What an elite education deprives you of

Muse has some poignant musings about the disadvantages of an elite education. I am often struck by the self-absorption of even many good, ethical, spiritual, and thoughtful students/graduates of elite schools and universities. There is an air of entitlement, which Deresiewicz discusses in the “The American Scholar” article, entitlement which makes many individuals solidly immersed in the self, which makes them a little less able to climb out of the self and experience empathy. They are able to envision new worlds, at times, for the world, and they are taught by means of endless learning exercises to lead, to manipulate people and nations, to handle large amounts of money. But there is something missing in there.

I shouldn’t talk, probably, because in Pakistan I went to the Convent of Jesus & Mary school and then to Kinnaird College. But once I graduated, I did the unthinkable and went to Punjab University for my Master’s. My peers were shocked. I had abandoned the Community. I had gone to the masses. I had joined a classroom of people who came from small towns and big families, who sat on the floor, and who did not own cars. I’m glad I did it. I am happy also that I am starting a tenure-track position in Oklahoma, at a smaller university.

As an observer on Muslim American affairs, I am often disturbed by the upward mobility of my own community. It is good to be comfortable and to be free of anxiety for the next day’s meal, certainly. But it is important to have your feet solidly on the ground, aware of your neighbor, aware of your roots and aware of the fragility of existence.

Pakistani Harvard student refuses to receive award from US Ambassador

As my brother in Pakistan tells me, Pakistanis are talking about Pakistani Harvard student Samad Khurram, who declined to receive an award at Roots Academy from U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson in protest of US policies and actions, such as the bombing in Mohmand Agency.

He’s been in the papers and all over virtual Pakistan. It may seem like a great deal of talk for a mere gesture. A number of um, patriotic Americans may even find such gestures infuriating. I believe, however, that gestures such as these may vent some of the great frustration that the less powerful in the world feel toward US imperialistic policies. Such gestures enable them to hold their heads up high again for a bit, and, – well, – keep the peace a bit longer. Thank God for these gestures, at this moment in time. I don’t expect that anyone who should pay attention is paying attention to them, unfortunately.

“It’s not raining eligible Muslim men”

Excerpt:

For years now, I have agonized, along with my friends, about the disproportionately large numbers of such women and the much lower numbers of truly eligible Muslim men. Many friends have wondered if “he” is out there at all. Many friends have asked me if I can introduce them to someone, and friends have asked me if I can introduce their friends to someone. I empty my pockets helplessly. Few that I’d introduce to them with confidence. The “good ones” are married, engaged, or perpetually single/looking. I can think of a number that I wouldn’t be comfortable marrying myself—too immature, too socially inept, professionally unstable (the perpetual graduate student, for instance), equipped with outdated gender norms, momma’s boy… I could go on.

It’s not that Muslim women don’t have problems. But there are so many of them that are single that the mind boggles at the future that awaits the community.

Read on here.

The Harvard gym controversy is not about religion

My post is up at Religion Dispatches.

Almost every article I have come across on the subject of the “Harvard gym controversy,” over the exclusion of men from the gym for a small period of time each week, has focused on the problem of religion and religious accommodation. Why should we accommodate them? Where will it stop? How many accommodations are we going to need? Why do Muslim women feel uncomfortable in gyms?

These are not the right questions. The question should be, why do some women feel uncomfortable working out, swimming, jogging, under the male gaze? Why do some women feel uncomfortable walking on the street at night? Why do some women feel uncomfortable taking the metro or the bus at night? Why would most women prefer to have sex-segregated bathrooms, showers and dorms? Why do women feel nervous when waiting for a bus late at night, and a man shows up? You could argue that they should “suck it up,” and “deal with it.” They do, in fact. …

Read on at RD Blog.

Life before this brave new world

Because it’s Thursday, let us take a moment to remember how there was life before:

