Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fitting Into the Culture of Academia

I'm debating whether this merits cross-posting on MoneyLaw. I have a blog inferiority complex.

I have another friend (no, all these friends are not named "Belle") who currently feels unmoored, and not fully comfortable in our academic environment. Academia is as much a social culture as an intellectual enterprise, and she is finding it hard to connect to people here, as it takes so much social and intellectual effort. Is this due, she wonders, to the demographic mismatch, that the reason for the weirdness that she feels is because of a lack of homophily, particularly racial/ethnic difference? Or is it just institutional, the reason for the difficulty of forming human connections?

I'm still formulating my thoughts on this, but this is my email, and keep in mind this is a personal response to a friend:

I don't think the disconnect and divide and discomfit is necessarily only attributable to race. There are many criteria for homophily; and race/gender are but two (albeit often salient) axes. But when I was co-chair of an ethnic student org at Bourgie Metro Law School, I HATED it. I wanted to do social justice and inter-org coalition building. But I got a lot of flak over having to go home on weekends to spend time with my family, and so would miss out on bowling night or karaoke night--I almost got impeached! And then some of the people in this organization were so offensive: they would say that Filipino is as close as you can get to black; that they could never imagine dating a non-Asian and professed judgment over our friends who did (especially if they dated black people); and I sort of dated a guy who would never have introduced me to his parents because he was Taiwanese and I was Vietnamese, which was too low-status in the Asian racial hierarchy. This contributed to my rejection of identity politics and disillusionment with identity-based social/legal movements. Maybe it was just that crowd, but I find that the ugly honest side of people is always discomfiting--when you hear what people really think, it doesn't matter if they look like you.

That said, perhaps these opinions were expressed becasue I looked like them, and professed to have the same interests as them--except that I was into community outreach, not just "being Asian and hanging out with Asians." I no longer think that race is the most necessary criteria for homophily; I think it's personality, convictions, interests, and values.

The reason why I clashed with the LL.Ms last year (I have absolutely no friends from that class, except ONE, and he's now in Russia, and he's very different from me) isn't so much culture clash as it was personality clash. They were prissy drama freaks. I am the type that is loyal and doesn't end things over one disagreement or misunderstanding. And I value more how people treat each other rather than what they have in common with me. The Roomie has nothing in common with me, not even personality or habit (she likes to go out, I like to stay in), but she treats me well, and I treat her well, and we care for each other and have the same definition fo friendship. So when I say that I like people who have things in common with me, it's not just books, music or backgrounds--it's their definitions of what constitutes cordiality, collegiality, and friendship.

And I think that the disjuncture in the academy, particularly in the legal academy, is that it's full of competitive types who might have different definitions of the above, and different ways of compartmentalizing people. They occcupy professional roles and personal roles. So they might have intellectual fit with you, but the difficult part is bridging the intellectual to the personal and emotional. They might be perfectly different to their friends and families compared to how they are professionally in school, in the classroom, on the journal, clinic, office. I do that to a certain extent, although I'd like to think that I can be true friends with my colleagues and peers. Indeed, although last year was a mess, I do count several people as true friends and intellectual peers.

So anyway, if you feel uncomfortable, it's okay. Just be yourself, and if you don't feel like you fit in, you don't have to. What you do have to do is take people for who they are, as they should take you for who you are. It's not about adjustment and fit as it is about compromise. Compatible doesn't mean perfectly mirroring, or even perfectly fitting--it means "going along with well." So long as you can maintain some modicum of sanity and cordiality with people (and you definitely can) I think you are doing as well as can be expected here. You will find some who love you sincerely and feel a deeper connection with you (me); but for the most part, I think this is rare, as all true connections are.

The rest of my connections are pleasant (I am just aiming for drama free this year) and I don't think I fit in particularly well here. I just think I am good at doing my own thing, and being comfortable in my own skin, and so long as wherever I go my skin moves with me, I'll be okay. When I want to break out of the comfort zone of me, I extend a hand and press the flesh with someone else, and that new contact can lead to good or awkward. But I'll take it for what it is and hope for the best, and hope that some handshakes lead to real human connections.