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The NotoriousRRZ Guide to Bullshit

2004-09-06 - 2:21 p.m.

I shouldn't be writing this entry. There are so many other things I should be doing. Well, that's not exactly true; there's really only one other thing I should be doing, and that's reading, because I have a shitload of that to do.

Grad school has already been a series of harsh awakenings. As I said before, there's the realization that I am essentially in a job training program for my profession. It's already being reinforced by everything I'm reading. For my Big Intro Class, I've been reading this article on what it means to be a textual scholar, and it's something huge. There's this great quotation in the beginning that talks about how the authors takes an abstraction and brings it into the physical world, where it is alien, and it is our job to try to bring this abstraction further into the world, and to preserve the intention through time, or something like that. I don't know. But it's going to sound great the next time someone asks me what the Hell it is I intend to do with a PhD?

Concerned Citizen: "What the Hell do you intend to do with a PhD?"

NotoriousRRZ: "I am helping bring the abstractions of the author's mind come further into the physical world, where they are alien and subject to the ravages of time!"

Concenred Citizen: "You're giving birth to time-traveling alien love children through other people's brains?!"

NotoriousRRZ: " . . . maybe."

After that, of course, the essay becomes very confusing. There's tlk of witnesses and genetic lines, and I feel like I'm back in junior high and the OJ trial is going on all over again.

See, the problem is not that there is so much more reading in grad school. The problem is that these fuckers have somehow convinced me that I have to do all the reading.

I never used to do all the reading. There is rarely a point to doing all the reading. I never had time. I was usually spending at least 20 hours a week in the theatre, and that's when we weren't in a tech week. All the classes had big work loads, many of them a novel a week. I can't even read a novel I ENJOY in a weekend, much less some piece of crap like Pamela or, god help me, The Pickwick Papers. So I developed the only truly useful skill I learned in college: the ability to bullshit.

I am a bullshit artist, in every sense of the word (and with the reading nI'm doing now, there are a lot of meanings to that word). I was the king of bullshit, but like the enlightened men and women throughout history who were so in commune with the spiritual that they didn't even bother to acquire followers, my art was an invisible one. I was like Houdini (and totally unlike David Blaine, who is not in any way a magician, just sayin'), longing to reveal my mastery of misdirection, knowing that to do so would bring my masterpieces down around me.

I was the master of the first page. Let's say the book in question was, oh Mrs. Dalloway, and while I was attempting to read it I accidentally got sucked into a VH1 Behind the Music marathon. Well, before class I would read the back cover of the book and then read the first page. Then the professor would come in and open everything up for discussion.

This is a crucial moment. Inevitably, there is a silence. No one wants to be the first to speak, even if they've already written a thesis on the book in question. The trick is to take advantage of this silence. Any comment, at this point, is better than no comment at all, because at least it will get the ball rolling. Even if it's somewhat inane, you can play it off as something that other people can react against, and the teacher will be impressed. To use the example of Mrs. Dalloway, I present the following scenario:

Dr. Gullible: So, Mrs. Dalloway. Are their any initial responses you guys wanted to bring up to begin with?

Class: (Silence. Furtive glances. Crickets noises.)

Notorious RRZ: Well, I think it's really interesting how Woolf bring up questions of agency in the first sentence, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." There are so many interesting possibilites brought up by that single sentence. Is her buying flowers a step towards a greater independence, or a nod to the limitations of women in that society? What are the things that Mrs. Dalloway WON'T do herself?

Classmate: You know, I think that's really interesting because blah blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda

With that egregiously overcomplicated, pretentious sentence, I have gotten the class discussion rolling, brought up interesting issues, and shown that I am prepared to do a close reading of a single line of text, something that every PhD has been forced to do at some point in there lives.

The best part of this trick is that if you do it often enough, the professor will ASK OTHER PEOPLE TO MAKE THE FIRST COMMENT. If you're the one who's always ready to go, the professor will feel that you should be relieved of duties every once in a while, especially if some of the others in class need a wake up call. This means that you have the much easier task of simply listening to discussion long enough for you to make a relevant comment, that really doesn't have to have ANYTHING at all to do with the subject matter. For example:

Classmate: " . . . and that's why I think that the feminist implications of the kiss between Clarissa and Sally should be at the forefront of every critique of the book."

