About (Not) Becoming a Student: A Gentle Reminder To Not Leave Your Heart At The Door

It is a rather strange moment, every year in the first few weeks or so, when the new cohort, a great wave of people who finally want to discover ways to live that feel true to them, who want to do something of meaning and become someone of cultivated skills and character, who want to help others, who  want to be happy, who want to find out what it really means to be human, and find good people to be human with, get lectured by some enthusiastic person or another about the great value of thinking interdisciplinarily and the joy of breaking the boundaries of apparently o-so-fucking-important academic disciplines and conventions of institutionalised rationality. 

Now there might be some people, who have received a better education than plebeians such as I did before they first came here, to whom such talk of academic particularities and customs is meaningful, exciting, and providing a feeling of comforting reassurance about being at the right place. But to most, the category to which all I spoke to about the subject belong, and to which, I suppose, many, if not most of the incoming year belong, people of this category will feel utterly dejected by the merciless intellectualness of such speeches. The words they say so far from what matters at that moment; belonging, perspective, reassurance, welcome, feeling like you really are not out of place and out of time. Is this place even for people like me?

There is a neat distinction in anthropology and some other fields: emic vs etic. Etic categories are concepts that are meaningful to the person studying a group of people (think people looking for sociological or philosophical things in art: Monetary Value, Social Situatedness, Moral Ontology). Emic categories are those meaningful to the people studied themselves (think of how an artist themselves thinks of their art: Therapeutic, Enjoyable, Reminds me of my Hometown). Now the unfortunate fact is that, if you are a new student, you will likely be presented mostly with etic concepts, those which are meaningful to the university, to advanced students, perhaps to “adult society” as a whole, but are very hard to find meaning in in terms that you understand. Your heart, your subjective reasons, dreams, desires, all feel unaddressed.

There thus seems to be a gap. A gap between what really feels important, between what people are really looking for when they come to university, and the way they are welcomed (and yes the support staff and SWEI address human concerns, but what is that worth if it seems, at the end of the day, that all of this is just so that one can be a better functioning intellectual machine?). While introductions to intellectual life are, of course, critically important, these should not come at the expense of arriving at university (and by that I mean especially what happens during studying), at this bizarre and wonderful, terrifying and loveable, liberating and empowering place emotionally. Fortunately, despite us sometimes failing to communicate it at the right places, there is much here to arrive at emotionally. The truth really is this:

UCG is a home. You are not just welcome if you manage to be convincing or interesting intellectually, or if you do well at being interdisciplinary (whatever that even really means), or if you are sure that UCG is right for you (few are in their first year, let alone their first semester). You are welcome for your dreams, your fears, your aspirations and your self-understanding, your trying-to-figure-life-out and for those ideas that no one seems to share. People here care about intellectual ability to varying extents, but in the end everyone cares about people who care about something, and who did not replace their hearts with the demands of syllabi, grades, and the vague notion of doing what is expected of a student (being efficient, reasonable, “intelligent”. That last one needs a discussion all of its own…).  You will in all likelihood grow to appreciate those funny academic words, but what matters here is so much more than that. 

So, to those of you who are new here, don’t leave your colorful heart at the door. Don’t leave what really matters to you behind. Don’t feel that you have to be this great smart person to whom these funny words are immediately meaningful to be accepted.  Be you, no less. Perhaps these words I have written here will someday become truly meaningful for you, perhaps not, I doubt that they adequately capture what needs to be said, perhaps nothing can, perhaps we all need to realize the importance of sticking to our emic meaning ourselves. 

I would just like to tell you that there always will be something meaningful within you, some emic idea, something stemming from deep within rather than from some abstract reasoning. Know that you will find people here who care about just the things you are thinking about, about the content of the visions that made you come here (and some who don’t, but that’s why there’s a hundred-and-something of us a year). If the aim of anything you are expected to do here is utterly etic to you: abstract, far-from what makes sense to you, then talk about it, to the people around you, to the instructor, to yourself in the mirror, find what matters to you, instead of trying to become what you think “the academic system” wants.

And to the rest of us, I would suggest we try to remember the dreams we had when we got here. Let’s honestly ask ourselves if we stayed in connections to what is personally, deeply meaningful to us. Or have we become students more interested in passing (for whatever kind of a person a given course assigns a high number to) then in learning or finding ways to bring out into the world what is in our hearts, to become who we wanted to be when we were the ones being greeted by those funny words. 

The Spirit of Christmas Past 




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