Day 299: Just Say Summary and Hodgepodge

I scanned the faces of the eight other students. They seemed stoic, but maybe, like me, they were just stone-facing the panic. Professor Donnelley said it again, “For next week, bring the précis you’ve written on Marx’s critique of Hegel. Fair warning, it’s a challenging pastiche of ideas.”

Fair warning to you bro, I have no idea what “précis” or “pastiche” means, but they sound French and I’m not down with that.  I didn’t quit my job at Pizza Hut to have a 6’4″ crimson bearded male waif with a fake British accent ping fancy words off my pickled brain (actually, that’s exactly what I did.) Of course, had he used fancy words I knew, I would have stroked my hairy chin while nodding in approval. Depending on the degree of difficulty, I might have even winked at him. Instead, I stared at the wall pondering how long it would take to drive back to Ohio if I left that night.

It was my first class in graduate school. I was a great undergraduate student for one out of my four years which was apparently just enough to be accepted by one of the seven graduate programs I applied to. I’d grown up watching my father take naps and still get tenure, so the professor life seemed like a decent option for me. Mostly because I was tired a lot.

I hung around in the graduate student lounge eating and waiting for someone to talk to me. I was fat and had a long bolshevik goatee. I looked the part of sociology grad student even if I was incapable of writing a précis. Not because I wasn’t smart enough, but because I didn’t know whether a précis was a poem, short story, or cartoon. This was 1994 so I couldn’t just check my iPhone or open my laptop. I would have to find a dictionary, and if any of the other students saw me open up to the “P” section, it would solidify any burgeoning suspicions that I was a charlatan.

I wanted to eavesdrop on the other conversations but was having trouble concentrating because I feared my pharaoh beard had been dusted with powdered sugar from the 6 pack of Hostess mini donuts I’d just inhaled in a fit of social anxiety. I think I’d spaced on some orientation event because the other students seemed to already know each other. I was too awesome and insecure to introduce myself, so I folded my arms, leaned against the wall in my red CCCP t-shirt and waited. One by one, everyone came over to say hello. They were all very mature and polite, like the type of people who totally knew what pastiche meant.

When I got back to my studio apartment at 1 Main St. Apt. 1 (Durham, NH is tiny), I pulled the starter rope on my Dell 486 tower and took a shower while it booted-up. I found out  that a précis is just a summary, encapsulation, brief, abstract, recap, or any 45 other words that mean précis which I’d heard of. Pastiche just meant a hodgepodge, potpourri or jumble.

I spent that evening wading through  Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right. I wore out my thesaurus while writing that precis attempting to synthesize Marx’s pastiche of criticisms.

The next week in class I sat beside  a young southern girl who leaned over to me and said, in a thick accent,

“God, I was so embarrassed that I had to look up that précis word. Did you know what that was?”

“No,” I said, “I had no clue.”

“Oh thank goodness, I thought I was the only one.”

“Me too,” I told her.

We all went out for beers after class where I learned that everyone had privately looked up that word. We spent the next few drunken hours ripping on “ole ginger pubes” and yelling, “Just say summary and hodgepodge!”

I'm a contributing writer to Parents Magazine, GQ, Psychology Today and some others. My book, "This is Ridiculous. This is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists" is available here Look for two more books in 2015: "Must. Push. Buttons (Bloomsbury Kids), and an as-of-yet untitled memoir I’ve appeared on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and “Nick Mom’s Night Out." I live in New Jersey with my wife and two sons and enjoy making them laugh more than anyone else.

17 comments On Day 299: Just Say Summary and Hodgepodge

  • Dude, you nailed this one! Academia can be full of pretension, and the lofty language seems to be a form of hazing and gatekeeping. I remember studying for the GRE and learning words like "pulchritudinous." Why can't we just say beautiful? Will anyone ever use this word, really? I am sure that my vocabulary is much richer after years of grad school, but I try not to talk above my students' comprehension. What's the point?

  • Woa, serious flashbacks to the first year of my Ph.D. program. I was a fantastic undergraduate student all 4 years but those first few weeks I seriously debated whether my own hubris had led me seriously astray. And yes, I had to look up hubris. Since we're all being honest here.

  • I used to have one of those green-screen-sounds-like-an-airplane-when-you-turn-it-on computers and carried a dictionary around in my backpack. Now that I'm in grad school I so much appreciate google, and the right click > synonym option in Word!

    I am also definitely the kid who asks professors in class what a word means if I don't understand it. I think some people find it annoying. I find professors who use words I don't know annoying.

  • I've got my Ph.D. and a large vocabulary to go with it. But, even nerds screw up. I said, "various and sundry" to my advisor during a dissertation meeting. To which he responded, kindly, "the phrase various and sundry is redundant as both words mean the same thing." I was so embarrassed, but since he was such a lovely humble man, I bought him a Snapple for our next meeting and we focussed on whether or not fish have eyelids.

    I had to control the urge to google precis & pastiche while reading this post. But, I just knew you'd tell me, thanks for that. Summary and hodgepodge work for me, I mean hodgepodge is just fun by itself. "Can we do it? Yes we can!"

    • Isn't saying "that phrase is redundant because various and sundry mean the same thing" redundant? Or was he just being a smart-ass by pretending you might not know what redundant means?

  • This made me laugh hysterically. Why do people use language that they know you are not going to understand? Does it make them feel superior? 'Cause it just makes the rest of us think they're douchey.

    When I first started on with the state I was told to get some paper out of the credenza, and collate some copies. I don't have that thing normal people were born with that causes embarrassment so I said, "I have no idea what a credenza is or how to collate things. I worked with kids for 13 years so if you need me to change a diaper or help you out with why your child is biting, I'm on it. But fancy office slang is going to need to be dumbed down for now." And I swear if I have to hear another person say, "Let's not reinvent the wheel" instead of "It seems several people have already been working on this" I may lose it and pull an Office Space and dismantle my cubicle.

    • On Melanie's theme….the phrase "think outside of the box". Isn't it terribly cliched and ordinary to say that-thus doing all your thinking right there in the box?? Office life…..

      • oh dude, I said reinvent the wheel to a consultant today at work! I am a cliche….I think I said it twice. just shoot me….

        • Beth, I caught myself saying it twice my dang self. Sometimes you hear stuff so much it just spews out before you can help it. Office jargon gets in your brain and you don't have a choice. I call them "phrase zombies."

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