Emory Report

May 30, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 34

What I learned at Emory

Peter Mills '00C earned his bachelor's in history/sociology.

Thursday, May 12-It finally struck me this morning after I strolled into Woodruff Library at the same hour I had every day for about two weeks.

It had become a ritual: I'd nonchalantly slide my EmoryCard through one of the turnstiles, walk businesslike toward one of the Info Commons computer terminals, sit down and start the day's paper or check my e-mail before cramming for the next big test or strenuously making headway on a long assignment.

It had gotten downright frenetic in the library the previous couple of days. In at least two instances, other students with similar missions had taken all of the available computers, and I was lost as to where to go to do my work. When I finally managed, serendipitously, to locate a terminal, I noticed that there were other students passing by in aggravated states, similarly lost, upset or dazed, trying frantically to find an open machine for their direly important paper, like electrons chaotically unbound from an atom's nucleus.

It reminded me somewhat of the hectic drive to find a parking space around Turner Field as a Braves game starts. There was even a formidable background chatter as the hushed conversations of the aggregated throng blended together. It was electric, if one can say such a thing about a library.

This morning-already a little changed in mindset, to say the least, since my last schoolwork was completed the day before and I was due to graduate Monday-I was still wrenched by the awful reality that faced me: There were, literally, no students in sight. The room looks bigger devoid of people, save for the occasional reference librarian or security guard. Indeed, this place is actually a yawning cavern filled with a multitude of computers-how could so many students actually converge at one time in such an area and fill it up, like insects congregating around a porch light?

Even my usual desolate sanctuary in the stacks-carrel 709 on the mustard yellow-shelved floor-had been occupied several times when I sought to study there. And last week, much to my annoyance, even in this stifled location one could sense audibly a massive human presence, with multiplied shuffling of papers, creaking of chairs and muted groans of boredom.

Of course, there was no one in the stacks today. The eeriest thing was the hum of the computers and their ceaseless screensaver-flashing routines.

That's when it struck me. The looming Life Event (graduation) was actualized; a precious few hours, minutes and seconds separated my now library-bound self from the newly graduated, alumni self.

I was beginning to feel uncomfortable, like a dinosaur or the unwelcome last guest to leave a party. I briefly considered going back to the dorm to write this column but quickly discarded the idea-I wouldn't get anything done there.

I had been excited when I found out I was going to have the opportunity to write a column for Emory Report after working here for four years as a student worker/office flak, responsible mainly for filing and the like. So I decided that my personal contribution, as it appears in the Commencement issue, would be weighty and insightful--nay, even grandiose. Hence the ambitious "What I Learned at Emory" title.

After brainstorming and reflecting on the topic, I was having a hard time thinking of a way to sum up my experience here. I have been a somewhat average student academically and somewhat average in other characteristics as well, without a nice SUV or much of a social life.

Being somewhat of a nerd, I shamefully admit to enjoying some of my classes-to hear the lectures even, not to chat with friends. This led me to recall a previous observation about my classes; many of them (I took mostly classes in the social sciences), as I'm sure is true in almost any relatively specialized field, have adopted a certain common vocabulary, and I have frequently come across two recurring terms in many of the books and articles I've read: paradigm and milieu. I had no idea what they meant when I came to Emory.

This could be fruitful, I thought, so I surfed the Internet and poked around the empty library looking for inspiration, happy that I had narrowed my focus to exclude trite truisms about graduating (though pretentious-sounding ramblings were certainly a danger).

My search for information relevant to paradigm was more successful than my search for milieu material. The use of the former in social sciences, I think, derives mainly from a classic essay by Thomas Kuhn on the history of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Crudely summarized, the theory says that a paradigm is a set of beliefs and "facts" (though perhaps there can be no real facts from a postmodernist perspective, only observed phenomena) that constitute the underlying theoretical structure of a field.

These belief structures are quite tenacious, in that all scientific work will tend to derive from or complement a particular paradigm-up to a point. Once the paradigm has been exhausted, a scientific revolution occurs (for example, from Newtonian to quantum physics). Such revolutions, Kuhn said, are based on unforeseen discoveries or advancements that simply won't fit into the present paradigm-like Einstein's theory of relativity. This process is called a paradigm shift. The new paradigm becomes institutionalized, and the process potentially repeats itself forever.

Milieu (though I vaguely thought that it was related fairly explicitly to Durkheim and his famous theory of suicides) is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as merely a synonym for "surroundings." It encompasses more than just physical surroundings; for instance, general social relations or conditions might be included. Anyway, I'm no William Safire, but the word does have a nice French sound to it, certainly nicer than the harshly Teutonic zeitgeist, which is fairly interchangeable.

To completely pervert the two terms, I was planning to personalize them, as metaphors or models for what the Class of 2000 is experiencing: a paradigm shift, or a change in milieu. I don't even know if Kuhn's theory is actually relevant to science today, so it would certainly be an implausible stretch to apply it to the fundamentally different situation we as a graduating class face.

After all, I was supposed to have foreseen this. Oh well.

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