Academic life is Lingua Franca's subject, though its approach is anything but

The agenda is lunch, but as he mulls over the menu of a Chinese restaurant amid the bustle of New York's Garment District, Alexander Star seems to have other things on his mind.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Star -- a Cambridge native, Harvard graduate and up-and-comer in literary circles -- left his job as assistant literary editor at the New Republic to take over the editorship of Lingua Franca, an upstart magazine with a novel niche: covering the foibles and cultural crosscurrents of academic life.


So while he ponders General Tsao's chicken and vegetarian noodles in the restaurant below Lingua Franca's scruffy fourth-floor offices on West 38th Street, more pressing decisions are at hand -- for instance, what on earth to put on next month's cover to grab more readers, to make this thing really work.

Another campus sexual harassment story or tenure battle? More on those weird postmodernists populating college campuses these days, like French sociologist Bruno Latour?


The arcane-sounding piece on mathematical quandaries a few months back was well-received -- but so was the broader essay, in the current issue, defending Disney's proposal for a theme park in Virginia.

It is, of course, a happy challenge. For this is the world of ideas, of contrarian cultural critiques, of shoestring budgets and intellectual life. And while Lingua Franca -- a rough translation is "common tongue" -- targets professors and graduate students, the magazine is also poised to attract baby boomers and people in their 20s with a taste for ideas. Though it's not quite Butt-head meets Bloomsbury, Lingua Franca's irreverence ensures that it won't be mistaken for a staid scholarly journal.

"This is about eavesdropping on academia, the talk in the corridors," says founder and publisher Jeffrey Kittay, a former Yale professor. It's "the professor not as a monkish creature but of flesh and blood."

In this age of cyber-communications, when reading can seem almost a countercultural activity, some say low-budget, small-circulation "niche" journals like Lingua Franca are the publications most likely to thrive.

"The opportunities are there," says DeWitt Henry, professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College and editor and co-founder of the literary journal Ploughshares. Specialized magazines are positioned to attract boomers and post-boomers who, he says, "want to take charge intellectually, and not just materially."

Computer technology has driven down production costs, Dr. Henry notes, and entrepreneurs today can start up a magazine with a niche, a targeted audience and a good direct-mail marketing campaign to reach it.

He anticipates a spate of new small magazines comparable with the mimeograph revolution of the 1960s, or perhaps with Tom Paine and the other pamphleteers of two centuries earlier.

Whether Lingua Franca -- now in its fourth year, with a circulation of 18,000, but not yet turning a profit -- will be one of the success stories remains to be seen. Though relatively cheaply produced, it is no Macintosh-created fanzine. Nor is it a glossy journal of ideas and culture in the mold of, say, the Atlantic Monthly.


Lingua Franca is primarily a trade publication, a magazine for employees of colleges and universities. It features job listings, a running account of who got tenure where, a column on book publishing by academics and notes on lawsuits and other campus goings-on.

In this trade journal, though, the currency is ideas. Academic life is the grid on which those ideas are discussed, much as the New York Review of Books "uses books as props" to stage essays on politics, history and culture, Mr. Kittay says.

And many issues in academia mirror the tensions and changes in the national culture, says Mr. Star.

At the same time, Mr. Star says, education is increasingly regarded as a critical issue across the country, and that should broaden the audience for stories on topics like multiculturalism and the curriculum.

"There's a growing public sense that education matters," he says. "But at the same time, there's a sense of crisis in education, that we don't know what we're doing."

It is that combination -- issues with broad appeal, seen from the perspective of a specific profession -- that Lingua Franca's editors hope is a winning one. While professors will always be its core readers, Lingua Franca also hopes to appeal to the academics manques who leaf through the journals at Harvard Square newsstands.


"It really occupies a unique place because it's journalistically edited rather than academically edited, which means it's lucid and lively and provocative and all those things that most academic journals are not," says Kurt Andersen, editor-in-chief of New York magazine and a co-founder of Spy magazine.

However, Mr. Andersen says, "I have wondered how far it can grow. They have to decide whether it's going to be an interesting academic trade journal or whether they'll stake out a larger, New York Review of Books-type terrain."

"It seems to be aimed at an intelligent general audience," says M. Mark, former editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement, who is starting a new magazine on books, culture and politics called Word.

Her editors share Lingua Franca's approach, she says: Though very serious about ideas, "We try not to be solemn. We recognize the importance of a good laugh."

Staffing can be a problem. The pay at Lingua Franca isn't high, and, partly because of its size, talented people may see it as a stepping-stone. Mr. Star's predecessor, Judith Shulevitz, left twice, first for a stint at Mirabella, then to join New York magazine.

But Mr. Kittay is optimistic. The magazine won the 1993 National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Circulation is steady, and advertisers, overwhelmingly book publishers and university presses, seem to like the product.


Absolut vodka has been buying the back page, which enabled Mr. Kittay to put color on the cover this month for the first time.

"This is very hard, though not as hard as launching a purely consumer product," says Mr. Kittay, who is encouraged by the success of magazines such as Wired and the Utne Reader.

Advertisers have some reason to believe that academia is not only a culture, but an attractive demographic bloc. A 1992 readership survey showed that the average age of Lingua Franca subscribers was 44, with a median income of $59,000; about 82 percent are affiliated with a college or university.

They buy 55 books a year, and dozens of music CDs; they own personal computers and consume, per year, 95 glasses of wine.

Two-thirds have three or more varieties of pasta at home; close to half have three varieties of coffee, vinegar and mustard.

Almost three different kinds of mustard, and a surging interest in the life of the mind. This may be a whole new world of readers after all.