Friday, April 27, 2012


I think I've been hoodwinked. I think the vast majority of us have been bamboozled. 

Here on campus, I've participated in quite a few discussions about "the art of bullshitting". I've often heard it referred to as the number one skill gained by a Princeton education: the ability to sound like you know what you're talking about when you're really making it up as you go along. Just a few weeks ago, I was marveling at my own ability to read 30 pages of a 200 page book and still answer questions my professor asked the class during lecture. A few nights ago, I was talking about a course I took last Spring that I tried hard to do poorly in (I was taking the class pass/fail) by not doing the readings, bullshitting in precept, making up fairly outrageous paper topics and writing the papers the night before they were due, etc. I don't know exactly, but I'm almost positive I got at least an A- in the class. 

This and other experiences/conversations have called me to reconsider the nature of bullshitting. The OED defines the verb "to bullshit" as "to talk nonsense (to); also, to bluff one's way through (something) by talking nonsense". Urban dictionary agrees, defining it as "to generate stuff that is made up for the purpose of placating someone, or passing an exam, or getting elected to office. Most often false or ridiculous."

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that that's not what we're doing in class/precept/papers the vast majority of the time. "Nonsense" is too strong a word. What we're saying is informed by something--if not the course's "required" readings, then by previous knowledge gained from other classes, things picked up in lecture, or even personal experiences which can be quite relevant and illuminating. ...I think that what we so often call "bullshit" is actually "original thought". No one called philosophers and founding scholars of various disciplines bullshitters when they sat around thinking and wrote their various treatises. They were contributing to scholarship and developing intellect and I think that, on a much smaller scale, obviously, we're doing the same thing.

So I'm making a resolution to stop referring to my work in academic settings as bullshit, even when I didn't put as much effort into it as I could have. That feels like selling my academic work, my academic self, short. It feels like I'm not giving myself credit for that of which I'm capable. It sounds like I'm denying that what I think and say and do is important. I feel like existing in a culture that refers to such work as "bullshit" most of the time encourages us to distance ourselves from our scholarship, to not take pride in our work, to discredit that which we are and do. And THAT is some bullshit.       

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