“If you have a moment, can you give me your expert opinion?”

officeSome of my not-so-fond memories involve my lack of etiquette as a young student. I still blush when I remember sending lengthy documents to senior colleagues, requesting their feedback. I’ve learned now not to willy-nilly ask colleagues:

  • “If you’ve got a moment, please review my article/dissertation/letter & give comprehensive feedback” or
  • “I’m writing a chapter on XYZ. You’re an expert in the field. Would you please spend 30-60 minutes with me talking me through the field?” or
  • “Can you look over my paper and tell me how I need to rewrite it?” or
  • “I just scribbled a draft of a paper. Can you look over it now, and then again when I’ve actually written it properly?”
  • “I’ve done a paper that’s indirectly relevant to your work. Can you research a new area of your field so that you can advise me on it?”
  • “I’m thinking about doing a BA/ MA / PhD in X field. Can you talk to me 3 x 40 minutes and guide me in my choice of field?”

You get the picture.

When I am asked such questions, in some cases, I am happy to help. In some cases, I am inspired by the work I read. In some cases, if the work is directly in my field, I find it easy to review it.
But not always.
Unpaid/voluntary feedback/review is a serious undertaking. Requests require  appropriate etiquette. If it’s for an organization, compensation is useful. The big organization/universities etc often benefit from junior scholars’ need to flesh out c.v.’s so they exploit labor constantly. Know that when you step in, as an individual or organization, you are asking to join the ranks of persons and organizations that make demands on scholars’ time without paying them. And if you are not enrolled as a student at a scholar’s institution, you’re not even indirectly compensating them for it. They won’t get hard cash for reviewing you work, and they probably won’t be able to put you on their c.v. either.
Expert opinion and review is the academic/scholar’s bread & butter. It’s not “free.” We’ve spent years training in our fields. This means our resources aren’t goods or objects. *We* and our skills are our resources.  They’re much more valuable than goods or objects.
Imagine asking someone to voluntarily cook you dinner, or fix your appliance, or tutor them in a language, if they have time. Believe me, with the crap salaries we get paid, there is *always* something else we could do with our time. There’s almost never chunks of time sitting around, and we’re wondering, “Hm, I wish someone would send me their dissertation or policy document so I can make use of this spare time as it’s just rusting away here.”
So know that when a colleague offers free review/feedback, it is almost always a sacrifice. My kid, my job, my bank account, my own research do not thank the requester of review – so act accordingly. So when an expert/scholar/colleague reviews my document/work, I’m indebted to them for the time & intellectual work they voluntarily contributed. I credit them for it. If they’re unable to review my work or offer their time and expertise, I thank them for considering my request and do not take their refusal personally.
Update: After I tweeted about this subject, one of my mentors, Kecia Ali responded at length on Twitter. The conversation ended up being so valuable that I’m pasting it here.
Kecia Ali: Review/guidance is another sort of service work AND the lifeblood of scholarship. How/when/whether/for whom we do it matters. 
Shabana: VERY TRUE! And the degree to which we are able to do it also varies from scholar to scholar, stage to stage. 
Kecia: Yes. It also varies week to week, semester to semester, & depending on who’s asking. I’ll always read some colleagues’ stuff.
S: There’s also reciprocity. 
KA: Reciprocity is key. Doesn’t mean we each do exactly the same thing, but we rely on each other for various professional duties. There are some colleagues I’ll ask for comments on a syllabus or a blog post; others for a quick read of a draft translation. And I find that over time, my scholarship and teaching are enriched through these collaborations and forms of cooperation. 
S: Absolutely. Junior scholars are however at risk of one-sided requests for collaboration that reduce their scholarly work.
KA: This is a real danger. The desire to be helpful is praiseworthy, and at the same time, it can lead to professional stagnation. Similar issues arise w/ service work; women/scholars of color are more likely to have service curtail their research/writing. Some senior colleagues I respect do a nice job balancing, setting limits, while not dismissing all requests out of hand. One thing I do: requests for grad school advice, student journalist interviews: I tell them to call/visit during office hours. That’s three hours per week I’m available. Usually all first-come, first served; this semester a mix of open and by appt. When office hours are over/full for the week, I schedule for the following week. Keeps things manageable.

