood to grow up in, you know?”

Sam remembered reading Discovery Kids books, “these informational nonfiction books about random topics — there was a book for every topic you could think of.” They also were “into bugs and the human body,” and went to a dissection camp one summer. (I regret not having asked them to elaborate on what dissection camp entails).

On weekends, Sam’s family would often go into Chicago. Sam thinks fondly upon the times their parents would take them and their younger brother to the Field Museum, where they liked the sauropods the most, “but also the velociraptors, because they were small and could run fast — like me at the time.”

Sam played soccer (the primary setting for their running fast) from when they were seven through high school, and they were also a self-proclaimed “band kid.”

“I started playing the flute in fourth grade. … And I loved practicing — just doing the same thing over and over again until it was perfect,” Sam said.

In high school, they were in the pep band, in the marching band, and were its drum major during their last two years. They also played in the orchestra for school musicals, including the troubadour piccolo part for Spamalot.

Their high school had an “abnormally nice” radio station, on which they also did a show with their friends. Eventually they all became its station managers together, with Sam as the production director. “That’s when I learned to do audio editing stuff,” they said. (This is important because it’s how they later got involved in The Student).

I paused Sam’s narration for a moment here to ask them why they thought they didn’t continue soccer or the flute once coming to Amherst.

“I don’t think I really have a good answer to that question,” they admitted, after a moment. “I think, partly, I very much came into college with the mindset that ‘this is where I’m going to find out who I am,’ and to an extent, when I came in, I thought of that task of self-exploration as involving the rejection of the person I was — which isn’t the most mature way to think about it. But while [soccer and flute] were things I spent a lot of time on growing up, and I was good at them, I didn’t necessarily value them … they weren’t a core part of who I was.”

Something they did discover they loved before Amherst, and which continued to saturate their academic and extracurricular interests throughout their time here, was a love for writing and reading.

In high school, they really valued their English classes and “close-reading specifically.”

“I remember we read the book, ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood, which is still one of my favorite books. … I remember just thinking that she put so much thought into every single word. And that’s maybe an obvious thing. … But that was the first time I realized writers thought that much about what they were putting on the page, realized what the actual power of language was,” they said. “I just got so obsessed with really diving into every word.”

Excursion into the College

“I only did one college application,” Sam told me, having applied early decision to Amherst.

Sam came from an Amherst family, both of their parents graduating from the college in the 1990s.

“That didn’t make me choose Amherst, but it made me not choose Williams for sure,” they laughed. “And it is absolutely a huge reason why I wanted to go to a liberal arts school in general.”

When Sam first got to campus, they remembered being given a room in the Boltwood and three days worth of food, though they were released from quarantine just hours later. After lugging their suitcase in circles around the quad, they finally found Stearns where they would meet many of the people who’d stay their closest friends during the rest of their time at Amherst.

While Sam came into college thinking they’d be an English major, their first semester, they took “Legal Questions,” the intro LJST class. It was here that they realized that the attention they had paid to literature, that mode of textual analysis they loved so much, could be applied to texts that were related to the political issues they really cared about. (They had been involved in Black Lives Matter organizing, for instance, the summer before they came to Amherst, with Chicago being at the center of many organizing and abolitionist movements.)

“We would talk about judicial rhetoric, and analyze Supreme Court opinions as if they were literary pieces. We’d pick apart like, ‘what's the tone? And how does the tone fit with this pattern of diction that's happening?’”

After only a few weeks into “Legal Theory” in their second semester, they declared an LJST major.

Sam cited many classes that have especially stuck with them after their four years.

Their sophomore year, they took “Anthropology of the Middle East” with Professor of Anthropology Chris Dole. There, for the first time, they encountered narratives about the Islamic world that self-consciously reflected on the biases of the people writing them.

“I was realizing the depth of some of my own biases as well, and the ways biases can be baked into language,” they said.

They also applied for Professor Sarat’s colloquium titled “America’s Death Penalty,” where they and five others worked for a little under a year on research that looked at what happens to the death penalty in crisis periods, such as wars, economic depressions or recessions, and pandemics.