  1. Credit cards. Yes, indeed. In 1989, when Uncle Mushtaq, our neighbor in Lahore in the PCSIR housing campus, had his total salary of Rs. 5000 picked from his pocket one month, that meant that that month was going to be a very difficult one.
    Uncle Mushtaq’s reaction? “Onnoo kadee thhod na hovay” (I pray that he – the pickpocket – never wants for money.”) I remembered Uncle Mushtaq’s prayer when my digital camera was stolen from my baggage at the Washington, DC airport in December 2007. May that baggage handler enjoy the camera. And may I buy one soon – so I can preserve my daughter’s age 2 memories soon. Which reminds us -
  2. Digital cameras. Due to parties that will remain unnamed, my aforementioned digital camera did not accompany us to my dissertation defense. For some mysterious reason, Svend’s camera preserved the day in the form of darkened shadows. And that was that. If you lost your photos, they were gone. No files on your hard disk. So hooray for small, handy, gimmick-rich digital cameras.
  3. Camcorders. Yes, our grandparents could look forward to that one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit and pose for a camera, once every few years if they were lucky. And our children can have their motion and their voices captured for the future. Amazing. Truly.
  4. Computers. Let me be the first to confess that the first time I handled a computer was in 1993. I wrestled with a colleague’s desktop Mac during my MPhil at Cambridge, and spent PhD scholarship money to acquire my first no-name desktop in 1996. From then on, I bought 2 Toshiba Satellites, one SONY VAIO (sadly deceased last year), and one Dell. Try to imagine how it would be to type on a typewriter, messing up an important document with white-out (or erasers) and re-typing all over again. And now imagine typing an entire dissertation or book in that way.
  5. Research databases. JSTOR and EBSCO are my lifelines. I am speechless with emotion.
  6. Email. Good God, email! I am from a generation of people that got email in their late 20s. As a result, I lost touch with school and college friends. Now, I can never lose touch with people, even if I want to. Nightmares of the past can “reconnect” with me through a quick, thoughtless message. Except people who live outside the US and Canada: folks outside North America cannot be relied upon to check email religiously everyday. What’s up with that?
  7. Coffee shops. Enough said. Need I explain? Most of my work would never be done without these. Mobility is an amazing thing. You can now enjoy the company of your friends, and the ambience of a coffee shop while you work. Let’s take a moment to enjoy the fantastical glory of this modern-day reality. A change of atmosphere (unless you go to the SAME CAFE EVERY DAY), a set of fellow beings also working at their laptops, and catchy/hip music and the hum of conversation filling the silence–these things can, strangely, work wonders. Or maybe not?
  8. google.com. Nuff said. You couldn’t ALWAYS just kill time by digging up every piece of public information about casual acquaintances, including mailing list contributions they’d made in the fiery days of their youth. You actually had to inquire about them, and care enough to find out. Now, you can do research about anything and everything that casually passes through your mind. Even worthless thoughts can result in additional pieces of information, but significant ideas can actually result in solid knowledge about Pakistan’s mountains (yes, look it up), the habits of seahorses (hmmm … right?), and the Pakistani diva Noor Jahan (go on, you can’t resist it).
  9. dictionary.com for all those times you need to use the dictionary and the thesaurus but don’t have them handy. Now you can replace commonplace words with a choice of ten substitutes and brighten up your prose. But, on the flip side, you have no excuses to use “peak” for “pique” anymore. And yet this is happening more than ever …
  10. Support groups: So the world is becoming lonely and isolated. And yet, today, you can google (or look up the phone book, if you prefer clunky), and find people who share your particular phobia, struggle, or bad habit. Writing a dissertation? Struggling to quit smoking? Pregnant? Whether online or in the ‘real world,’ you now have access to people who have the same problems. And they can listen to you. No longer are you stuck with families and friends who “don’t understand.” Brave new world, right?
  11. Keyless car entry. So, little things make me happy. I acquired my first such car 2 years ago. With a baby in tow, I cannot imagine how I’d do without it (and yet the world does). Every now and again, I am impatient with the world, as I click my key-remote at my house-door.
  12. Cellphones. Remember waiting for your dad to pick you up from school/college, straining your eyes to see his car in the sun, at the edge of your bench, with no idea when he would suddenly show up? I do. Now I drive, so I rarely wait for tardy picker-uppers, but when you do, a quick text message can conveniently tell you their ETA. And you can send them a quick nasty message to hurry the hell up.
  13. Would you like to add more to this list so we can be grateful? We may live in strange times – full of Paris Hilton, reality shows, feast on one side of the world and famine on the other, and easy global exploitation by a small number of individuals, – but for a number of reasons, we can still be grateful for living in 2008. ….

    But do not forget that this is a list produced by a person who lives in the first world, a person who has enough to eat, who can occupy privileged spaces and benefit from the resources the developed world has to offer. For most people in the world today, NONE of the things I have mentioned are a reality. Whether we speak of the children orphaned in the Pakistani earthquake, or Safia in Somalia who has not eaten in a week,  – or even the “still separate, still unequal” state of American schools, most of these features of our brave new world are still dreams.

Phinished.org for dissertation-writers

One night in the summer of 2005, I lay on my bed, angry and helpless about what appeared to be completely immovable writer’s block. I could see no light at the end of the tunnel; I felt like I’d never be done. The dissertation would never be finished. I’d never have the PhD. I’d never get a real job. I would always be in limbo.

So I got up, and, as we often do, started googling things. Running searches is a remarkable way of actually narrowing down what you really need. You start with one thing, and gradually, by process of elimination, you discover that you really need something else, but something else that is extremely specific. Eventually, I ran “Dissertation support group.” And I got phinished.org.

I’ve never joined “support groups” before, and the idea seemed hokey and unreal. This is such a White thing to do, I told myself sarcastically. But the dilemma was real, and the need for solutions was immediate. So I created an account, and started to read the forum. The outpouring of messages of encouragement, support, and advice was like cool water in the desert.

