Not an “or,” but a “both-and…”

Note: This is a modified version of a journal response to The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing, by Joseph Harris, and to a number of the ideas we’ve discussed in Dr. Heilker’s module.

Rugged individualism is somewhat overrated. People simply don’t exist in a vacuum, and I for one am not at all uncomfortable with the idea that I am defined by the communities of which I am a part. Comfort with the concept doesn’t necessarily translate to flawless functionality, though, and my personal history with my community networks is a little tangled.

My traditional camaraderie- and location-based groups of friends and family are not the ones directly relevant to this discussion. In these, at least, I am usually the proper mixture of challenged and content — I’m good at expressing emotion and affection openly around people I love, and generally know where I stand in my relationships with others at any given time.

My place in academic communities, on the other hand, is frequently awkward. Humanities, Science, and Environment isn’t a big major, and even on campus people are often confused over what it is I do. I am in many ways a walking contact zone – I’m smack in the middle of the humanities and sciences, and folks on either side don’t always know how to react. Scientists read me as a liberal arts person, which has been interpreted variously as Damn Hippie, Grammar Nazi, or Not Academically Hardcore. Liberal arts people read me as a science person, which sometimes translates to Environmental Nutjob, Raging Technophile, or Atheist By Default. For the record, I don’t consider myself any of the above, but these are all assumptions that acquaintances have actually made about me in real life. It gets a little weird, but the most exasperating part of the whole process is the constant threat of not being taken seriously.

When you’re in a small and actively interdisciplinary major (particularly one with a rather long name), you spend a lot of time having to explain yourself. Yeah, I’m not quite this, I’m not quite this, I’m some of that – oh, it sounds like I’m a walking identity crisis? Okay, yeah, thanks for that, Random Citizen. I got so fed up with the constant call to explain myself and my acronyms that I started getting simultaneously snarky and apologetic about my “hipster major,” turning self-deprecation into an offensive weapon. Or I’d say I was something else entirely, claiming I was majoring in Professional Writing or (never and) Environmental Science because those communities were easily identifiable reference points and it was easier than having to go through my whole spiel yet again.

Enough of that noise. It might take a while, but I am going to choose to view the tension between my interests and their respective communities as a strength.

I mean, I’ve always held this philosophy in everything that didn’t apply directly to, you know, me: my favorite art is mixed media, my favorite musicians cross a range of genres in their work, my favorite books and movies can rarely be pinned into one discreet category. Even my favorite foods are fusion combos that blend unexpected flavors. I am quite familiar with the concept of hybrid vigor — mutts are often healthier than many pedigreed animals, because crossbreeding reduces the chance of inheriting recessive traits in a genetically closed line. The list goes on — each new layer of complexity makes a subject more interesting, and the topic can be applied to  communities (and to individuals, I need to remind myself more frequently) as well.

A range of interests, motivations, and backgrounds within a group might lead to arguments and questions of identity, but it also prevents stagnation. Everybody is interdisciplinary in the greater scheme of things. The conflict and confusion that occurs when we try to categorize ourselves in definitive ways is natural, and it’s great fuel for conversation — the very thing that keeps our communities interesting, active, and alive.

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