Of all the classes they described, though, the impact they drew from two in particular stuck out to me. They spoke about Assistant Professor of Black Studies and Political Science Jared Loggins’ “Black Radical Tradition” and Siegel’s “Action, Labor, Law” as being formative for them, as the classes “treated theory with the seriousness of politics.”

This practice would be extremely formative as Sam later worked through their thesis.

The Trial of a Thesis  

The summer between their freshman and sophomore year, while doing a Schupf fellowship with George Daniel Olds Professor of Economic and Social Institutions Kristin Bumiller, Sam got fixated on the theoretical questions that ended up occupying them for the rest of their time at Amherst — the notion of autonomy as it is reified in our legal system, and the way peoples’ social and economic situations infringe on their actual freedom.

Sam told me their theoretical interests are shaped in part by their family members being Holocaust refugees and Nazism being thought of as the paradigm of biopolitics.

In their research with Bumiller, they looked at anti-vaccination social movements, the history of compulsory vaccination, and the ways that legal discourses structure the way anti-vax activists talk and write about freedom, encouraging people to think about autonomy a certain way.

“When you see something that seems so irrational or outrageous that is happening in society, it’s not productive to just disparage those people … because social movements all have reasons for why they exist, you know?” Sam explained. “Professor Bumiller encouraged approaching it as a problem to be explained more than something to be critiqued.”

Reading Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish,” Sam described feeling like he somehow put into words something that they had always thought and sensed on an intuitive level, citing his ideas about subjectification, and about language being suffused with power while being what we use to think and communicate with each other.

They thought about this theory as they explored connections between anti-vaxxers’ identities primarily as mothers and the individual responsibility they feel for their children, and legal discourses on the right to bodily autonomy and the notion of negative freedom that individual rights reify.

Freedom as conceptualized in anti-vax activism, they explained, “imagines everyone as equal individuals free from outside coercion … and is very hostile to the notion of the individual having responsibility to a collective or being obligated to make decisions that look out for other people.”

“I am interested in figuring out how the law might move away from an individualist framing of the legal subject that obscures material differences, without sacrificing or denying people agency. … Because as soon as you say, ‘freedom,’ it’s like, not everyone is equally free,” Sam said.

These questions about autonomy and freedom ultimately led to their thesis.

Sam’s thesis looks at physician assisted suicide — which they described as the most extreme case when looking at an individual-rights framework of freedom — using Canada’s decriminalization of the procedure as a case study. It looks at how, within this case, the negative freedom framework operates as a technology of biopolitical power.

“People are choosing physician assisted suicide because they don’t have access to social services or other health care options. So the concern is basically that the government has made it easier for many people to die than to live.”

“I have a lot of admiration for the kinds of topics Sam chooses to take on, which are often irresolvable ones … and demand that you push up against the limits of what’s thinkable under contemporary conditions of racial capitalism,”  said Siegel, who was one of Sam’s thesis advisors. “They have a particular kind of commitment, …  [and are] willing to follow a thought or an observation to its most intense point.”

During the second semester of Sam’s senior year, Siegel had to take a leave of absence, and Sam was paired with John E. Kirkpatrick 1951 Professor in LJST Adam Sitze as an advisor for the remainder of their thesis.

“I still to this day have not ever had someone I respect as much as I respect [Professor Siegel] show that much trust in my thought process and my writing process … and that was so special to me,” Sam shared. “I never said ‘I want to drop my thesis,’ but I think if I had, she wouldn't have let me.”

“And Professor Sitze gave me the structure and the direction that I needed,” they continued. “In the final months, he read my writing with such exactitude … [and] I felt so grateful to be working with somebody who was attending to the small things as much as I do.”

On Sam’s writing, both in their thesis and beyond, Siegel said the following: “Sam has a really vivid voice, an incredible writer’s ear, and this sense of style and creativity. They really are one of the most talented writers I’ve ever encountered as a teacher.”

