The creativity-killing pressure of the academic market

This post is loosely based on a old post I wrote in 2006. My life now is very different from that intense moment of my life then, but some things are deeply similar.bird

I was struggling to meet my advisor’s deadline to submit most of my dissertation. I was also very pregnant, and under pressure to eat healthy and exercise (which, given the time crunch of the dissertation writing, was highly unlikely). I really did almost nothing but sit on my rear end and type. I ate whatever I could get, ate more because of the stress, and ate more cream puffs and chocolates and ice cream. Consequently, at my OB visit, the nurse told me I’d gained 8lbs in 2.5 weeks, and I know I did no exercise except walk to the bathroom now and then.

The day before I wrote this old blog post was a high, high-stress day, because I had to turn Chapter 6 in right away. I woke up and got to work, and worked till 3:30pm.

When I was done, I was ravenous, and wanted to weep loudly because a) I’d just been under so much stress and b) I’d just finished the stress-inducing task–and now what?

I was lost.

So I felt a bit like the day after Ramadan. I barely knew what to do with myself.

I wondered, when I emerge from my dissertation and my defense, what will remain of me?

Something about graduate school kills the creative impulse. And then the ensuing/continuing pressure to finish and then be productive forever kills all liberty to just get up and run out spontaneously and have fun. To write for fun. To write adventurously. To do anything that comes from within.

The anomie and alienation of the academic profession today threatens to disconnect academic writers from the very source of their intellectual and spiritual inspiration.

Where work should allow us to flourish, academic labor under capitalism alienates us from our work.

Sometimes when I decide, like once or twice a year, that we should really “do something,” I come up empty. I don’t want to do anything anymore. I just want to be still and be nothing. I don’t know what I want. I am a domestic mule for academic work and the endlessness of the work is devastating to the creative impulse. I’ve lost some of that inner child. No, not that inner child that I had in my womb. My own inner child.

At that time, I thought: When I come out of my defense and they tell me I’m Dr. Mir, I wonder how I’ll feel. When they grant me liberty from this task, and instruct me to go forth in triumph, I bet I’ll have an impulse to break into song, loudly and soulfully:

آشیاں جل گیا، گلستاں لٹ گیا
هم قفس سے نکل کر کدهر جایئں گے
اتنے مانوس صیاد سے هو گئے
اب رهائ ملے گی تو مر جایئں گے

My nest has been burned, the garden has been plundered
When they let me out of my cage, where shall I go?

So intimate I have become with my captor
If I were to be granted freedom, I will surely die 

(Raaz Allahabadi)

Today, years hence, I find that I am in the same position as many others. Our cage is wrought of the job market, cannibalistic employers, and the hordes of un/der-employed academics. The ropes of the broader economy tense and chafe against our skin, never allowing the freedom to listen fully to the free mind/heart.

The Face of the Endeavor: Muslim Female of Color

As a Muslim woman academic of color who is pretty good at public speaking and who is not a shrinking violet, I’ve often found myself drafted into service as the Face and Voice of various endeavors, organizations, and institutions.

I get drafted as the Face and Voice of various endeavors because I rock. But often, less talented male colleagues imply that it’s because I’m female/Muslim/a POC/pretty.

I’m female/Muslim/a POC/pretty, yes. But I also rock. I work hard.

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Silently judging you

In mainstream (predominantly White and predominantly non-Muslim) academic institutions, this has meant that I have served as a dash of color, a sprinkle of exotic faith practice, and a flash of academic talent and brilliance – just before I’m shoved out the door because I’ve served my purpose. (Check out my resume. You’ll see which institutions I’m talking about.)

At times this also means that in Muslim and predominantly non-Muslim settings, I have to do more, because I have to speak and shake hands with people and confer legitimacy on the host/endeavor. (Check out our resident vibrant Muslim immigrant female! Listen to her speak accentless English! How awesome are we!)

It also means that in certain conservative religious settings, I’m irrelevant because I’m not enough of a shrinking violet. At the Mosque Open House, I’m great. At the Friday prayer, not so much.

At times, too, once I’ve done more by way of lending Face and Voice to an endeavor, I’ll hear snide comments from male colleagues – who have been sitting idly in the peanut gallery – about how I surely don’t mind providing my pretty female Face and Voice to the endeavor, do I?

To those male colleagues, I present my most prized ability, one I share with Dave here:

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Islam in the local public library

A few days ago, I happened upon my local public library‘s children’s section on Islam. My disappointment and shock knew no bounds.
 
Today, looking for books to use for my Fall 2017 courses, I went to the adults section on Islam in the same urban public library.
 
I now no longer want to get off the couch. 

