I recently realized that I assess classes like my brother judged Phish in the mid-nineties. I remember him returning from concerts, usually smelling like a combination of Burt’s Bees and petroli oil, and saying something like “that riff Trey went on, it was just so . . . ” He’d close his eyes, trying his best to unblur an experience that had probably never not been blurry. “So . . . spontaneous.”
At the end of the fall, as the barrage of blue evaluation sheets paraded past my desk, I found myself describing my favorite professors as my brother had once described riffs in songs with titles like “Fluffhead.” For me, the difference between an “excellent” and a “truly exceptional” came down to spontaneity, or at least the appearance thereof. Based on my system, points were awarded for marking up the board illegibly, triple-jumping over desks, and swearing (an F-word every once in a while came off as spontaneous, I don’t know why).
As I found myself scribbling down the word “spontaneous” more often than the philosophy major in my class says the word “ontologically,” I decided that it was time to reflect on my obsession with the impulsive. Why couldn’t a lecture be brilliant unless it was unplanned? Weren’t the same words being used, and the same ideas being presented? Why was I discounting time? I hate students who do as well on tests as me without studying; why was I rewarding analogous behavior?
I did a quick search for “spontaneity” and came up with sites dedicated to, among other things, rugby, religion, entropy and sex advice for married couples. I decided that my reflections would come off as too premeditated and so I abandoned that effort in favor of some impulsive pontification. And that’s when it hit me: spontaneity is affirmed authenticity. When someone does or says something off-the-cuff, it’s as if she hasn’t had time to manipulate her words; she hasn’t had time to shape her thoughts into those of the person she wants to appear to be. She’s like Kanye post-Katrina or (maybe) Hillary in New Hampshire.
Or maybe she isn’t. I was recently informed that the most “spontaneous” professor I knew in fact wasn’t spontaneous at all. The professor whose classes I hated to miss because of that you-never-know-what-you’re-going-to-get quality apparently always knew what he was going to give. According to my informant, this professor prepared what amounted to a script, including gestures, crescendos and de-crescendos. Based on my friend’s reconnaissance, all those seemingly off-the-cuff monologues were meticulously rehearsed and orchestrated to send the class discussion in a particular direction.
At first, this revelation hit me hard. That was until I moved to New York for the Williams in New York program and realized that real spontaneity is either incoherent, boring or both. Exhibit A: this morning a friend and I were commissioned to document the work of numerous performance and interactive artists. The man organizing the event described it in two words: “experimental and spontaneous.” Excited by the prospect of what might happen, we woke up at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning and boarded the 4/5 to the land of the impromptu performance.
We were sorely disappointed. The participants, unlike the professor I had held in such high regard, had no script and so all that transpired was disorganized and, to some extent, predictable. The subjects of the interactive art, upon discovering that they were the subjects, inevitably stormed out. The artists, upon realizing that their attempts at interaction inevitably provoked the same reaction, became discouraged. The uninhibited creativity that we had expected was never released.
Maybe spontaneity is just the norm here in New York. Unless it’s David Tyree catching a sick pass, most things that might be considered “spontaneous” elsewhere are just standard. Children breaking out hip-hop routines in moving subway cars midday: that’s normal. Shopkeepers selling ice to people on their ways to work: check. Contemporary art: check. Spontaneity has become as predictable as global warming. Maybe we need someone to rub crap on the side of Grand Central.
P.S. My brother didn’t go to Williams. He went to Middlebury.
Anouk Dey ’09 is a political science major from Toronto, Ontario, and is currently studying at Williams in New York.