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!”