My heart is filled with despair. In order not to communicate it to others, I will quit writing about this for now.

Fixation: Gender and faith

I’m planning on teaching a Gender and Islam course this Fall, and as I collect readings, I realize popular and scholarly sources are ALWAYS producing work on gender-and-Islam.
 
Fascinating that, to Muslims and non-Muslims, gender is usually the primary shaping factor of religious identity, and the most salient Issue.
 
So my reading list grows, and grows, and grows. Works on spirituality, service, creed, etc? Much less so. So when people say they are “just human” and not feminist, or they don’t see gender, I tend to giggle inwardly. Let’s accept our general fixation and examine it, instead of pretending it’s not there. GENDER SEX GENDER SEX GENDER …

Daddy Sang Bass

“Daddy Sang Bass” playing on my car stereo brought tears to my eyes, as we drove to Guardians of the Galaxy, me thinking of my dispersed and ageing family. My child sat in the back, Svend in the driver’s seat and I’m thinking back to me sitting in the back seat, with my teenaged brother and sister. They’re now in their 50’s.
We’re driving to Hiran Minar on a sunny day. My abbu is singing in the front seat:
ماں پیاری ماں
گودی میں تری کهیلا بچپن میرا
Mother, my beloved mother
My childhood played in your lap
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When he stops, ammi in the passenger seat, is singing 1950s Lata in her absolutely beautiful melodious voice:
مٹی سے کهیلتے هو بار بار کس لئیے
ٹوٹے هوئے کهلونوں سے پیار کس لئیے
Why do You play with earth again and again
Why this love for broken toys
Abbu is now lying, smiling meekly in bed, a third of his size, a fraction of his strength. Ammi is helping clean his bedsheets. Abbu looks at my face on the computer screen and smiles mildly, saying, “Pretty.” “It’s Shabana,” ammi reminds me. He seems okay with that and moves on to muttering about something quietly.
No, the circle won’t be broken
by and by, Lord, by and by … 
I’m gonna join the family circle at the Throne

The crushing power of the mundane

It hit me Saturday after 4 in the afternoon, long after we’d watched Frasier re-runs (again), long after scrolling through the unending outrageous and provocative tweets and posts.

It was just as I was re-filling the dishwasher, all the plates lined up just so, all the bowls compactly queued, all the tupperware lids on the top shelf, reminding my husband to make sure and not put the brand new tupperware lids in the bottom shelf please so I don’t have to replace them because they’re all twisted.

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It was around the time I started re-heating a stale pot of rice with the last piece of thawed chicken from last weekend and some thawed eggplant.

I lit a frankincense incense stick in desperation, because if I can’t change anything, I can light a fire on an incense stick and make it glow, can’t I?

And a song rose from my heart, somehow:

تم همیں یوں بهلا نه پاو گے

You cannot forget me so easily

You cannot forget the times You and I had. I glance at the small kitchen and the surfaces that are perpetually covered, screaming at me endlessly There is no surface for cooking tasks here, somebody take away the random objects, somebody take it all away, somebody — oh wait, I’m that somebody. 

لگ جا گلے که پهر یه حسیں رات هو نه هو

Embrace me, for who knows, this beautiful night may never return

My heart fills up with the oppressive sense of the mundane everyday. It crushes. It will not let me breathe. I want that taste of the Eternal, the Limitless, the power of madness again. But I am in my late 40s, and I am crushed by bills, work, demands, expectations, norms, career, parenting, long overdue goals, poor health, calendars, coordinated schedules, so heavy, so powerful that I can barely feel my own heartbeat.

I can barely remember who it was that navigated 40 years on this planet in mad seeking.

عشق بهی هو حجاب میں، حسن بهی هو حجاب میں
!یا تو خود آشکار هو، یا مجهے آشکار کر

Love concealed, and Beauty too!
Reveal Yourself to me, or reveal me to myself!

Where is the insane confidence that led me to the doorstep where I threw down my belongings and stamped my foot, and said, I shall not leave, no, not until I have my wish?

ذرا سا تو دل هوں مگر شوخ اتنا
وهی لن ترانی سنا چاهتا هوں

I am but a little, pitiful heart, but so bold am I
I wish to hear the same You cannot see Me Moses heard on the mount

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The dishes, the leftovers, the groceries. That’s all I recognize anymore.