National No Bra Day

“Encouraging women to show off their braless chests in the name of awareness won’t save anyone, but its message to breast cancer patients and survivors is clear: Your disease is about your secondary sex characteristics, not about you” – Christina Cauterucci.

In my last blog post, “Dear breasts”, I talked about what it means to have “survived” breast cancer with a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Truth be told, though I’ve been commended for my courage in speaking out, it took me 6 years to do so.

Today, on “National No Bra Day,” I am sitting here facepalming at the sight of innumerable photos of women supposedly bringing “awareness” to breast cancer by letting the girls out. As with the share-bra-related-information-in-your-Facebook-status gimmick, I struggle at the edge of solidarity and the inevitable sensationalism of all campaigns. I must believe that there are at least a few well-intentioned individuals who have contributed to this “Fauxliday” as Cauterucci puts it. But I struggle.

Why? Because these twitter pictures of celebrities sharing their perfect breasts with the public are yet another slap in the face for mastectomy-survivors like myself. How is it that their flaunting their still-existent-nipples will help breast cancer survivors?


Dear breasts:

Dear breasts,
So, I wonder where you ended up, once the scalpel was done with you. In a lab? In a cosmetic company factory? Oh wait, was it a scalpel? Or did they use power tools? Was there a lot of blood, like the Jo Nesbo books I started reading recently? Or was it a clean, non-bloody removal of a sick piece of flesh?

Wait -were you really a sick piece of flesh? Maybe in a few years (or months) they will discover that you really didn’t need to be removed after all.

I’m speaking particularly to you, Left Breast, as I feel especially apologetic to you for my callous abandonment.


When the doctors raised one eyebrow each and said that it would be better for me to get rid of the Good Breast along with the Bad Breast, I didn’t really think twice. I come from a medicalized family. We trust our doctors. They tell us jump, we say “how high?” I am a compliant citizen.

But I wonder, often, when I am dressed, and I catch a glimpse of the unsightly dent in my reconstructed breast. Did I need to get rid of Good Breast? Did I get rid of Good Breast (GB) for Good Reasons? To be perfectly frank, I had two reasons for ditching GB: a) I wanted to have the lowest chances possible of having to deal with the misery, effort, and expense of having breast cancer again and b) I wanted a matching set. There: I said it. I did not want a “winky” pair of breasts, with one perky and gravity-resistant and the other a normal, saggy breast. But this means that I have not even one breast to have “breasty” feelings with.

Since I had picked a reputable plastic surgeon, I was told by a fellow survivor that I wouldn’t regret it. “My new body is better than the old one.” Unfortunately (?) my old breasts were fantastic. I had a pair of 36-38DD gazongas. Those girls entered the room and announced my presence before I’d had a chance to do anything remarkable at all. I elected to go down to a 38C, in hopes that the misery of backache would get off my – well, back.

It turned out that the promises of excellent reconstructed breasts were primarily related to breasts-under-your-clothes.

So I wander past a mirror while undressing. Maybe I should stop doing that. Those dented, roughly round, gravitation-free fake breasts with their tattooed, round, static, drawn-by-a-2nd-grader nipples stare back at me. There is no “winking,” to be sure. They are a matching set. Dead, unmoving. Well – except when I twitch my shoulder; then the muscles respond in unnatural fashion to the twitch, revealing the results of surgery. Not to mention, of course, that they are perfectly serene, insensitive to touch, disconnected from my heart.

When I was 12, I mourned the arrival of my breasts. In my conservative social setting, they heralded the arrival of a new regime of social control and shame. When I grew up and went to work, I continued to grieve that I couldn’t just be a great teacher, a great scholar, a good friend (to nice guys) etc. but that I was always, inescapably, the woman with the Breasts. Like dark clouds, they overshadowed my life and work.

So, dear Breasts: You’ll call me a crazy lady when I tell you I miss you. I spent much of my life complaining about you. I now wonder what makes me a woman. I wonder if you really had to go. I refuse to read scientific literature about new discoveries regarding breast cancer and mastectomy. I’m just going to keep trying to let you go. Leave me alone and quit haunting me.


