On Korean American students in Illinois

Continuing with my sequence of book reviews, I recently sent LATISS a review of Nancy Abelmann‘s fascinating 2009 book The Intimate University. It should be coming out in the new issue of LATISS; it reads as follows:

Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University is at heart a study of the relationship between a university and a social group. The university is the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; the group is that of Korean American students hailing from the Chicago area; and the relationship between them, as Abelmann effectively demonstrates, is tangled up in contradictions. Foremost among these is the matter of race; the Korean Americans she studies are caught in the bind of being an American model minority. They are not white enough to comfortably enact the American fantasy script of a universalist (but implicitly white and affluent), liberal, liberating and “fun” higher education, of a kind that would license “the luxury of ‘experience'” or a freedom from immediate vocational concerns (10-11). But they are “too white” and too affluent, from the point of view of national ideology, to comfortably identify with the nation’s oppressed racial groups. This implies a fraught relationship with other groups — one student describes her “bad impression” of “weird,” implicitly African American break dancing in one Chicago suburb (28) — but also a powerful “compunction to dissociate” from stereotypes of Koreanness, particularly with the Korean instrumentalism and “materialism” they associate with their petty-bourgeois immigrant parents (161, 7). This disidentification with their own group — or at least with its more problematic typifications — is, as Abelmann emphasizes, the product of a malicious American norm that identifies full individuality with whiteness, and ethnicity with groupness (161-2).

But Abelmann’s intervention, in spite of her subtitle (“the problems of segregation”), is in my view ultimately less about American racial dynamics per se than about the social and ideological uses of the university for one particular group, the Korean Americans. Although her conclusions emphasize race, her rich materials — drawn from ethnographic fieldwork and follow-up interviews in the late 1990s and early 2000s — lead her into a dense, hybrid analysis of a deeply overdetermined situation. She traces out a series of fault lines that divide up the Korean American world by class, gender, cultural capital and religious identity, showing how these fractures evolve along with views of the university. For instance Julie, an observant Christian student, explains with disdain that “When I’m in one of my [college] classes, I don’t feel like I’m learning about life. I’m not learning about who I am and who I should be” — which she contrasts with the more existentially significant sermons she attended at an evangelical church (52). Mary, a student from a poorer family, in turn trashes Julie’s church as “using this artificial [Christian] identity that they’ve made for themselves to exclude others” (81). For her own part, Mary longs to become a college professor, and thus to transcend “the contingencies of birth, bearing, or even education” (67). Yet she is deeply critical of her college education’s failure to live up to its own liberal ideals, eventually suffers a mental breakdown in the face of her family’s “[having] absolutely no monetary power to do anything,” quits college, and moves to Seoul (67).

We learn here how the university can fuel the fantasy of escaping one’s class origins, but also how it can discipline the children of the working class, encouraging students like Mary to accept a place on the margins. In Mary’s case, at least, this process of resignation corresponds to a progressive renunciation of criticality about the university. Paradoxically, Abelmann’s analysis suggests that Mary is most critical of her education when she is most attached to becoming a professor. Initially denouncing her undergraduate classes as “high-schoolish” and “random,” she asks “what’s the point of calling it ‘higher learning’ when it’s not higher?” (71). But as Mary becomes more depressed and leaves college, her doubts seem to shift away from her institution towards herself and her own future: “I’m never sure what’s going to happen, what I’m going to do. There are so many things I want to do, scared to do, I don’t know” (77).

The theoretical contribution of Abelmann’s project to an anthropology of the American university is thus to emphasize the significance, and the deeply unstable and evolving natures, of students’ “university imaginaries.” Abelmann reminds us of the complexity of students’ affective, moral, existential and symbolic investments in university education; she rightly emphasizes their (partial) attachment to the ideals of “liberal” education, and their recurring disappointments with the impossibility of its realization. Although Abelmann calls her book “the intimate university,” institutional intimacy for these students is largely an unrealized aspiration rather than a reality. One informant, Jim, emphasizes his disappointment with the university’s bureaucratic self-presentation, explaining that, after describing its programs and welcoming you to campus, the university rapidly dismisses you with a banal pleasantry: “Have a nice day!” (12). In spite of their alienating institutional environment, Abelmann finds that students generally have access to other domains of intimacy, particularly family spaces (ch. 5-7). But these other domains of intimacy seem somehow insufficient and partial, and it would seem helpful in future research to look comparatively and historically at these students’ fantasies of unalienated intimacy and fulfillment. Do they aspire, paradoxically, to a simultaneously more totalizing and more intimate university experience?

In closing, two methodological points. Abelmann’s data is primarily drawn from interviews, and her analysis is largely based on informants’ self-talk, rather than on observation of their practices. One is left wondering what remains to be learned about the inevitable dissonances between students’ accounts of themselves and their everyday activities. And second, what are the institutional conditions of possibility for a courageous reflexive project like Abelmann’s? She makes no effort to hide the fact that she is writing a critical ethnography of her own campus, and criticizing the campus’s structural racism in the process. Very few anthropologists have undertaken such extensive ethnographic research on their own workplaces. What made it possible in this case? If nothing else, knowing more about the making of this project would be instructive for anthropologists pursuing similar projects in other contexts.