September 19, 2007

Dissecting the "that guy" species

While you enjoy the happiness and splendor of O-Week at the U of C, it is worthwhile to take a moment and consider the choices you’ll have to make in the not so distant future.

In just seven days, O-Week will be over and you’ll realize that you not only have to live with these people, but you also have to take classes with them. And in some of those classes, like Hum, Sosc, and Civ, you’ll be forced to listen to them—sometimes for long expanses of time. You’ll be forced to endure their inane ideas, their awkward non sequiturs, and their haughty airs.

Don’t get me wrong—almost every student here is incredibly smart. But, as you’ll soon learn, intelligence and self-awareness are negatively correlated.

So for those lacking self-awareness—most of you—this column is a guide on avoiding the allure of becoming “that guy.” If you don’t know what I mean by “that guy,” don’t worry. You will by second week.

First, you need to recognize whether you are actually “that guy,” for admission is the first step on the road to recovery. The first, and most basic, test you should perform is to look around your discussion class; if no one there seems like “that guy,” then you are likely him.

Unfortunately this isn’t foolproof, as there can be more than one in a class. But don’t fear—here are some other questions to ask yourself: Do you live in Snell-Hitchcock? Did you grow up in New York City or New Jersey? Did you go to a private school or, even worse, a boarding school? Are you male?

If you answered no to all of these questions, then you are probably in the clear. If not, there is cause for concern. There are a couple of popular approaches “that guy” tends to take. So think back to high school, and if you fit into any of the following profiles, then it would be prudent to take the utmost care in participating in any discussion class.

The first, and most benign, type of “that guy” is the “echo chamber.” This is someone who is either incapable of an original thought or someone who simply refuses to do the reading. Often he is both. This is the sort of classmate who takes original comments and repeats them in a painfully long-winded manner, over and over again. The one redeeming quality of an echo chamber is that if he starts repeating your points in class, you can safely assume that you aren’t “that guy.”

But if that seems bad, just wait. The second culprit is the “dungeon master.” This sort of student tends to be painfully awkward. Dungeon masters have an unusually high incidence of Asperger’s syndrome. Combine that with little to no shame and you’ve got at least one angry, lispy rant a week.

Third is the “asshat.” Clad in a tweed jacket, this sort of student would look more at home in a 1960’s English Lit class at Berkeley than anywhere else. But this person’s appearance isn’t actually important; it’s the state of mind that matters. This type loves pretense. Why refer to a philosopher when you can refer to him in adjectival form (Socratic, Platonic)? The more obscure the better. The “asshat” isn’t all bad: He can be extremely useful if you haven’t done your reading, but often it’s hardly worth the sacrifice.

The last, and worst, breed is the “one-trick pony.” These guys have the ability to make one or two arguments—ever. They’ll then force the whole class to constantly revisit those arguments over the course of the year. They are incapable of knowing when they are wrong and they frequently confuse dirty looks and rolling eyes as productive aspects of the academic process. At its essence, a one-trick pony is a combination of the worst aspects of the first two. Accordingly, it is an unholy hybrid of all that can go wrong with your average U of C student.

Of course, even if you don’t fit into any of these profiles midway through your first quarter of Hum, that doesn’t mean you should take the threat of becoming “that guy” lightly. The U of C is at the forefront of the “that guy” evolution.

Sadly, there is nothing I can tell you that will help you avoid classes full of the people I just described. But if you approach your academic career with a healthy dose of humility, all should be OK. Also, some self-awareness would be a good idea.