Culture Shock

There are so many things in my life that I’m not blogging about. This week, I went to a professor’s office hours for the first time, and it wasn’t scary, so I’m over that hurdle. I’m also reading Milton for the first time, in my English class, which is this incredible experience. On Sunday, I’m going on a pilgrimage to Paterson, NJ, Allen Ginsberg’s birthplace, on a quest for his childhood homes, some form of spiritual enlightenment, and fodder for a piece I’m writing for class. I’ve been running around like mad this week, going to all sorts of things, from film screenings to quizbowl matches. It’s all wonderful, and I want to write about all of it, how intellectually fulfilling it is, how all my dreams for the future and really inhabiting this world of knowledge and scholarship are coalescing, how I’m becoming a writer as well.

But the weird thing is that what prompted me to go to my computer, go to WordPress, and write this post was the experience that turned all that upside-down. Now I’m very confused about myself and the mental place I’m at. Now I don’t know how at ease and how excited I feel about any of this.

I let some friends talk me into going to a conference on literary criticism and theory, sponsored by the English department, among other people (actually, according to the poster, by basically every humanities-centric entity in the university). And so I went, this morning, to two hours on poetry. I listened to three talks, by three very eminent scholars, standing in the back next to more presumably eminent scholars. I didn’t see any other undergraduates there, or anyone who looked young enough to be an undergraduate. That isn’t usually a problem. I’m very accustomed to being the youngest person in a room. And I’m very accustomed to academic gatherings. How many times have I fought to be able to sit at the grown-ups’ table when my parents’ colleagues come to our house for dinner?

But this was so very different, and you might already be able to see why—because I haven’t told you what those three scholars spoke about, and I haven’t told you what I learned from their talks. Because, you see, I was barely able to understand anything they were saying. I mean, I think I was kind of expecting that—I have no exposure to literary criticism; my only exposure to the study of English literature has been half a semester of Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton. But I still found myself in shock, a bit, at how the words washed over me, sort of like when I watch French-language TV and can pick out one word in three, or one word in five—not enough to piece together the overall meaning of the sentence. Or the paragraph. Or the talk. Bending my knees awkwardly to relieve the pressure of standing up so long braced against the back wall of the lecture hall, I tried to make myself “translate” more attentively, the way I do when the francophone person I’m trying to understand is not hosting a late-night talk show, but rather telling me what will be on the exam. But it was largely ineffective, and I resorted to simply seeming attentive, scribbling down notes not about the content of the talks, but about the fact that I didn’t understand.

Sometimes my parents’ colleagues talk shop when they come to our house for dinner, and then I don’t understand what they’re saying. Sometimes upperclassmen and grad students whom I eat dinner with at Princeton have conversations referencing knowledge that I lack. But never do I feel entirely out of place, there; never do I feel a genuine sense of embarrassment to lack familiarity with very obvious things like Freud or Wordsworth or a vocabulary of jargon that I can’t even remember enough to reiterate here. In the former contexts, it’s okay to just be an academic brat—in fact, that’s what I’m expected to be, when my parents’ colleagues ask them if I will study their disciplines, or I rant in the dining hall about something I’ve read in The Chronicle of Higher Education. And there’s nothing wrong with that—because that’s what I am.

Lately I’ve been cultivating this idea that I’m moving on from “academic brat” to “academic,” that I’m starting to learn higher-level ways of thinking, that I’m honing in on subjects I could study for the rest of my life, and that I’m slowly and steadily immersing myself even more irrevocably in academic culture. But what going to these talks this morning taught me—instead of anything that I’m sure was totally fascinating about the theory of poetry—was that I should stop trying to be something I’m not. That I should accept that I’m a college freshman and that therefore I don’t know shit about literary criticism or anything else theoretical, really. That I should go back to my 200-level lectures and catch up before I try to sit at the grown-ups’ table and really participate in the conversation.

One of the reasons I justified to myself attending these talks was that I volunteered to write an article about them for The Nassau Weekly, Princeton’s foremost student publication (of course). But now I’ve no idea what to say. I can’t talk about the substance of the talks because I didn’t understand them, and the self-deprecating essay on academia that I’d considered seems impossible to write in the context of my voluminous bubble of pride and pretentiousness being burst. So I guess I’m just going to have to start catching up, and maybe give the scholars who spoke this morning the respect of understanding what they were talking about a few years from now, when I’m not such a boorish and philistinic (?) freshman.

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2 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. Derek

    Hello Emily,

    I found your blog two days ago through a comment that you left at Campus Progress. You seem interesting, so I thought that I would throw you on my feed reader. There’s the background, now for my actual comment:

    I’m a senior at the University of Michigan and remember the first academic talk that I attended. Incidentally, I was a zealous sophomore philosophy major and the talk was about the philosophy of quantum mechanics, but that’s really beside my point. I remember that I didn’t understand a sentence that the professor uttered in the course of the talk; just as you describe in this post, I felt lost in a foreign land. Fear not, however, because that doesn’t make one a philistine. Coming to understand academic talks is akin to “learning” a new language, I suspect: they each force our brains to work with speech in a new and unusual way. Knowing what the hell is coming out of that professor’s mouth requires practice – regardless of one’s background in the subject – so keep attending these talks. I assure you that you will eventually gain the ability to engage even with topics with which you’re less familiar.

    I hope that that small piece of encouragement helps. Best of luck with the rest of your freshman year.

  2. Jerry Aronson

    Emily- Have you seen my 8 hour DVD, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALLEN GINSBERG?

    If so, let me know and if not, also let me know and we can correct that.

    thanks,
    Jerry

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