American Education, American Terror, & the Clock Affair

Thanks for your responses to my last post regarding what is approaching consumption and commodification levels in the Ahmed Mohamed Clock Affair.

As an Education scholar, I would also like to point out the urgent need for better support, funding, and training in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) areas. When educated adults – including teachers & police – can’t tell a bomb from a clock, we’ve got a serious problem. Ahmed’s engineering teacher noted this when he admired the clock, and cautioned the boy not to show it to anyone else. Clearly, he knows the level of scientific illiteracy among his colleagues.

As an academic in the social sciences, may I also urge educational focus in this area as well. More courses in Sociology, Anthropology, and History may be useful in generating wider understanding of social phenomena, and may help us be critical of ludicrous claims of causality.

We know along with the engineering teacher, of the level of hysteria and paranoia that the media and politicians work hard to foster in the American public. In this era of never-ending high-level alerts, we must work to protect the public from public security breakdowns, of course. Surely it is also key to protect the public from unfounded paranoia and hysteria, which may (and do) easily result in serious security breakdowns. The concern of Islamophobes is selective though: a clock built by a 14-year old kid is a lot more worrying than, for instance, an arsenal easily available to James Holmes.

Ahmed Mohamed: from clock-maker to criminal to cause

17CLOCK2-master675Well, by now, President Obama has invited Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year old Sudanese-American boy, to visit the White House. This is of course after the boy was treated like a criminal for bringing a home-made clock to school. It boggles the mind that the teachers this boy learns from everyday could collaborate in the project of demonizing him and having him led off in handcuffs for all his fellow students to see.

There has been an outpouring of support for Ahmed, with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed, but this does not erase Ahmed’s experience. While some are celebrating this as a teachable moment, the impact on this boy’s young life cannot be imagined.

I am frustrated, also, by how Ahmed has now become a representative of a cause, an activist, and a symbol. At merely 14 years old, Ahmed’s twitter profile picture captured him confused, staring at the camera, his hands bound in cuffs. Now he must respond to his supporters and detractors (oh yes, there are plenty of the latter too). A normal youthful creative kid, at 14 years old, he does not now have the luxury to figure life and self out at his leisure. Now he must become That Kid who was stigmatized, feared, and physically restrained and now has been rounded up into another box, that of Cause and Issue.

In my research with Muslim American college students, I keep finding the same blasted thing: when Muslim youth keep encountering themselves framed with stigma, they learn to perpetually respond to that stigma, whether by internalizing it, apologizing for it, responding to it, explaining it, etc. I grieved for Malala too, when as a teenager, she became framed as a symbol of civilizational conflict, and paid an enormous price for this. I find myself pleading that we allow other people’s children (as Lisa Delpit put it) a normal childhood and a normal journey to becoming.

Update: Everyone wants a piece of Ahmed. Enough.

Old poetry

Photo on 9-15-15 at 10.32 AMSo, we just moved to Chicagoland, and in the process, a number of items long-buried in the basement emerged to daylight. One of these is my zippered vinyl folder, with a big “Tagamet” on its cover – one of the many gifts the doctors in my family received from medical sales representatives. My uncle, Dr. Merajuddin of Gujranwala, gave me this. I used this folder to store a huge array of poems that I’d written from the age of about 10 onward. I think I tapered off writing poetry, generally, in my mid-twenties, and only produced occasionally after that. I became conscious of contemporary poetic technique. That’s what killed my impulse. I realized that my doggerel-style sounded ridiculous, foreign, old-fashioned, too obvious.

Still, this collection brings back poignant, deeply-felt memories. Some of these poems cause me to hang my head and laugh in utter shame, for their anti-feminist, obscurantist sentiment. Svend vows that he will some day share the worst of the worst with an audience. Over my dead body …

Instead, today, I share with you a poem I wrote years and years ago. It is not much by way of emotion or quality, but as I read it to Svend, my voice caught, and the tears started falling quickly and I was unable to continue, for utter loss and grief. As you read it, you will say, what the hell, why would you be so overcome? But I really was, and my guilt, sadness, aloneness came rushing back to me as I went through to the third stanza. For fellow-Pakistanis, you will recognize a familiar dog-phobia, and the fear of stray dogs. For poets at heart, you will recognize the guilt, the change of heart, the sadness that come from realizing one’s error in fearing and hating the other.

