A Letter to My 17-Year-Old Self (Part 2)

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The first part of this epistolary series is available here.

My dear 17-year-old self,

It is halfway into your first semester of college, and your first exam isn’t going well. While desperate for good ideas, you have done little but look at the clock in front of the classroom for the last hour. Nothing great is coming to you. Shit. You can’t fail out of college yet; you just got here!

Cool it.

This essay on Balinese cockfighting and symbolic anthropology isn’t going to write itself. You chose this particular prompt, out of three, precisely because you had thought it a cakewalk. How hard can it be to write about cockfighting in Bali? Very hard, it turns out. The professor just called time.

Damn it.

So you turn your blue book in. You tell yourself you don’t know if you’ve actually failed the midterm. That sinking feeling in your gut says otherwise though. Menghibur diri, as Papi would say.

Things are not supposed to have gone this way. Indonesians are supposed to struggle with the language and the weather. We are supposed to have a hard time connecting with the Americans. We are supposed to long for home. We are not supposed to struggle with the academics. In the natural sciences, perhaps; in a subject like anthropology, certainly not.

Utter nonsense.

But we have kept up well with the pace of class. We have little trouble understanding our professors’ lectures. We are confident enough to take our professors out to lunch. We love fall; the changing leaves are beautiful. We befriend laid-back Americans more easily than we ever did Indonesians in image-conscious Jakarta.

Yes, we spend days on our quantum mechanics problem sets, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. Yes, we miss kvetching with other Indonesians around Grounds. So what? We knew this would happen. We chose to attend an elite university mostly unknown even to knowledgeable Indonesians.

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Our problem is that few things from our twelve years of Indonesian education have prepared us well for the rigors and style of American higher education. Adjusting to them is overwhelming you now, and challenging academics is not what you expected.

Do you remember high school math class and the seemingly useless formulae and manipulation techniques they made us memorize? Can you still picture biology class with its obscure taxonomies and arcane contents of living cells? You didn’t get what the brute force required for rote memorization had to do with education.

You take pride in asking questions out of left field even when it makes others sigh in exasperation. It was like that one time when history class covered Indonesian nationalists’ protest against colonial celebrations of Dutch independence from Spain. What will Timor Leste students think in fifty years when they learn in history class of the Tujuh Belasan festivities we held in the old 27th province?

So you equated college with your own arcadia because you couldn’t wait to finally be free of the stupid things you had to do.

At first, your prejudices seemed confirmed. Since the first day of anthropology class, you’ve been reading primary sources—books that the great minds you are studying actually wrote. You’ve also been reading what folks far more brilliant than you thought about these classics. You’ve had impossibly exciting discussions with your peers on the texts the class is reading. You caught yourself wondering if the still-warm rays of the autumnal sun wouldn’t distract half the class when the professor one day decided to move the class outside on the Lawn. You thought all this was real education.

Well, you’re partially right.

Balinese cockfighting painting by I Ketut Ginarsa

I still don’t know what real education should be about, by the way. But I suspect that asking cheeky questions isn’t enough, that engaging intellectual giants requires preparation, and that having pertinent and enlightening facts at hand isn’t pointless.

Let’s go back to those two questions that befuddled us to see what I mean. Why should Balinese cockfighting have given rise to symbolic anthropology? How did it happen?

In a sense, these questions on thick description, a central concept in symbolic anthropology, are akin to the irreverent questions you enjoy asking. They are obvious but deep. But we never paused to think about the reasons for the concept, how it came to be, or what consequences might derive for it. That is how we got caught flat-footed.

In the last three months, you’ve read Clifford Geertz’ seminal essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” You sat through the lecture about how foundational the essay is to the sub-field of symbolic anthropology. You’ve read the papers on the modern history of the discipline.

But from all these disparate knots of knowledge, you couldn’t weave a reasonable answer to the two seemingly innocuous questions. So you wrote up everything you know about the topic, even if jumbled up and fragmentary. You didn’t know how to connect the different dots and present them in a defensibly objective light.

As a result, this midterm highlighted your greatest weakness. The Indonesian system had hardly ever made you write anything substantial, in Indonesian or English. So you couldn’t produce anything worthwhile when you had to. Writing well is hard, and doing it in a language not your own is doubly so.

You need to master this craft because it will only become more important for you in the future. (Newsflash: you’ll be making your living by thinking and writing.) Fortunately, good writing is similar to telling a good story, and you’re good at that.

This means you need to know what the story is about and where it’s heading. Once you have the basics down, you can introduce elements of drama and sparkle to draw your audience in and sustain their interest.

Needless to say, you must understand the subject matter well. If you had waited to take this third-year class, uh, third year, you would have been exposed to enough content and context of anthropology to recognize the unfolding drama in the discipline’s narrative. You could have pointed to how revolutionary the idea of telling “a story they tell themselves about themselves” was. Rooted in the colonial encounters of the west with the rest, anthropology before Geertz had never bothered to ask the rest what their deal was.

The essay we came up with is as unappetizing as wet krupuk because it is long on vague generalities and short on convincing evidence. This is where that sparkle would have helped. Specific vignettes and relevant factoids would have added color and depth to the essay. Remember when the Geertzes, like a posse of similarly hapless Indonesian transvestites, joined the villagers in running tunggang langgang from Indonesian police? That momentous moment in Bali changed anthropology.

Can you see how you could have rewritten the essay already? Colonial roots, cockfighting, flight from an Indonesian vice raid. All those sound like crucial elements of a great story to me.

Oh, the midterm itself? Don’t worry. Setting aside the angst it set off, you didn’t fail.

Photo credit: I Ketut Ginarsa on Wikimedia Commons, Microsoft.