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Badami '11: A skimpy little thing about a problem I've been having

What comes to mind when you read my byline? What can you infer? If you're an amateur etymologist, you might think me Italian or Persian or South Asian. My name is alphabetically superior, so perhaps you could deduce that I've lived a life of primacy — in fact, I was first in line for every foray outside my kindergarten classroom. But if you've ventured to read my past columns — or know me personally — reading "Anthony Badami" would undoubtedly summon something else, a pastiche of images, a persona perhaps. On this very subject, the exalted Joyce Carol Oates once wrote that her "job at the university (was) to impersonate ‘Joyce Carol Oates' ... this quasi-public self."

I'm certainly not equating my meager output with Oates's massive body of work, but I am trying to remark on a shared dilemma we both endure. Whether I like it or not, every single word I've ever written for The Herald will be archived digitally until the end of the Internet. This means that each new column I produce can be weighed against the others. It means that I have a line of succession to worry about, and it means that I have to concern myself with the maintenance of a coherent and continuous quasi-public self that avoids tergiversating.

Most undergraduates experience a similar predicament. Whether it's a lengthy thesis or a short response paper, your identity, to some extent, is contained in and expressed by your academic writing. We may not like to admit it, but a professor's evaluation of our academic work has some bearing on how we see ourselves as individuals, how we measure up to our own expectations and the expectations of others.

But a lot of this stuff is largely self-imposed. Most of my readership doesn't check previous columns, and it would be unfair of me to expect them to do so. Still, it gives me the fantods to read arguments I no longer hold, and I cringe every time I come across a clunky phrase or bloviated language. I'm deeply afraid that someone will dig up an old column, read it and write me off. Think about a previously graded paper you find discarded at the bottom of some junk box. Don't you recoil slightly while reading it?

A part of me thinks it's a symptom of American political culture. If a politician renounces a previously held view, he or she is pejoratively referred to as a "flip-flopper" — hence the schizophrenic backtracking we often see of cornered office-seekers. The 2004 election is the first example that comes to mind, though President Obama, too, has endured his fair share of accusations of waffling. Indeed, the binary of American politics makes it difficult for one to have nuance at all, leaving ample space for demagogues and talking heads to speechify simple but resonant viewpoints.

Academia is not so different. When I think about great writers and professors, I see them as monolithic entities — huge, towering brains who transmit deep and enduring truths, and whose bodies of work are undeviating and sacrosanct. I forget that they are mammals, capable of mistake and regret and readjustment, just like me.

But somewhere along the line, amid the professionalization which most undergraduates are forced to encounter, we lose this sense of humility and equivocation. It is definitely the job of the writer to anticipate the emotional and moral response of the reader, but it becomes highly problematic when this crafted persona starts to shape or overtake the real person. Something is lost in transmission, and the authentic voice slowly becomes a caricature, a grotesque shadow of its former self.

You do not need to read in between these lines to discover how I think this applies to me. When I read my previous production, I detect a person who really wants to impress the person on the receiving end. He can be dogmatic, preachy, dense, abstruse and pontifical. But he can also be empathic and passionate, and, on rare occasion, even eloquent.

When all is said and done, and the dust begins to clear, a writer, whether political or poetic, desires fundamentally to be heard. She feels she has something to say, something with meaning, something with real value. But this message is obscured by insecurity and self-doubt. Instead of having faith in the substance of an idea, the writer relies on rhetorical flourish and intellectual rococo.

Even as I write these words, I somersault in my mind, thinking about your perception and your opinion of me. And the more I think about that — trapped in a kind of meta-textual bind — the less I think about being true to the beating heart of what I'd actually like to say.

And this is the essence of the problem.

Thus, I ask the reader, like the writer, to have a little bit more patience and understanding when examining and criticizing the views of her peers. These precious years are a time for growth and for error-making. Let's not taint them with illusions of grandeur or image.

Anthony Badami '11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at


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