By Will Cox
I am an exchange student studying abroad in my own country. As an American entering a Masters program at Sciences Po Paris, I was confronted in my first year by the diversity of opinions held by students hailing from Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. These opinions made me question my preconceived notions of both urban ideas and the non-American academic space generally. Now, as a ‘study abroad kid’ in Los Angeles, I am having to reflect on the American ideals I thought I knew, through a bizarrely foreign lens.
Operating in this mixed up academic identity has made me hyperaware of certain subtle differences between the two university communities I find myself in; most interesting to me being the difference in jargon. Though my Sciences Po program, Governing the Large Metropolis (GLM), is taught in English, it is very rarely taught by native English speakers. Classes, translated through the minds of our professors, can produce unique interpretations and interesting vocabulary. At Sciences Po, this collective jargon is obsessed with the word ‘informality’, or words like it. The obsession with the word ‘informal’ I originally thought was a matter of translation. However, over the course of the first year of my masters, I came to understand that is was a distilled description of the interests shared by Sciences Po’s academic community. Topics like the ‘un’-governability of massive cities and the informal policies and actors who attempt to make sense of such incomprehensible systems. I like it. The collection of ideas, summed in one word, used repetitively by a group of thinkers.
Moving to Los Angeles, aware of feeling a reverse culture shock, I have found the same fascination for words from this new group of academics, hoping the words can make me better understand this new place. I’ve listened for the word to describe this group. UCLA Luskin’s word is ‘intersection’. Every teacher, and already some of the students, are using the word. They say things like, “I work at the intersection of transportation and housing”, “at the intersection of mobility and ecology”, “at the intersection of sprawl and psychology”. The word goes beyond this city’s collective subconscious obsession with getting around…or the lack there of. It is descriptive of the way this UCLA Masters of Urban Planning sees itself; trying to produce professionals who know that in Los Angeles (and anywhere else, really) no change will come from actors who are overly specialized. No transportation specialist (a career many of the student here appear to be pursuing) will be successful without knowing how changes in transportation affect housing, employment, the environment, etc. Based on the jargon, the word, I think that is what the professors here are trying to teach us.
Outside of the word differences, life in LA is nice. I’ve gone to the beach and the desert. There are fewer classes here (4 to Sciences Po 9) though the classes each require more work; a break even on workload. The students have been kind, inviting us to parties and dinner and bowling. We went to Las Vegas and that was the most foreign place I’ve been in a long time. I have a car here, which helps with getting around while also helping to drive me insane. I’ve sat a long time at a lot of intersections. I understand why the UCLA community says the word so much.