You might THINK you know…

It seems that the deeper you get into academia, the more you realize how little you actually know. It can be this way in life too – we think we know a person or have accurately assessed a situation and then suddenly, bam! – but it is amusingly obvious in the classes I’ve been taking here at Edinburgh how incomplete our conceptualizations can be. The taken-for-granted aspects of life are constantly deconstructed by academics (though arguably there are many who also work to construct and then superglue into place those very hegemonies as well), who not only possess the social clout to be considered authoritative but also have the right vocabulary to articulate these ideas – words that are just precise enough to make a point but also ambiguous or convoluted enough that no one really knows what they’re saying.

I fit right into this lovely idea of deconstruction and do find it extremely useful in both academic pursuits and life in general, because breaking down concepts can lead to building up greater understanding. My very first day of Traditional Song (Scots), we spent the entirety of the lecture discussing what is meant by ‘traditional,’ ‘song,’ and ‘Scots.’ Though these were presented in a sort of pseudo-hierarchy of complexity – ‘song’ being the most straightforward, ‘traditional’ being by far the most complicated – they each possess their hidden mysteries that make it not so simple to say, ‘Well, this is what song is, of course!’ Especially in a class where many of the students are from outside of Scotland (particularly the United States, studying abroad like myself), it was important from the outset to carefully define what we meant by these terms for the purposes of this class. By defining them, we were able to begin the course on even linguistic footing, if nothing else.

As another example, in my Gaelic culture lecture yesterday, we spoke about Gaelic instrumental music. The history of musical styles is incredibly fascinating and difficult, especially when that music comes from a linguistic minority and marginalized culture like Gaelic. Our lecturer asked us, ‘What is Gaelic music?’ My first thought is, ‘Bagpipes.’ But then I thought for a moment. What about drums? The voice? Is it music sung in Gaelic? If it’s instrumental, how does the language apply? Does it need to be sung in a pub? A music hall? If it’s performed or recorded, is it still essentially Gaelic? What if it’s written down? What about a Gael playing American rock music? Is that Gaelic?

I smiled as we all fumbled to find a satisfactory definition. Every time we got close, we realized there was an aspect of it we hadn’t addressed. Such is the convoluted and multi-faceted nature of life, really. Without sounding completely relativistic, I can definitely say that context is important and has great weight on how we understand things, even things that seem so obviously and clearly defined as words. Google does a cut-and-dry job of defining words, but the world is rarely so neat. Connotations, denotations, even synonyms – you might think you know, but think twice, and you just might realize you don’t.

So go explore.


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