Notorious RRZ: "You know, that reminds me of what Judith Butler had to say about gender, in that it's ultimately socially constructed at the most fundamental levels."

Other Classmate: "I just read her stuff in a class, and I can see how that relates to the incident of the kiss, because during that part of the text blah blah blee blee bloooo"

There, you see? I haven't said anything of any importance or relevance, but I've kept the discussion moving, even allowing another person to contribute. But you don't have to name drop theorists, oh no. In fact, doing so will make your other classmates hate you, especially if I'm one of them. Far better is to drop in a pop culture reference:

Classmate: " . . . and that's why I think that the feminist implications of the kiss between Clarissa and Sally should be at the forefront of every critique of the book."

Notorious RRZ: "You know, this reminds me of the lesbian kiss in Cruel Intentions, because I feel like that was one moment in which you had a female sexual subjectivity on both parts, which is ironic, because the first response would be to objectify the experience."

Other Classmate: "And that was based on Dangerous Liasons, so I wonder if there's a connection between those 18th century novels and what's going on here."

I've managed to bring up something that will interest all my fellow fans of bad teen movies AND send people down the path of comparative literature. And even if someone had pointed out that the Cruel Intentions kiss has about as much to do with subjectivity as it has to do with oceanography, you can still twist your way out of it, or better yet, ask the naysayer to explain themselves, and then tell them that you can see it their way. That way, not only are you a participant in class, but you are ready to concede that someone else might have a more valid point than you.

Asking questions are the crux of bullshit artistry. If you don't believe me, watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I remember once when a professor asked a student a question about an article, and the poor girl said, "I didn't have time to read it." I wanted to slap her upside the head. The professor gave her a withering glance and then said to the entire class, "The secondary readings are just as important as the primary readings." Now, if I had been in the girl's position, I would never have been called out like that. All it requires is a little bit of planning ahead. Read as much as you can of the first few pages in the fifteen minutes before class. Don't worry about understanding it; just try to get a general idea in your head. Then, improvise along these lines:

Dr. Gullible: Does anyone want to try to summarize the argument of the readings? NotoriousRRZ?

NotoriousRRZ: Well, actually, I wanted to ask you a question on the readings. I started getting lost after about four pages when he started talking about liminal narratives. I felt the writing was very unclear. I was hoping you could go over some of it with us. Did anyone else feel this way?

That last line is key: asking the class if they were confused not only allows for the possibility, however, remote, that someone WILL know what was going on and will answer, taking the heat off of you, but it will allow everyone else in class who hadn't done the work to wholeheartedly agree and ask the professor for a good long overview of the text. At that point, all you need are the skills previously mentioned and you're set for the rest of the class. Again, this works best if you have an established history of first-page close readings and relevant sounding non-sequiturs.

It takes a lot of practice, but it's worth it. I once scored an A+ in a class when I had only read a few poems and part of a book in and entire semester. I managed to get myself and my fellow undergrads out of a number of tough scrapes. In such instances, never let a friend know what you're doing, because they might start snickering under your breath during your first-page close reading and throw you off rhythm. The only way to recover is to tell everyone that you were discussing a funny incident that happened over the weekend before class, giving everyone something to laugh a little about, even the professor, while you both compose yourselves.

Things are different for me now, though. I find myself reading carefully and slowly, taking notes, and going back over things when I want to understand them. I even gave up a class that I thought would be fun to take a class that, while certainly entertaining, was a lot harder and which would require that I really go outside my comfort zone in order to do well. And I want to do well. I want to be good at scholarship, and that means the bullshit has to end.

Well, except for that whole, "I had an literary critic alien baby" bullshit. That ain't goin' nowhere!

So, on that note, I'm going to get to work. Hopefully, I'll find my entry-writing vs. work-doing rhythm soon. Until then, feel free to use my bullshitting skills in your everyday life. I'm going to try to live without them.

In the meantime, check out a couple of my fellow Berkeley first-years:



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