Apology to a dog

My cat sat outside, huddled up,
but sheltered,-as the rain did pour;
I glanced ahead, and saw a large, black
mangy dog beside the door.
What if, when I leave, this fierce dog
should tear my cat apart?
I did not think: I shooed him off,
my deed dictated by my heart.
Broad-shouldered, he turned ’round, and like
a tired wolf, got up again,
and trotted loosely, wearily,
out, out, into the pouring rain.
A large, black, wolf-like dog he was,
but tired, soaked, and hurt, and sore,
that from the rain, I realized,
had taken shelter by my door.

As, heavy at the heart, I sit,
my greatest joy would be to see,
from here, a big, black dog returning, –
weary, sullen, wet, to me.

Princess of North Sudan: “Why are you people so offended? It’s just a daddy’s love!”

Heaton-Sudan-FacebookSo an American (who else) dad’s little 7-year old girl turned to him and – probably fresh from a heavy diet of Disney princess movies – asked him if she’d ever be a real princess. Naturally. We consume the world. We are entitled to whatever our hearts desire, no? So 38-year old Jeremiah Heaton was, apparently, “faced with a dilemma.” Is she going to be a princess? No. Dammit. That’s going to screw up her life entirely. If she can’t be a princess and rule a country, that’s going to break her precious heart. What shall I do? I’ll make her a princess and serve her up some land to rule and own.

So he did some research. Unfortunately he can’t own Antarctica because of a treaty. So he found Bir Tawil between Egypt and Africa, and decided it was his because he said so. Princess Emily gets the worst birthday present ever: “officially the most undesired territory in the world.”

Jeremiah Heaton is not some ignorant racist, he protests: “What I am doing is the exact opposite of colonialism,” he says. “The dictionary defines colonialism as one country taking control of another to exploit its resources or people. Bir Tawil is not a country, it does not have a population, and I don’t represent the United States or a corporation. I’m an individual, and I’m not going to dig for diamonds or drill for oil or build a pipeline. What we’re doing is designed to improve people’s lives.”

sex-and-the-city-2-desktop-wallpapers030Right. Because the East India Company went in to India announcing: ‘Listen up, Hindoos. We’re here now. We’re going to grab all your pepper and sandalwood, and leave you with nothing because, as bandits, that’s what we do.”

Heaton says his endeavor has been actually completely misinterpreted. He’s not trying to grab a land and make his daughter a princess. No, not really. “I’m not trying to entitle them [my children]. I’m trying to teach them about how to help others, and work in the service of others. If anything, I believe it will help them to be more humble.”

You’re going to hear it soon enough from those who really get Heaton’s burning love. So hear it from me. “Why does the Princess of North Sudan get y’all so riled up? It’s just a symbolic act of love. Isn’t a daddy’s love for his little princess universal? Wouldn’t all of y’all want to offer up a real tiara to your little princesses? Why does it have to be so goddam political? Why don’t you all just calm down and wipe a tear for little Emily and her love-crazed dad?”

cruiseWell, here’s a question for you: why does all of your human drama have to use our lands as backdrop? Why does your courage, covert intelligence, adventure, military power, ingenuity, resistance, liberal generosity, romance, all have to play out with a wise black man servilely admiring your fortitude or a mysterious Japanese woman (to be bedded of course) looking on in fascination? If we figure in your narratives, why do we always have to serve your fatherly love? Why are we the land, the backdrop, the sidekick, the servant, the ally, the enemy? Why are you always the subject and why must we always figure as the exotic furniture in your tale? Why must we – most insulting of all – serve as a means to bring out your “altruism” and “humility”? How about practicing your altruism and your passion for humanity in Baltimore? How about feeding the 20% of American children who live in poverty? California needs your help, Heaton: take your plans to the 23.5% of Californians who live in poverty. Take your plans and your crowdfunding home. The world has had enough of serving as a stage for your claims, your flags, and your human-interest drama.