Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A New Year's Resolution

I generally hate the coming of a new year. I measure time by academic years (August-June), as all nerds who've been in school too long do. So half way through the year, anxious about my grades, wondering where I'll be next fall and the status of the applications I just turned in, I get the rude awakening that as we fritter away, measuring our lives in coffee spoons, time passes by in huge dollops. So since I am a bitter, cynical type and generally not sanguine about the new year, I hate to be reminded that a year has passed that I may never lay claim to again, that mistakes were made and time was lost. It is a feeling of resignation, not resolution.

Yes, I am a bright little ray of sunshine.

Not to say that resignation over the passing of a year does not spur me to resolution for the next. I do not deny that I have made a few easy-to-achieve resolutions for the New Year. I have resolved forthwith to spend my time more judiciously. This doesn't mean to focus solely on work, but it does mean that I will work better, and not just harder. It means that I will spend my time only with those people and in those ways that I will want to remember come December 31, 2007. It means that I will exercise better judgment.

Why is this simple resolution so hard to achieve? Why is it that at this advanced, post-graduate education level I still feel like every academic experience is a repeat not of high school, but of junior high school? Every year we make the same resolutions, and every year we discover that we are never too old to make the same mistakes twice (or more). I keep hoping that academia will be different, but reports from my law professor or dean friends tells me that at all levels of education, there will be an endless cycle of cliques, politics, inter and intra-group tensions, webs of gossip and rumors, romance and failed romance, all of which take you away from your intended mission.

But what is the mission? I'd like to think that in academia, the mission is a collaborative, communal search for truth and knowledge. I am an idealist in that sense. But what is more true and well, obviously known than that this human quest will necessarily be complicated by human emotions and dynamics? So perhaps I should just accept things as they are. I am working on my third post-secondary degree. And I am in junior high school again.

There are lockers. I am sharing my locker with a visiting scholar who does not have a locker, and we have a locker-caddy. There will be a dance this year, the law school prom, otherwise known as the Barrister's Ball, and I will not go, out of protest to be contrarian and non-conformist, but secretly I would like to be invited by someone. Even in a weird, off-to-the-side, not wholly integrated program like the L.L.M, we have a class president and vice-prseident, we have the popular kids and the ones you never talk to, and once again, I'm the cipher in the snow. The one you hardly see or notice, the one who's never around, never in the middle of things, always to the side. I prefer it this way.

At least this time around, it's by choice--I take 8:30 am classes and seminars, and go straight home or to a cafe to study as soon as they ends. I have been to junior high school about three times now (college was a wonderful, liberal arts in a big state university experience, so I discount that), so I know better. This being the third time I've attended the 7th grade, I know better than to get into cliques, than to accept every invitation that sounds like it would be peer pressure to binge drink or hang out with the wrong crowd (be cool, stay in school). Okay, so at this level the "wrong crowd" means "people you don't like" rather than people who will press joints into your palm. (And to be honest, being a debate society kid, no one ever did, I was that nerdy.)

But it's amazing that even when you do everything possible to avoid grad school drama, thinking "Ha! This time I know better!"--you still get stuck in it. It's like a vast puddle that no one can escape getting mucked into. Forget that big pond/little fish metaphor. Grad school is all about puddles. Things you want to sidestep in a self-congratulatory nod to your own maturity and liberated mind, things that are not so life-altering as they are merely tiresome and draining. Apart from your work, which can be (but usually isn't) very important, or big life changes like getting married or having a child or getting tenure-track (yes, it ranks alongside birth), most grad school drama is just sound and fury, signifying nothing. It's not big splashes. It's little splishes. Ones you'd rather avoid, but the puddle of human drama is so vast you can't.

So I got stuck in a couple of puddles last year. A few of my own making. I put on my metaphorical galoshes and mucked things up more. But should stop walking or getting involved? In avoiding drama and fracas, does one avoid life itself? Is the answer necessarily disengagement? I was once a co-chair of my law school's Asian law students association, and it was the worst year of my life. It was full of politics, I had social justice goals that competed with karaoke night, and there was almost a referendum vote to recall me. But the following year I still became chief-aricles editor of a journal. I didn't disengage.

I once believed in working with people, not avoiding them. I am doing work now in social network theory that urges me to continue to make such connections. So while my presence at Liberal College Law is dwindling to the point where people in my program are asking me if I go to class (I do!), and I have met maybe 2-3 people outside my program, perhaps I should not cleave myself from the entire infrastructure of the law school or the grad program. Perhaps the solution is not to disengage, but to reengage--but on different terms, with different people, and in different ways. Perhaps I should think of the intellectual community as being bigger than this LLM program, bigger than this law school, and think of the wider campus.

So whereas one of my resolutions was a Mary J. Blige-ish plea for "no more drama," perhaps it's all in the staging. I can handle a little drama, just not more of the same. Perhaps life is a repeat of the 7th grade because that's all we can see when we are stuck in the puddle. I remember 7th grade as being a pretty narrowly focused period in life, wanting to grow up, still clinging to the security blankets of the past. Maybe if I cast my net wider, and tried to be a part of the campus community--attend lectures by the political science or sociology department, poetry readings by the English department, movie screenings by the film school--maybe then I would feel like I didn't give up, that I am engaged and invested in my school, but without the drama immediately surrounding me.

Isn't it funny how another disgruntled grad student rant turns into yet another plea for interdisciplinariness, for those who study the law to look outward rather than inward. If its a possible answer to the solipsism of our profession, then it's probably an answer to solipsistic grad students who are sick of grad school drama everywhere.