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Actual Wisdom: Edward Mendelson

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.

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  • why do i feel... says:

    @why do i feel... like he outsourced this to an exasperated TA?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Rejecting the prompt is playing it safe.

    Thought it’s more difficult, one should be able to get their thoughts across even within an arbitrarily imposed format.

    A confined answer that subverts its bounds by fully communicating itself, despite the restrictions placed upon it, is more masterful than even the best answer that rejects them entirely.

  • Clever way... says:

    @Clever way... …to dodge the oral sex/cheese dilemma.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Anyone who’s ever had a class with him could literally hear him saying these things. This is hilarious. Favorite professor ever.

  • please says:

    @please seconding the request for actual wisdom from Kathy Eden!

  • wait says:

    @wait this man is actually the best lit hum professor you could have. i’d say that you have to know the man–and how eye-opening of a prof he is–to appreciate his response

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous So true! He’s the greatest.

  • ... says:

    @... a rebellious streak. i like it. especially in the suffocating context of columbia where the greatest works of art from the wide world of white have been reduced to arbitrary metrics used by the most unimaginative corporate entities in the world to determine who’s gonna shuffle their papers.

    that said, does he really believe that democracy and large scale society are to be rejected? the act of voting is essentially a reduction of yourself to a statistic. i suppose folding up a treatsie on one’s thoughts about the political system and jamming up the optical scanner with it is kinda cool in a jello biafra “fuck the world” sort of way, but it isn’t terribly practical. rebellious streaks are great, but essentially useless unless there is some willingness to play the game.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I totally agree; it’s not worth completely rejecting a system, even a flawed one, when it’s possible to do good within it. But I also don’t think that’s what he’s doing—for one thing, he answered the questionnaire in the first place. For another, he used this format, which he clearly disagrees with, to try and provide a new perspective on things, albeit in a different way from most other professors. Finally, no matter how you cut it, this is a bwog article, not democracy—he’s not trying to jam up that system, or recommend that you reject it completely. In his class he often makes fun of people who think they live outside the bounds of society, and he’s too self-aware (really, he is) to fall into that trap himself. What Edward Mendelson is doing, it seems to me (to borrow one of his sentence constructions) is saying something about depersonalizing facets of our society. Not about impersonal but necessary things, like voting for political candidates, but about surveys that reduce you to an advertising statistic that companies can use to try to mould your thinking away from individuality and towards bland consumerism and established archetypes (see the latest Dr. Pepper 10 ad for an example of the sort of idiocy he’s trying to avoid).

      So he’s being short and smarmy and anti-establishment, but I don’t think he’s that kid with the Che t-shirt you knew in high school. He’s just trying to make a point that no one else has made on these Bwog interviews, not because he wants to seem intelligent (as you can tell from the fact that a lot of readers, somewhat understandably, now seem to think he’s a tool or a moron), but because he’s interested in saying something important that we probably wouldn’t see if he’d chosen to respond in the standard format.

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Also, just spent ten minutes typing that instead of studying for his Virginia Woolf final. #procrastination

      2. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Agreed. Anyone who’s had a class with him knows he’s the opposite of that kid the Che t-shirt (and would probably have a 10-minute rant about how the kid with the Che t-shirt is buying into what he attempts to rebel against).

      3. ... says:

        @... it did occur to me later that he is making these statements from the position of tenured english professor at a school like this, so obviously, one way or another, the man obviously plays the game when he needs to.

        ok. i just looked at his webpage. he’s a computer guy… it all makes sense. his procmail rules for bouncing all-lowercase e-mails are pretty awesome. hey mendelson! i know you’re reading this… if you were _really_ serious about text mode word processing, you’d be using vim.

      4. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous doood you have taken too much adderall – you need to leave Butler, bitches goin cray

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous These just keep getting more and more wonderful. Thanks, Bwog!

  • oh bwog says:

    @oh bwog always facilitating my finals procrastination. for that, I love you.

    (also you guys should totally do Frances Negrón-Muntaner, if you can manage to get a hold of her. I’d be hugely interested in that!)

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Best professor ever… Awesome, funny, intelligent man

  • Wow says:

    @Wow Some of these negative responses are kind of surprising – heck, I thought it was funny, at least.
    If you don’t think he gave any good advice in there, I do hope you’ll read again.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Mendy <3

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Can you get Erik Gray to do one of these? Or Kathy Eden?

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous omg omg then I could have more pictures of Erik Gray on my compuuuuttteeeeerrrrr!!!!!!

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Yes, seconded! Please, please, please get Erik Gray

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous he obviously does not know what readers want

  • Can we please get one of these says:

    @Can we please get one of these for Dave Yerkes?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous dude is an idiot

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous His first response is don’t give answers to questionnaires and then continues to give answers, albeit vague/open ended, to the questions.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous In our morale must lie our strength:
    So, that we may behold at length
    Routed Apollo’s
    Battalions melt away like fog,
    Keep well the Hermetic Decalogue,
    Which runs as follows:—

    Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
    Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
    On education,
    Thou shalt not worship projects nor
    Shalt thou or thine bow down before

    Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
    Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
    Nor with compliance
    Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
    With statisticians nor commit
    A social science.

    Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
    With guys in advertising firms,
    Nor speak with such
    As read the Bible for its prose,
    Nor, above all, make love to those
    Who wash too much.

    Thou shalt not live within thy means
    Nor on plain water and raw greens.
    If thou must choose
    Between the chances, choose the odd;
    Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
    And take short views.


    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I don’t care how pretentious it is: anyone who quotes this poem has won me over.

  • This says:

    @This is the definition of bullshit.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous welcome to the major of enlgish

      1. point taken says:

        @point taken or as the French say, touch.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous You mean the Frnech.

          1. symbolic logic says:

            @symbolic logic you mean frnch

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous mendelson is easily one of the best professors I’ve had at columbia yet. no bullshit, no inanity, and very personal and friendly in actual conversation. such a bawse.

    …that being said: I was really looking forward to his cheese-or-oral-sex response :(

  • props says:

    @props dude just dropped hella wisdom. but seriously if his response didn’t make you think read it again. with an open mind

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous actually tl;dr

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous i love this guy. so funny

  • Idk... says:

    @Idk... the previous “Actual Wisdom” professors managed to tell us some pretty valuable things in their responses to the lowly questionnaire.

    an interesting take, nonetheless, and some good advice.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous he forgot about the cheese….

  • wow says:

    @wow what a douchebag, just answer the goddam questions you prick.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I lold

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous lol obvs never had a class with mendelson. relax, he’s actually hella chill

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous I’m actually studying for his Virginia Woolf final that is tomorrow morning.

        1. hehe says:

          @hehe i cant believe he brought candy to the final lol.

          1. Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous Best final ever. And he’s without a doubt one of my favorite professors.

      2. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous yes, he’s awesome. his answers are clearly meant to elicit laughter :)

    3. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous “Every interesting experience is interesting in itself”

      Colonoscopy vs honeymoon, no way to discern a difference

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous depending on your gender, sexual orientation, and/or fetishes, the two might be more similar than you think

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous I wanted to give this the thumbs up, but 69 thumbs up was too perfect – I can’t be the one to screw that up

          1. Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous Fuck. I was the one to screw that up, and I didn’t even realize it until I read that comment.

    4. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous go fuck yourself frat bro

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