The Magazine

The Revenge Lecture

Feb 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 22 • By DAVID SKINNER
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I AM CLOSE TO LIVING OUT a fantasy I've nursed since maybe the second week of my first year of college. I am returning to my alma mater, not, mind you, to hang around the old campus bar like some aging cad talking up the coeds with their fake IDs (though maybe I'll do that too). No, the political science department has invited me to deliver a lecture to an audience of students and professors on a topic of my choice--you know, like a gray-haired worthy speaking on Important Matters of the Day.

I started fantasizing about this moment years ago, with the return of my first college grades. Thoroughly stung by that swarm of B's, I took long showers and rehearsed my revenge lecture, throughout which I would glance knowingly at professors whose shortsighted appraisals of my work were now contradicted by my widely acclaimed brilliance. I would give the most cynical speech possible on making one's way in the world. The title would be "Flattery: The Key to Success in Life." I would argue that school was like life--A's were awarded to suck-ups, while true greatness went unrecognized.

Other fantasy lectures I delivered back then took place at colleges where I'd been refused admission. Needless to say, the talks were a major intellectual event, marking a sea change in the culture. I would convincingly and without breaking a sweat disabuse those assembled of their false gods, and make them rue the day their Top Five U.S. News and World Report-rated institution failed to recognize my remarkable powers.

I have over the years added new details to my homecoming fantasy. But now the whole thing's become a distraction. I picture the big wood-paneled and stained-glass lecture hall where I took Intro to Religion and imagine myself taking everyone's breath away with some hilarious, rapier-witted talk in which I blend anecdote, hard learning, long quotations in foreign languages I don't speak, and gigantic mathematical equations of the kind featured in Good Will Hunting, the whole performance bolstered by a stage presence so confident, so swaggering, that Peter O'Toole, were he watching in the wings, would crumble in envy. Then I come out of it and realize I have very little idea what I am going to say in my very real lecture.

Add to this problem the fact that I am not actually learned. What modest store of knowledge I possess I am not ashamed of, but it lacks the weight of major accomplishment. I've realized that if I'm an intellectual, it's purely a matter of social classification. What I am is a writer, a journalist--one, to boot, who's particularly promiscuous in his interests. I have no "beat," no regular subject I've gained intimacy with over the years. Rather, if one week a topic tickles my fancy, I write about it. If another week, the same subject provokes a yawn, I move on. The positive way of looking at this is that I am a generalist. But if I were to give a lecture based on the skills I've developed, it would have to be titled "Non-Specialization: The Key to An Enjoyable Professional Life and Something Less than Stunning Worldly Success."

In my shoes, some wannabe thinkers would blame the profession, and I'm not above doing so. The workaday journalist can't expect to be seen as anything but a total lightweight by people who really know about a subject. I'm better off than some, in this regard, since working for a weekly allows a generalist like me the time to bone up on a subject before having to commit himself in print. And yet, even after reading a few books (or perhaps as a result), I usually see more clearly than ever that I have achieved something well short of papal authority on what I am writing about. Recently I learned a lot about music for a piece I was writing on soul, but, boy, I struggled to finish the article, haunted the whole time by how little I knew compared with the truly learned writers I was reading. "David," I had to keep telling myself, "Remember, you're only a journalist."

That's little comfort now that I'm working on my address to my alma mater. Most of the audience will be students, presumably, but several of my old professors will be there, and some of these guys are the real thing. As a defense mechanism, I've come up with an enormously vague lecture topic in which I am stuffing all sorts of odds and ends arranged so as to create the appearance of deep knowledge. But I am again haunted by the specter of genuine scholars, with their actual gray hair, long French quotations, and impressive diagrams.

What to do? I'll keep reminding myself that I'm only a journalist. I'll work hard. I'll persevere. And if I should come up short, there's always the old campus bar.

-David Skinner