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A major identity crisis

| Monday, April 13, 2015

One may as well begin with Brendan O’Brien’s Apr. 10 Letter to the Editor:

“We are surrounded by some of the most interesting people that we may ever know, but we are too wrapped up in our own lives to make an effort to get to know them.”

O’Brien’s letter is titled with a seasonal question and its familiar answer: “How was your break?” “Good.” As O’Brien identifies in the quotation above, this threadbare exchange is all too often a symptom of the superficiality of peer interaction. Sure, we cannot constantly stop our busy collegiate lives to listen to the innermost anxieties and aspirations of other students, but if our conversations do not move beyond such automated call-and-response, we will be missing an opportunity to connect in an environment and stage of life that especially enables connection.

I want to add, on both a serious and humorous note, that our responses to another common question may be limiting our capacity to connect. What’s your major?

I posed this question to a student in a Notre Dame Saxophones shirt once (funny how we wear our group identity). “I’m an engineer,” he replied.

“Curious,” I thought. “Why would he be in college if he’s already an engineer? Shouldn’t he be working for some engineering firm, in that case? I could understand if he was studying engineering, but, by Jove, he’s already a full-blown professional.”

What is an engineer, anyway? An engineer might calculate this or optimize that, but what is an engineer essentially, in a Socratic sense? I’m fairly convinced it has something to do with trusses. Trusses lie at the heart of being of an engineer or, at the very least, keep the whole structure standing.

Naturally, I understood what he meant. “Aerospace engineering student” is something of a mouthful, and engineering students probably come close to doing what professionals in their discipline actually do. But if engineering students call themselves engineers, what should we call people who actually work in the field of engineering? This is the problem of ambiguity. Moreover, should physics students call themselves physicists and chemistry students call themselves chemists? This is the problem of inconsistency.

In the British system, incidentally, nearly every student uses these professional labels. Those who study classics are classicists. Those who study theology are (oddly) theologists. I’m still trying to figure out what is meant by a PPE-ist. But this is the same country where they call a store that sells hygiene products and foot cream a “chemist,” so I wouldn’t necessarily follow the British when it comes to nomenclature.

Humor aside, the real problem with this question is that its quickly-provided answer tends to quickly invite stereotypes as we ascribe the standard qualities of an engineering student, English major or whatever else, to the person in question. Stereotypes, of course, allow us to lazily label someone and assign him or her to a stagnant category, as if to say, “Oh, yes, an engineer. I know what they’re about. No more to be learned here.”

The mere title of major says precious little about what a person is really like. More could be gained from asking what fascinates fellow students about their studies or why they choose to study what they do. Even asking, “What do you study?” can help to avoid the stereotype-prone formulation “I am a (insert major here).”

Whenever we use a phrase that begins “I am a”, the indefinite article insinuates that we are just one something of a larger group of somethings with shared qualities. I am a Republican. I am a feminist. These phrases imply a whole body of beliefs that sooner causes divisions than allows for connections. It seems we would be better off leaving the “I am” statements to spontaneously combustable mountain shrubs and the Johannine Jesus, who is not just a light of the world, but the light of the world.

Personally, I would prefer to hear about what people really do — what drives them and what inspires them — rather than who they are in a general sense. This is a call to foster a community with more meaningful conversation by presenting ourselves not as academic categories but as people who lead complex inner lives that cannot be compressed into monosyllabic responses.

This doesn’t mean we have to eliminate small talk or spend 20 minutes in conversation with every student who asks how our break has been. However, if we are to know each other more fully, we need to move away from only considering our major life ambitions and only communicating through terse exchanges. We need to observe the epigram of E. M. Forster’s Howards End: Only connect.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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