And now for something a wee bit different. In today’s Actual Wisdom, English professor Edward Mendelson teaches us a lesson about breaking the rules. And about the perils of questionnaires. It’s all below, in his personally requested format. It’s kinda like when you take major liberties with an unappealing essay prompt and end up writing something that only tangentially answers the question—professors, they’re just like us!

The questions:


Edward Mendelson

1. Justify your existence in 30 words or fewer.
2. Your claim to fame.
3. What’s your most valuable or unexpected college experience?
4. What’s the craziest student excuse/extension story you’ve heard?
5. Would you rather give up oral sex or cheese?
6. Back in my day…
7. Three things you learned at Columbia.
8. What’s your advice to students/academics/the human race in general?

 The answers:

(a) W. H. Auden wrote in a poem: “Thou shalt not answer questionnaires.”

(b) Never give personal answers to impersonal questions. A questionnaire isn’t like a conversation where anything you say can have an effect on the next thing someone else says. A questionnaire is like a machine that keeps talking but never listens. Other question-asking machines that you should avoid answering include evaluation forms, marketing and political surveys, and anything else that reduces you to a statistic when you answer it. An assigned paper topic is essentially a single-question questionnaire; avoid courses with assigned paper topics, or find a way to make the topic your own instead of the instructor’s.

(c) It’s impossible to give a meaningful answer to any question in the form, “What’s your most valuable experience of this or that?” Every interesting experience is interesting in itself. You can’t measure it or rank it or compare it to any other experience without trivializing it.

(d) Questionnaires simply start and stop. Unlike personal conversations, they don’t have a beginning, middle, or end. Avoid any kind of speech or writing where you can’t choose the shape and structure of what you want to say.