Yes I got your email I’ve been busy with grading I’ll be there for the meeting Sure you can turn it in late Have a great day No problem I’ll get it done Thanks I’m a bit tired Oh sure I’m better now 

Honey, remember to flush the toilet Did you get your snack for school You need to take a bath Don’t shut the door on me You need to take a bath What’s wrong now Let’s get the homework done now  

Can we please go away this weekend But there’s always work Can we please sit at the beach Can we at least watch a movie Can we go for a walk Can we sit on the porch for a bit at least Can we talk

Amazing Awesome Fabulous Beautiful Cute Powerful tweet post photo update 

Where is the air Where is the sky Where is the sun Who am I

Why is the ceiling so bloody low   

The middle space of academic Islamic education

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On the last day of classes, I asked my students: If you were to teach this course, how would you do it differently? Our discussion took us to the usual themes: topics, structure, readings, guest speakers, activities. But as we wrapped that discussion up, we wandered into the other questions: What kinds of Islamic education are there, and what kind do you really want?

There is the other kind of religious education – I’ve experienced it, and benefited from it – where you memorize Quranic surahs, master the correct recitation of the Qur’an, master the corpus of Hadith and jurisprudence, engage in devotions and prayer together. This is beautiful, and I hope everyone has that valuable experience.

But what about the academic study of Islam? We asked the tough questions. We agonized over what happens, and what can happen, when we engage in the academic study of Islam.

Students said they learned about diversity of perspective within Islam at American Islamic College. They heard a few of my graduate students express discomfort with the critical study of Islam and gender (no surprise there!). Other graduate students saw this study of gender as a lifeline for their faith. Students read books and heard opinions that seemed critical of key figures in the Islamic tradition. They saw, in other words, that this Islamic education wasn’t merely religious socialization or religious transmission.

Did that bother them? I asked. Was it a problem when the notions and knowledge they were raised with were interrogated, complicated, framed as one among many?

It was at times difficult, some of them admitted. But overall, they embraced the complexity. They accepted the possibility that instructors of certain courses might wish to personally approve the students who enrolled, ensuring they had the stomach for the interrogation involved.

At American Islamic College, I feel we have the best of both worlds. We interrogate and complicate, yes, but we explore and investigate as believers, ranging across the potential expanse open to us as believers. We do not identify with the secular dogmatism of much higher education. But we consume and sample secular studies of Islam, and we complicate those as well. We do all of this in a faithful community of scholarship, and we connect with scholars in academia broadly, Muslim and non-Muslim. There’s nothing black-and-white about this.

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Between the two modes of confessional and critical religious education, my students seek a middle ground. It’s still a tight-rope. We’re still figuring out our trajectory as we step carefully into the wilds. Scholarship of all kinds is an adventure, and what kind of scholarship would it be if it wasn’t exciting?

Systemic inequality in the US

Poverty is not an accident. Poverty is an integral part of a systemic historical pattern that includes slavery, economic policy, technological change, lobbying, globalization, class, race, mass incarceration, housing segregation, disenfranchisement, and lack of investment in the public sector (education, infrastructure, public transit).

Peter Temin’s new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy sheds light on the “dual economy” in the United States. This dual economy, this wealth gap that stretches across generations is what is perpetuated by the privatization of the public sector and disinvestment in the public sector. I am constantly amazed by how many “decent” people I come across fail to see the connection between privatization and systemic inequality.

 

“So, your cancer’s gone now?”

I’m always at a loss when people ask me if I’m “okay now.”

The line between having cancer and being well is never clear.

“So your cancer is gone now, right?” they ask.

“I don’t know. I’ve completed my treatments.”

“So you’re in remission!”

“I mean – maybe.”

“No tumors anymore, right?”

“Well, not that I know of.”

“That’s great!”

“Yeah, I mean there are side-effects, and the radiation is said to age you. There’s also the hormone therapy and its side effects.”

“Oh. You’re better now, though, right?”

By this point in the conversation, my interlocutor is looking at me funny. Their eyes say, “Why are you being so negative?” Their narrowed gaze asks, “Are you trying to hold on to that cancer card? Because we can’t be expected to grant you that card indefinitely, you know. I mean, bald people in chemotherapy attract sympathy. Surgery is tough – well, just the mastectomy, maybe, because OHMYGAWD no boobs. As for detection, uncomfortable mammograms, painful biopsies – those you need to be grateful for. …

“But once you’re done with all those, and you look normal, you really need to return that card and get back to your scheduled activities. Sympathy is exhausting. Especially Cancer Sympathy. That is utterly draining. And we really have to move on from it eventually.”

So at this point in the conversation, I say, “Yeah, I’m much better!” and let them off the hook. If it’s a supervisor or colleague, I’m under particular pressure to demonstrate wellness.

That way, maybe they can wear a “Fight Like a Girl” t-shirt, or a pink ribbon, or run their Breast Cancer marathon, and be done with it. FP_FightGirl.jpg

Recently, I’m much more likely to get injuries and aches. Suddenly, in the past few months, I’ve  realized my knees won’t bend easily. Sitting in prayer is difficult. Sitting in a plane for a long ride is difficult.

