Shoring Up Certainty

“I am thinking about the word overbearing.

My computer’s desktop is an early-winter landscape, decaying .txt files strewn all over. As I sift through the leaves, I notice I often use this hedging device: when a particular behavior or phenomenon is upsetting me, rather than say outright that I am upset by that thing, I say that I’m ruminating on the meaning of the word that describes it.

It’s not the worst habit to have. I’d like to be the sort of reflective person who, before rushing to label someone as nosy or overbearing or whatever, thinks about the true meaning of those words and their appropriateness for the context.

But quibbling over definitions is also a way of privileging theory over practice. It lets me shore up certainty in the literal accuracy of my statements by baking uncertainty into their phrasing. You probably have met someone who talks like this: “I’m not sure if annoyed is quite the right word, but I feel a kind of … annoyance about the way he—”

Sometimes epistemological honesty comes at the cost of obnoxious phrasing.

My school’s break started at the beginning of January and will run until the end of February, with a few odd work days in the middle. By the time this post goes up, I’ll be several days into a three-week stay in Ulsan, where I’ll continue holing myself up to work on writing and calculus.

I woke up in a cold sweat recently, having dreamed I was a interviewing for some generic marketing job when the manager asked, “I see you taught English in Korea for two years—care to tell me some about the measurable outcomes of that work?”

The next morning, I signed into LinkedIn and aggressively added new connections to abate my fears of never ever being hired. (The fears have remained at bay for several days—is that a measurable outcome?) Far be it from me to fish for pity, but there’s something singularly hard to itemize about the ways I am growing, the things I am learning here. To choose a concrete example, it’s not that hard for me to identify progress in the math I’ve been studying—I can point quite easily at the problems I can solve now that I couldn’t in September. But I don’t know how to go about “measuring” these outcomes in a way that would satisfy my nightmare interviewer. Ditto with Korean, although at least there’s a formal certification test there (the TOPIK) that I’ll take in a few months.

I’m not writing out of a sense of futility here. I truly want to know: How can self-educated people demonstrate proficiency in fields where there aren’t certification exams or technical interviews? Do people who work in hiring intentionally seek these people, or is it more cost-effective simply to pursue candidates with traditional credentials? Email me your thoughts.


So Max, in English, virgin means an unmarried woman, right? asks my coteacher.

Sure. It means she's, you know, pure.


Well, I say, it's a little more specific than that.

Our office Catholic joins in: It means she's clean.


And free of sin. Well-mannered.

… Let's go with that.