Monday, August 21, 2006

The Legal Academy Gazes At Its Own Navel

I didn't speak English until 5 years old, when I was sent to Kindergarten with no more than a "good luck" and a government-issued free lunch card. Somehow, I managed to escape ESL, although because English was not listed as my "first" language, I was forced to take those proficiency tests each year. Even though I was enrolled in say, Honors English. Now English is my dominant language, to the detriment and near exclusion of my former "primary" language--Vietnamese. My proficiency in Vietnamese is no better than a child's, and a young one at that. I can't carry on long discussions about anything more significant than the weather, your/my health, what's for dinner, etc. Politics, literature--far out of the question. It's funny how my parents, who once pushed assimilation so strongly on me, should now decry my childish pronunciations, incorrect tones (I think I am tone deaf, which is very ironic for a person who was raised with a tonal language), and very poor vocabulary. On the other hand, I have become so proficient at English, that I majored in English literature in college--that was how much I loved the artistic forms of my adopted language. And yet, there are those who will comment on how clear my English is, or ask me if I was ever enrolled in ESL. (And there are those who will ask me what I think about the Vietnamese War, as if it is soooo recent in my memory or a part of my (as opposed to my parents') personal history, having been born in the U.S. of A., but whatever.) Perhaps it is not necessary to learn one language at the exclusion of the other. It probably wasn't, and I was probably just lazy about keeping "up" (although, if you stop learning more complex vocabulary after the age of 5, can you really keep anything "up"?) my Vietnamese. But for better or worse, I am just another typical language-challenged American. I can translate other languages well enough, with some training in Latin and an intuitive grasp for syntax and grammar. But some things can't be learned just by scansion.

I am excessively phonetic, which means that I keep mispronouncing words like "cache" or "meme." There are certain idioms that I haven't learned till very recently, a fact that appalls me. For instance, there are some proverbs and aphorisms that I've picked up by thumbing through Bartlett's Quotations (my favorte: A bird in the hand.) But for some reason, I didn't know what a "straw man" argument was until two years ago. I don't know why, since I've been in school for so long and have actually taken philosophy classes on constructing/deconstructing arguments. But I just didn't know what it was. I also just learned, last year or so, what "navel-gazing" is. But now that I know what both mean, I can't stop using them.

As you may have noticed, the past couple of weeks have been consumed by meditations on legal pedagogy, my own research, the beginning of the school year, etc.

Well, I'm not the only one. I'm in good company. This time of year, when kids across the natoin are buying new pencils and Mead Trapper-Keepers (just kidding, '80s flashback), the air is scented with freshly mimeographed paper and pencil shavings. Having been in school for 21 of my nearly 26 years, I measure my life, not with coffee spoons, but by academic term years. The year for me does not begin in January. No, the fresh start is in August or September, when with new class schedule in hand I take off on a new path of learning. It's always a nice, fresh start. But with new beginnings come reflections on old endings, and hope mingled with fear for the future as well as nostalgia or regret for the past. It's a time that lends itself to excessive introspection, not only on the personal journey but on the greater pilgrimage of all those who are like you, and who journey with you.

So that is what navel-gazing is, apparently. "Excessive introspection, self-absorption, or concentration on a single issue." Just a lot of thinking about "why we're here" and "where we're going." But for certain it's a lot of thinking about oneself or one's own kind, profession, etc. A very inward focus.

But I think navel-gazing is a good thing--even though it has a pejorative connotation, as if one should not solipsistically focus inward. That to think too much of the self is to be "self-absorbed," as if you could be consumed and eviscerated by your own narcissism. But why not look inward, for lessons to project outward? If professors can examine their own attitudes and methods at least once a year, students will be better off for it I think.

And often, students can benefit directly from a view from those on the inside:

Paul Caron has this nice roundup of advice for law students here.

And BlackProf has the best advice for incoming 1Ls that I have ever seen anywhere.

And in the spirit of public service solipsism, or "navel-gazing" as they call it, here are my posts from a few months ago:

So You Want To Be A Lawyer, Eh? Part Deux.

The Best Advice for Aspiring Law Students