The Benefits of Having Friends Who Aren’t Academics

Another new year, back in the Ivory Tower. Though being in English + Cultural Studies and Critical Theory, the department seems to be ecstatically mounting new bricks at the same time as decomposing them (is ivory compostable? shrug). We have professors who write about “White Civility” and Freudian psychoanalysis, but also professors who write about Glee and Xbox games. Now I just need to figure out whether the Scifi course I’m taking actually requires me to to and buy an Xbox (Try justifying that on a scholarship application).

The first term of my MA has thrown me into a plastic ball pool (whatever those things are called) of terminology. I’ve never picked up vocabulary very quickly, and studying for the GRE last year was a nightmare, but I do like to use expressions like “postlapsarian” and “watershed moment in colonialism” just to shore up my fragile academic ego. We had been warned at the start of our theses, almost polemic-style, not to treat humanities research as a retreat into an ivory corner, but sometimes it’s difficult not to feel superior to people who spell “wasted” as “waisted.” However, I am reminded increasingly in the course I am TAing, Consumer Culture, that university education itself is a consumer activity. Students are both the products and the consumers of education – paying vast amounts to be able to contribute meaningfully to society (whatever that means), using niche-market coins in the forms of insider terminology in academic exchange, not to mention current academic ideology. For example, although university is touted as a place for free thought, a student criticizing Muslim women’s groups for only socializing and not affecting any social change, or a student genuinely believing in some form of eugenics, would be put on the spot in tutorial discussions and pointed at.

Sometimes I feel like a sheep in university, although a highly paid and highly paying one. Therefore it is good to talk to people who haven’t been fed concepts like globalization inducing inequity or the evils of consumerism. The friend that I have urged to finish his undergrad after 5 years of part-timing told me quite frankly on MSN that he thought the entire concept of globalization as a new and dangerous phenomenon is bullshit, because every civilization that has any foothold in history has had a natural tendency to expand its borders. While I gave half-hearted defenses from an increasingly tenuous liberal arts (read: self-righteous) base, I did start to think about what he was saying. Not that I was converted with regards to globalization, but rather I started thinking more critically about the academic truths I was taking for granted. Then I had a discussion with my mother about the unification of ancient China, which Chinese people generally take as a great step to the founding of the nation, involving streamlining previous nation states’ policies and introducing a unified Chinese language. I accepted this as a good thing before, yet also schizophrenically denouncing globalization at the same time. Until the said MSN conversation. Which reminded me that at the beginning of the term, I was criticizing Asian North Americans for not actively engaging in social change but most people in the class focussed more on how they were oppressed by the dominant culture, and I didn’t quite know what to do with this disjunction.

Not that I am not criticizing these concepts – I am merely criticizing the environs of their dissemination. Ultimately academia is an aggregate of remarkeably like-minded people, if you think about it. Although the population is getting diverse, those who go into university are often more socioeconomically successful and have been put through a similar recipe of public school education. Academia is elitist – and two of the most intelligent people I know have rejected at some point in their teenage years the ambition of higher learning for that very reason. Ethnically diverse voices, especially in the humanities, are often self-voluntarily absent because of problems with language and questions of survival. And it seems that there are so many faculties and departments in post-secondary, yet so few academics make it their profession to examine the structural deficiencies of the tower they are in. I am happy to have worked with a professor in Education during the summer who solicits book reviews from parents instead of fellow professors, and the said Scifi course involving Xboxes (did I ever mention that the professor teaching it supervised a thesis on Evangelion?). So yes, make the ivory tower a lighthouse.

As an ending note, the perils of not using the academic terminology in exchange results in fun situations. Out of my discussions with less academically conforming individuals, I can’t quite take “playing cards” and “dropping plates” to denote playing cards and dropping plates but euphemisms for sexual intercourse; I muttered about notation for slash fiction in a discussion about notation for “Asian / American” vs “Asian-American”; describing something as “third-impactful” elicited no responses and telling my supervisor that the due date for the thesis outline and complete bibliography was a “dummy plug” made him somewhat confused.

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