Investigations of a Journalist

It was in the spring of their freshman year that Sam wrote their first news article for The Student.

“I got involved with the newspaper because it was one of the only things that was still running very consistently during the pandemic,” they first told me when I asked why they’d joined. However, it ran much deeper than just this. As they unwound their thoughts about journalism for me, they described it as a cornerstone of political discourse.

“I always saw newspapers as just so central to the political life of any place, really, but especially college campuses … and ones as small as this, where we as students really do have the potential to be very politically active and involved with the way our campus looks and the decisions the administration makes,” they said. “I was also always interested in the editorial work, because [editors] are the people who choose the stories and set the agenda for discourse on campus.”

Their sophomore year, they headed the podcast section of the paper, responding to a call from former Editor-in-Chief Becca Picciotto ’22 for someone with audio-editing skills.

Producing “The Student Sums It Up,” a podcast where they’d interview news editors about the biggest stories of the week, their “conversations weren’t just about the substance of the story, but their reporting process and how they chose what sources they were going to talk to and challenges they had in framing the article.” Though not all of that would end up in the final episode, “it was really interesting to me as somebody who was also enthusiastic about editorial work, to get the opportunity to, think about these questions and … talk to editors who were already thinking about them and working with them on a daily basis.”

They also “had a lot of fun getting more creative with audio editing.”

“What I had been doing in high school radio, and ‘Tusk Talks’ and ‘The Students Sums It Up,’ were very much like straight interviews,” they said. “But my favorite podcasts aren’t like that. My favorite podcasts are narrative storytelling.” So Sam started experimenting more with splicing scripted narrative segments in between interview clips, and adding sound effects to guide the listener.

Soon, Becca made Sam The Student’s first official podcast editor, giving them free rein of the section. Their first item of action was recruitment, which brought in now-podcast editor Andrew Rosin ’25. Together, Sam and Andrew started a show centering issues in elite higher education called “Terras Irradient,” where they investigated issues such as disciplinary processes, comparing Amherst’s framework to that of Reed College, which is much more student-led, or the Amherst to Wall Street pipeline.

“[This podcast] went back to the reason I got involved with The Student in the first place, which was just like, I wanted to know what was going on, and I have a lot of questions about the way this place works,” they said. “It gave me the opportunity to investigate and get answers for myself.”

The summer after their sophomore year, they were in Long Island at a friend’s house, when then-Editor-in-Chief Lynn Lee ’23 reached out to them asking if they’d be free for a Zoom meeting at some point that week.

“I got on the call, and [Lynn] asked me if I was interested in being editor-in-chief,” Sam recounted. “I was genuinely surprised … but as soon as she said it, I was very enthusiastic. And I said, ‘I mean, I have to think about it a little more. But, you know, my first reaction is, yes, I would love to.’”

During their term as editor-in-chief, Sam reported more in print, including on ChatGPT, the Latin honors requirement change, and the AAS budgetary crisis.

Sam spoke about working with Liam as co-editors-in-chief. “I think from the beginning, we were aware of what each other’s strengths and weaknesses were. And I think our strengths complemented each other really well.”

“Liam also took his editorial role very, very seriously, and I don't think I would have been able to work with somebody who didn’t share my passion for journalism and share my respect for the paper as a politically-influential publication on campus. … No matter what we disagreed on, there was always that baseline agreement in terms of our values.”

Liam echoed this sentiment. “Consistently, I was blown away by how passionate, hardworking and thoughtful [Sam was],” he said. “They made bold decisions and never compromised their principles.”

Liam’s support, Sam shared, was something they were extremely grateful for after Oct. 7, when much of their energy shifted to making editorial decisions on how The Student would cover Israel-Palestine.

They also wrote several op-eds on the subject, one of which “caused pretty big disruption.”

