You Learn Something New Every Day

… and I learn a ton of new things every day, actually, because I’m a college student at, if I do say so myself, an excellent university, taking some mind-blowing and challenging classes. But today was one of those days overarched by a big academic concept that you know is going to stay with you for years to come, and that academic concept was this: word choice is vital.

This afternoon I had two “firsts”: my first-ever precept (Princeton calls discussion sections “precepts,” because it is full of itself) and my first one-on-one conference with my journalism professor, a very eminent professional writer whose name I won’t drop because that’s just too crass. I was nervous to the point of nausea for both. The precept was not only my first at this university, it was for my English class, and English is a discipline I am neither confident in nor good at. I am very much in awe of my journalism professor, who absolutely deserves all his renown, and was apprehensive as to how he would evaluate my writing.

To spare you the suspense, I must have come off as an idiot in precept—I was right; I can’t close-read literary passages for shit—and I was blown away by the fact that my journalism professor gave me some positive comments on my assignment. But the theme that connected both idiocy at literary analysis and an apparent ability to write decently was the utmost importance of minutiae.

As you might know, if you’ve studied literature at all, and as I discovered today, an author’s very specific word choices are absolutely vital in determining the meaning of a passage and the author’s intentions with it. Since my course is in English literature, I can mention that there are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, and since my course is in English literature in the 14th-18th centuries, I can say that English has undergone some seismic shifts in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, orthography and everything else since Alfred the Great’s scholars codified what was then called “englisc” in the 9th century. And so there is an incredible corpus of English words to draw from—some of them, since my precept was discussing Chaucer, extinct today—each of which could be employed to subtly alter what can be gleaned from the text. I’m not used to reading literature in this way: as a proto-historian (that is to say, I will probably be a history major in 18 months), I usually read literature, if not for pleasure, to gain insight into a particular time period or culture. I’m unused to examining it unto itself. It was an alien and deeply challenging experience for me, because I came into the class with so many things to say and then found that very few of them were at all useful, as we pored closely over the meaning of each word in a single paragraph. And all of those words suddenly grew more significant to me, more powerful. I was daunted by their potency and my complete inability to manage them.

If that weren’t enough, immediately following that ordeal I ascended a rather odd set of stairs to the frigging turret of a building I’d never before visited to meet with my journalism professor. This went considerably better, because the craft of writing is something I can claim to have some instinctive understanding of—more so than literary analysis, anyway. Since it was just us (which is totally ungrammatical but I don’t know how to rephrase it), and since I respect his talent so much, I didn’t feel any more hopelessly insignificant than I should have. And since the overall conceit of my piece was solid enough, we were able to focus on those same minutiae. My professor pointed out some words I’d thought deeply about and some words I hadn’t, addressed my punctuation choices, and questioned the meanings imparted by one way of expressing an idea versus another. It was as if he and I were applying those same close-reading tactics to my work, except instead of being a dead writer whose intent we can only speculate about, I was right there next to him, and I knew what my intent was. I was able to ground my understanding of the words in reality.

But in any case, the point of all this rambling (which, the WordPress word count tells me, is going on for far too long) is that it is vitally important to examine things incredibly closely. There is deep significance—academically speaking, at least; I couldn’t tell you about real life—to all these details, and I should be paying more attention to them, whether to learn how to think in more disciplines than my chosen one, or whether to aid me in becoming better at this writing passion of mine, such that it may become a skill or even a talent. And, moreover, it pays for me to throw myself into my work, doing more than just glossing over my readings or hacking out a paper or an article. It pays for me to hone every detail of everything I do, out of concern not just for my future as writer or academic, but also in the interests of my own pride and self-worth.

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