Exploring the Ambiguous

Throughout my college experience, I have faced many challenges within the classroom which resonate with my personal and professional life. As noted in an earlier blog post, I came to college wishing to pursue a pre-med track that would lead me toward a clean white doctor’s coat of my own. However, I quickly realized my love for the liberal arts and changed my path toward my passions. I felt lonely during this time; I had completely rerouted my mental image of success, or rather, I had completely dissolved it. During the last three-or-so years since I have been exploring literature, language, and culture, I have found solace not only through the meditative state of reading but also through the ability to find comfort and purpose within the ambiguous.

In George Ander’s You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education, he provides many real-life stories about liberal arts students. He describes one such student, Ally Begly, whose story sounds uncannily like my own, in that she wished to pursue a pre-med track, didn’t like the environment, and switched to classics, just as I did. When explaining the benefits of a classical education, and therefore a liberal arts education, she states, “It was really hard to do well in classics… You couldn’t open a research book, learn the content, and pass it off as your knowledge. You couldn’t regurgitate.” What Begly describes draws a strong similarity to what Christian Madsbjerg, in his book Sensemaking: The Power of Humanities in the Age of Algorithm, calls thick data, as opposed to thin data. While thin data refers to largely measurable data, such as that which is used in a science experiment, thick data refers to how such thin data reflects upon culture. Begly indirectly refers to thick data when she claims that you cannot “regurgitate” liberal arts content.

The liberal arts beckon originality, which can only come about if you don’t follow the same outlooks as everyone else. Such aspects of the liberal arts force its students to “think outside the box,” or rather, to explore, challenge, and converse with the thoughts of others. While studying both classics and English, I have had to face such tasks through literary criticism, philological analysis, and even throughout the writing process. Each of the following examples of my work exhibits these qualities.

The first piece I wish to explore revealed ways of thinking that I had never considered before. With this research paper, entitled “Confronting the Unconscious: The Jungian Shadow in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree,” I was given the freedom to explore my own interests, which allowed me to discover what my interests even were. While I poured my time into scholarly books and articles on religion, occultism, and Jungian archetypes, I trained my brain to perform independent research. I took fervent notes, stayed up late, and kept finding more material. Throughout this process, a lot of the material was not necessarily applicable to the final essence of the project which was ever-evolving. This influx of knowledge from primary and secondary sources then posed another problem: I had to weed out what actually provided substance to my main argument. I quickly found most of what I had written in my notebooks incompatible with my argument; however, these unused notes still provided a stronger understanding of the appropriate scholarship, which presented a basic, though ambiguous, set of boundaries for my argument. In other words, through this paper and the process of researching, I discovered what it meant to find, and even define, my own voice through unfamiliar means.

The second impactful project covers a small passage from Petronius’s Satyricon, a Roman novel written during the reign of Nero. For this project, I had to focus on a singular chapter (which mostly ranged between a page or two of Latin) for the entirety of the semester. With my analysis of this chapter, I practiced my ability to contextualize, summarize, and translate while still interacting with academic work. This project, at the time, was by far the largest singular project I had ever faced. Much like my first example, I was in uncharted territory. I researched like mad, learning from my previous projects how to weed out the important information and then how to apply it. This project also held stricter restrictions. While the previous project I mentioned allowed me to freely explore whatever I wanted if I made a solid argument, this project forced me to complete certain mundane tasks. I learned to deal with it and make the project as much my own as I could. I argued with and against certain scholars while also dissecting certain Latin terms and exploring how far I could stretch their meanings. Such a project exercised my capabilities to confront a prescribed task while still making it my own.

Finally, the project that I believe pulled together all my academic skills must be my semester-long research paper entitled “Distance, Desire, and Damnation: The Epistolarity of Bob Dylan and Ovid.” With this essay, I read scholarly books and articles, listened to countless hours of Dylan, and read through Latin and English versions of Ovid’s poems. I had to weed out the good information, I had to restructure my argument so it wouldn’t align too closely to another scholar’s, I had to pick apart stanzas and lines and words. With this project, I created my own vision; the farther I dove into the academia of epistolarity, the more I realized how unique my claims were. This both terrified and excited me; I was, once again, in uncharted waters.

From these three major projects, I have discovered my ability to blindly explore ambiguous settings and still find meaning. These projects showed me how to travel through terrain without a map or a compass but just with the distant stars of earlier academic feats providing me with all the direction I need that I couldn’t find within my own mind.

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