Oh wait, sitting in a chair is difficult.

Last night, I did my back in last night, and was amazed by how much my day changed from what I’d envisaged. I had a long lost of things to do, but ultimately, I sat there, thinking, only: IF I MOVE, IT WILL HURT AGAIN. Today, I had trouble sitting on the toilet seat long enough to finish; sitting on my comfortable recliner; getting in and out of bed; getting stuff out of the fridge … You get the idea.

But no one associates back pain with cancer.

Despite my back, I made it to the dentist. She examined my X-rays and told me, “You’ve got some dental bone loss.”

Of course. The hormones I take to slow the growth of breast tumors can decrease bone mineral density, and increase my risk of developing osteoporosis. It can prevent cancer – but make it more likely I’ll develop mobility issues.

This medication can also impair my thinking. (I’m an academic).

I’ve noticed joint pain and stiffness, especially my ankles and feet. Backaches and headaches are more likely. Depression.

Insomnia. Which is the bane of my existence.

But people don’t associate insomnia with cancer. Insomnia doesn’t come with baldness.

Rarely in all my treatments have any oncologists or nurses really acknowledged that the treatments and hormone therapy have problems and serious side effects.

Heck, the treatments can give you cancer. Other cancers.

When you’re faced with serious health issues that make normal life impossible, you can be pardoned for contemplating quitting the treatments that can lead to you – getting a recurrence of breast cancer.

No wonder it’s common for women to quit the medications that are supposed to help prevent breast cancer.

Ah, choices, choices.

Know this: the line between having cancer and being well is never clear.

Thanks to your insurance, your doctors, and the nature of the medical industry, medical imaging will not happen very frequently – unless you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars out of your pocket – so certainty is impossible to come by. Each kind of imaging tends to be specific for certain types of cancer.

And once your treatments are over, the only way you will be able to check is if you detect symptoms, e.g. lumps; but they’re not always detectable.

ultrasound.jpgNot long ago, I detected what I thought was a lump. It occupied my mind for weeks until I was able to see my oncologist and he checked the “lump” and approved an ultrasound. The document on the left liberated me from weeks of wondering where my life was about to go now. It took time; I had to take time off to go get the ultrasound; and then I had to hurry back to work and my regular routine, to establish that I was no slacker.

Meantime my entire system had to quickly bounce back from preparing for a whole other trajectory. All of that, I had to do alone. On the outside, all anybody knew was: “She had a scare. It was nothing.”

The line between having cancer and being well is never clear.

 

A student assignment that says: thanks, but quit with the one-dimensional representations

I’m going to take a moment to share a student’s art assignment this semester.
The project was created by my student Mesut Mamaloglu, as a thoughtful art project in my class “Islam in America” at American Islamic College.
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The project is a play on Shepard Fairey’s poster of the Muslim woman draped in a hijab made out of a U.S. flag.

Mesut critiques the perpetual representation of Muslim Americans as religious Arabs, or dressed in Middle Eastern or traditional religious attire. He rejects and the essentialization of this diverse community in one-dimensional and monolithic forms.

Such representations of Muslim Americans, even when supposedly shaped by Islamophilia, fuels Islamophobia.

This theme runs through my book Muslim American Women on Campus as well.
17883547_1288714034508944_8505357658810891198_nTo counter this monolithic representation, Mesut used software to work into the original image a mosaic composed of a hundred images of a variety of Muslim people from many walks of life – including celebrities, athletes, musicians, and a lot of regular people.
Mesut pasted this image onto a cardboard monitor that he created, to represent the spaces of the internet where these representations take shape, are circulated, and become solidified in public discourse.
This mosaic shows a complex and multidimensional community.
In the wake of the election and the Muslim Ban, popular culture that cashes in on liberal causes has chosen the Muslim image as their shorthand for pluralism, liberal inclusion, anti-Trumpism, and general coolness.
Of course there isn’t enough time to complicate this discourse, nor is liberal discourse typically profound enough to allow the voices of the underrepresented and marginalized to speak for themselves. White representation of Others must of necessity be simplistic. So the image of the hijabi Muslim woman suffices to say all. And it doesn’t matter that the vast majority of the Muslim American community is excluded in this representation, because of the way tokenism works in liberal spaces.
Tokenistic liberalism tells us: Be grateful for the hijabi image. Liberal culture doesn’t have room for more than that single image.
Mesut’s project rejects that shorthand. We are many. Sorry for the inconvenience, but no shorthand will do.