Actual Wisdom: John McWhorter

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In Actual Wisdom, Bwog blatantly rips off (and simultaneously promotes) another of our features, Senior Wisdom, to bring to you some seasonal advice from seasoned men and women of our academy. So, just in time for finals, enjoy the  knowledge, memories, and cheese preferences of our  faculty. First at bat is John McWhorter, who has graced Columbia with his prowess as a linguist and professor since 2008. 

Professor McWhorter, calm in the face of danger. And by danger we mean lots of annoying emails from Bwog, asking him for Actual Wisdom.

Justify your existence in 30 words or fewer: What always happens to me—in  linguistics, on societal issues, on anything I touch—is that I state something that seems obvious to me and find to my surprise that it’s considered heretical. I then try to make my case better, upon which after some years I am considered weird, deeply mistaken in some unspecified way, but “sensible.” I have come to enjoy that. It seems to be why I was put here.

Claim to fame: See above—the “conservative” who “makes sense,” the “controversial” linguist who nevertheless has written a lot of books and seems vaguely “confident,” and so on. The conservative part is a misinterpretation that will stick forever. Few know that if I am “special” it’s mostly in being eternally about 7 years old.

What’s your most valuable or unexpected college experience? Having a friend who liked Stephen Sondheim, which was the only reason I came to like theatre music. It opened up a whole wing of my life after that; probably 80% of my social life, including my wife, traces to a cassette or two that wormed its way into my ear in the spring of 1985.

Back in my day… phones were in hallways and you had to put coins in them or use a credit card number. People who had phones in their room were either too close to their parents, in unsuitably intense long-distance relationships, or ostentatiously rich. So you couldn’t text people, a professor couldn’t announce things to the class at the push of a button, you had to go knock on someone’s door or wait to see them in class to communicate with them. Flirting was face to face—no cute texts, spontaneous drunk calls and so on. When someone left campus you had to have their home number to contact them. I can barely remember now how all of that seemed normal.

What’s the craziest student excuse/extension story you’ve heard? I remember a guy who seemed jocular, wry, smart, capable, and so on—i.e. a normal college student—who suddenly claimed he  couldn’t get the final paper in because his roommate had beaten him  up a year ago and he had trouble following through on things. You  get a feel for such stories after a while and something didn’t seem  real about it—and I later found out he had had a whole different  story in another class. It was a truly ballsy histrionic job. He  never handed in a paper. This was, for the record, at another  school!

Would you rather give up oral sex or cheese? I know the answer I’m supposed to give but quite honestly it’s the finer cheeses that are etched more deeply into my memory than any superlative ones of that other sort.

Three things you learned at Columbia:

1. That Broadway and 96th’s subway stop is one of the most relentlessly uncomfortable and unsavory locations on the planet.

2. That some of Columbia’s libraries are some of the most lusciously quiet places to get work done on the planet (until someone next to you starts crunching on rice cakes)

3.  That using the stairs in Butler instead of the elevators is a great workout.

What’s your advice to students/academics/the human race in general? In anything we do, I think we should understand that our intuitions can’t always be trusted, but should not fall for the idea that this means that your intuitions must always be wrong.

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  1. Anonymous  

    bold answer to the oral sex or cheese question. I hope there are more of these!

  2. Anonymous

    This is awesome, Bwog. I want more of these!

  3. that is not  

    30 words or less

  4. Anonymous  

    john mcwhorter is my hero! i love him so much! i would do anything just to sniff his dirty underwear! in the least sexual way possible! but i'd imagine it's impossible not to get smarter and more funny from doing that

    but seriously, he's amazing. everybody should take a class with him. thank you for doing this bwog. couldn't have picked a better inauguration

  5. so excited for more of these!!  

    and just wondering..... does the title of this series imply that senior wisdom is not 'actual wisdom'?

  6. This is a good idea...

    Another really good idea is Alumni Wisdom. Or you could call it Columni Wisdom (Columbia+Alumni). It would be even better if you found people who did senior wisdoms a few years ago. And catch up with them.

  7. Anonymous

    That's a really intense staff photo.

  8. Anonymous  

    this is great.

  9. This was great...  

    Do Mark Lilla!

  10. Linguists!

    I want an interview with Paul Kockelman. Only in part because this is his faculty photo:

  11. RR  

    John McWhorter is better than any linguistics department Columbia could possibly produce. :') Proud to have been his student.

  12. RR speaks  

    the truth. and thanks for posting that study guide too, pal :)

  13. Anonymous  

    " Few know that if I am ”special” it’s mostly in being eternally about 7 years old."

    heck, if we all thought that to ourselves once a day, the world would be a better place.

  14. like him, but....

    McWhorter doesn't hold a candle to linguistics resident deity that is Boris Gasparov.

    I mean I love John as much as the next chill professor, but he seriously needs to stop talking about himself; 80% of his stories are all basically the same: "So I was at this dinner/party/function/gala/event and I said to Person A "blah blah blah" and they were like "WTF" and I was like "no rly" and they were so pissed and I was like "LOL I'm right" and it was like wow I'm so awesome."

  15. Linguists!  

    Must get Gasparov and Kockelman (though I guess he's technically in the anthro dept) - they'd definitely have wisdom to give. Gasparov would have serious wisdom and Kockelman is a legit genius.

  16. CC'14  

    Walk over to the Heyman Center and interview the wisest (wo)men of Columbia :)

  17. Anonymous  

    John McWhorter's lectures were the best I've had at Columbia. My only regret is I only got to take one of his classes.

  18. such ludicrous claims  

    has this guy even seen the whole planet? or even just the renovated 96th st station?

  19. Anonymous  

    haha silence broken by rice cakes crunching i can imagine that. winced for him. also the "roomate beat me up" excuse is indeed one of the weirdest ones i have heard.

  20. lx alumna

    what about timberlake?! let us not forget him! timby, boris and kockelman are all deserving linguists.

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