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.
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.