Writing a dissertation or thesis is a lonely, lonely task. As a graduate student, you are expected to be superwoman – you should KNOW how this works and you should HAVE what it takes. If you neither know nor have it, you do not have merit – and you deserve to fail and be ground into the dirt. If you seek out help, you are not cut out for the rugged individualism that the intellectual/work world demands. So what better community to seek than fellow strugglers and stragglers, who see their own and others’ struggles as both real and productive rather than as symptoms of failure?

The phinished strategies are deceptively simple:

You create “pacts” for yourself at the beginning of the day and share them with others. By experience, I know that this is much better than turning on the computer with just a vague goal of “work” at the beginning of the day. When you have no concrete goal, you are less likely to reach it. And worse, when you have no road map of what your NEXT goal is, you may be inwardly terrified of actually accomplishing the current task. The best time spent is the 5 minutes of deciding what your goals are for the day.

Then there is the 40 minute method. Modern work patterns are destructive to human capacity. You are expected to work nonstop (with a lunch break) from 9 am to 5pm. No one can do this. You go through cycles of productivity and non-productivity; you work for a while and then you blog or you surf the internet for videos; you work, and then you write funny or anguished emails. This is the truth, and the masters of industry had better accept it for their own sakes. As phinished.org puts it:

“The 40-minute method is one in which one does 40-minutes of sustained work, takes a 20-minute break, and then repeats the cycle as often as desired. This system combats burn-out and fatigue, and also does much to overcome procrastination and resistance. (e.g. “Ugh – I’ve got so much work to do, but I just can’t face my dissertation today! Then again, doing two or three 40-minute cycles doesn’t sound so daunting…”) You may find people using pact notations such as “3×40″, which means that they are going to spend three 40-minute cycles on a particular task.”

But one of the most important aspects of phinished.org is the community. If you are one of those people who work best by reading a self-help book in isolation with only yourself to cheer yourself on, good for you. But if such strategies leave you cold, then you’d rather work together with someone. The problem is, you don’t always have a writing-partner handy. Nor do your schedules always match. S/he might be too chatty, or too cold. S/he might have nothing in common with your field of study/work. S/he keeps bringing up her love life. Well, the virtual community gives you the benefit of just how much support and community you need.

I’ve finished my PhD, of course, and I’d like to give credit to the phinished.org community. I’m listed in their Hall of Phame still, and I am now returning to them because I have another case of writer’s block and another big writing task.

So tomorrow, I’ll be pacting again – for about 4×40.

Prayer of a feminist

God, grant me the strength to live in a world that does not acknowledge me as a full human being and yet to know, with fullest unshakeable conviction, that I am.

Beloved, protect me from grasping hands that seek to draw themselves upon my canvas.

Cherisher, grant me the strength to make it through puberty. Let me escape becoming an object in my own sight as soon as my breasts appear.

Friend, enable me not to be erased by the desire to be desired. Let me not build myself on foundations of water. Help me not fill myself with the emptiness of men’s desire.

Sustainer, as I grow to maturity, give me the courage to see beyond the imperfect world of injustice that human beings have created, and give me the vision to see the dream of beauty and justice that saints and visionaries have dreamed.

Omnipotent over tyrants, enable me to sustain my spirituality as I traverse the spaces of a world that tramples on my dreams – tramples them like a crazed elephant that knows not what it does.

Compassionate One, come to my aid when I meet love and injustice together. For in my world love rarely comes unaccompanied by the other. And if I want love from a man, it usually means encountering rejection of part of me.

Creator, grant me the strength to channel Your Attribute of Creation when I give birth. Support me through nine months of creation, and through hours of labor that rip my body apart.

Sustain me when a helpless infant is placed into my hands before I am even recovered from labor and blood loss.

Keep me from coming apart when an infant’s unending needs become my responsibility alone, and the father is responsible for playtime. Support me through nights of lost sleep and days of endless work. Help me be patient and eloquent when I’m told “This is what all mothers do, day in and day out. Mothers enjoy it. What’s wrong with you? Why are you depressed?”

Strengthen my heart when I am obliged to hand over my baby to strangers for care so I can go to work. And Creator, create a world where childcare does not have to mean abuse, neglect, and bottles propped on pillows.

Give me many times the focus and strength of a mere man so I can make a home habitable and a child happy and healthy, while I also work fulltime.

Give me the creativity to excel in sales, academia, cleaning, engineering, … even while my supervisors do not acknowledge when I excel.

Give me the strength to complete a day of work, before I hurry home to plunge into preparing a meal. And then give me the fortitude not to collapse inwardly upon myself when I deal with the man who buries himself in a TV show while I feed the children and tidy the house.

Originator, give me the fortitude to not smack them when they sneer and call me the weaker sex.

And Beloved, let the eyes of others see my dream. Let the minds of others see the possibilities of equality. Let men and women see full humanity shared by both, without either losing any part of it.

Compassionate and Just One, let my daughters see the world I dream of – in reality.