“..[D]on’t listen to the pedantic and specific precepts of grammarians; but heed your own ear…”
non finitiones illas praerancidas neque fetutinas grammaticas spectaveris, sed aurem tuam interroga
Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.21
When I was applying to graduate school and asked what it was like, I remember my first Greek teacher telling me a story about his PhD qualifying exams. During the two-hour oral component, some eminent professor of distinguished achievement remained conspicuously silent. When he did speak up, he looked critically at the examinee (a Homerist) and asked a single question: “What is the name of Odysseus’ mother?” My teacher could not remember and it caused enough trauma that this was the story he used to characterize his experience in graduate school almost 30 years later.
When I was in a PhD program myself, this anecdote was the first thing that came to my mind as I looked over the returned draft of the first three chapters of my dissertation. Most dissertations leave behind them legacies of confusion, shame, and pain. Mine was not completely traumatizing, but that’s because, after struggling for six months to write over 100 pages of well-footnoted dreck, I had the audacity to throw everything away and start from scratch. During a feverish long-weekend in February 2006, I re-started from page 1 and ended up writing the first draft of a ‘chapter’ that, at over 100 pages, became the first three chapters of a messy, long, but ultimately ‘successful’ dissertation. (Spoiler: I passed).
When you submit chapters of your dissertation to advisors, the ensuing period of silence can be maddening. (And sometimes that long wait never ends.) When I did receive a marked-up version of my magnum opus, I scurried away from my advisor to start poring over his responses, hoping for some clue that I was on the right track, to divine some sign of my future. And inside: Corrected misspellings; Commas inserted and deleted; A Greek accent was repaired. The longest actual comment I could find was scrawled next to a footnote: the word “Phaeacia” was scratched out, next to it: “The Phaeacians live in Skheria.”
This was not the first warning I received in graduate school about the world into which I was seeking initiation. Any failure to translate adequately in seminars was met with sudden questions about obscure aorist stems. In casual conversation, I remember being corrected for calling someone “long-lifed”, when the right way of saying it is “long-lived”. But I am a blustery and confident sort. When I was asked in a seminar why I didn’t know the defective aorist of bainô, I responded, probably with a bit of acid, “because I am a student. I am here to learn.”
The first lesson I was taught in graduate school was either to shed the Socratic notion of owning up to my ignorance or be prepared for shame as a reward for my loyalty to Platonic dogma. The second lesson was really just the application of one I already knew: the best defense is a good offense. Know the nitty-gritty details; and, if you don’t, just put someone else on the spot first.