“I wrote an op-ed [co-signed by most of the opinion editors at the time] where I basically said that I didn’t think it was right for The Student to publish op-eds that were based in really racist Zionist narratives. I wrote that in a moment of really extreme frustration and moral agony because we had been receiving a ton of really inflammatory and vitriol, op-eds from alumni,” they recalled. “We had been working with them for weeks to get better evidence and make arguments that weren't just the regurgitation of pro-war propaganda. … These were not principled, robust, pro-Israel arguments; these were, ‘Hamas is everywhere, and they use people as human shields’ types of things.”

Feeling that the standards the editorial board had for what constituted a rigorous argument about Israel-Palestine were too low, and that these low standards resulted in us publishing things that they found to be “not only morally reprehensible, but just untruthful and poorly written,” they “made a decision that was communicated in a way that was very vague, and it made a lot of people mad.”

After this, “we worked really hard to come back, and had that really long conversation about what had motivated writing that op-ed and … what the limits were of what we as editors could responsibly publish,” Sam said.

“I had to come to terms with the fact that to an extent, to be an editor, you do have to compromise your political principles sometimes. You can make decisions about where the conversation should go. You can make decisions about what is truth and what isn’t truth to an extent. But, you know, what truth is is inherently political. And so there’s always going to be a threshold that you can’t cross where people have to be allowed to hash out competing truths.”

While Sam told me they don’t regret anything they did, as they acted according to their principles in the best way they knew how at the time, they said if they encounter a similar situation again, they will be glad to have the experience to draw from.

“Sam is the absolute best person I could have been editor-in-chief alongside,” Liam said. “[They] inspired me to be true to my principles, even when … that’s a scary thing.”

In the Scene-al Colony

Outside of classes and the paper, Sam started a band called Hivemouth with their friends during their junior year. They played bass for the band, which performed at Battle of The Bands at the Drake.

Sam also became more involved in the Marsh Arts House and the local hardcore scene.

“Some of my best memories are from going to hardcore shows. The community in the scene is really invigorating and inspiring, … and not all of the bands in the scene are super political, but many of them are. Being in a space where people channeled their political frustrations into music and creative work really was a huge part of why I didn’t burn out.”

Senior fall, they brought hardcore bands to Marsh.

“It makes me so happy that I helped incorporate Amherst a little more into the local music scene, because honestly, a lot of it revolves around Hampshire or UMass. And now Marsh is a regular venue. We don’t feel as isolated anymore, which is really what the arts house is for.”

Sam has also been organizing with Amherst For Palestine (AFP). In the past months, they’ve organized for divestment from the Israeli military, including being one of the AFP representatives who introduced the divestment resolution to the Association of Amherst Students that was passed, and enacting tangible actions leading up to the faculty vote. Most recently, they and others met with the Board of Trustees to present their official divestment demands.

The Departure

After graduation, Sam will be around for a year, continuing their work for The Common as its next  literary editorial fellow.

“I’m interested in publishing for the editorial side of things,” they said. “I really like the editorial process of working with a writer to help them bring their vision to life and also figure out how to communicate it in a way where people will listen, and people will get something out of it.”

After this, they mentioned a number of prospects: continuing publishing or journalism, going into academia, or possibly becoming a litigator for a nonprofit.

“I’d consider grad school in Austria or the EU for political theory or comp-lit. … I can get a free or heavily-discounted education [because of my Austrian citizenship]. And you can pretty much study political theory or comp-lit anywhere — you don’t really need to be in a specific place,” they said.

“Back in Chicago, there’s also a lot of cool journalism happening in the city,” they continued. “I might try to do that for a while and see what happens.”

While I’m delighted to have Sam around for another year, I am so very eager to see what they continue to produce in the world after, whether that’s tangible social change, or, simply, good writing. (Likely, I think, it’ll be both.)

I’ll end on this. Throughout my conversations with Sam about their time at Amherst, something I noticed again and again was how grateful they were for the people who have impacted their time here. So for a moment, I want to write just to them, and express the same:

Sam, wherever you end up, I know you will be leading life with conviction and compassion for others. You have this great care for the world, and for bettering it, that permeates everything you do. To have seen this, and to have known you, I am endlessly thankful. Truly, Sam — I am thankful for all of it.