On Being Useful

Yesterday was the first class of my summer semester. My professor was telling us about the paper due at the end of the course, and said something that I think was profound. I can’t quote him, but he essentially said: “Write about something that you’re pretty sure you know. Write the obvious. What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to everyone, and if you write what you don’t know, what use is that? What you write will only be useful to anyone if you write what you know.” He added, jokingly serious, “and if you’re brilliant, what’s obvious may just change all of academia.”

I remember turning in my senior seminar paper in undergrad with such pride. I felt like I had grown so much as I wrote it, and for the first time I felt like grad school was attainable: I knew big words, and I knew how to use them. Surely, if you know big words and how to use them, you know what you’re talking about when you use them. Right?

Ha. No.

It’s been years since I’ve written a paper of the same quality that I wrote in undergrad. Even here in grad school I have yet to find the opportunity to put the time and effort into a paper that my senior seminar paper received. In some ways, that paper is still the pinnacle of my academic “career.” But eight years out of college and half-way through a master’s program, I find myself not wanting to use big words that will gain the respect of people who know less about the few things that I know. And I don’t care about learning the lingo that makes people think that I’m a funny and smart blogger. Instead, I find myself worrying more about being useful. I don’t want to write things that make me popular, I want to write things that last — that are good, true, and beautiful. After a living in Ecclesiastes for the last year, seeing how utterly meaningless things can be, I want what I write to be rooted and grounded in what is good for building up. Not just vapor that is gone with the wind.

Yesterday was the first class of my summer semester. My professor was telling us about the paper due at the end of the course, and said something that I think was profound. I can’t quote him, but he essentially said: “Write about something that you’re pretty sure you know. Write the obvious. What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to everyone, and if you write what you don’t know, what use is that? What you write will only be useful to anyone if you write what you know.” He added, jokingly serious, “and if you’re brilliant, what’s obvious may just change all of academia.

It was a good reminder. Skills are wonderful. Academic rigor is wonderful. Making a living is wonderful. But if the skills, the rigor are not in the service of real useful work, then what’s the point?

joy-stamp-3606

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s