Alienation in Academia

Mulling over a vague feeling of disempowerment, boredom, and apathy, we discover again that Marx has some answers for us. By us I mean people who work for a living. Because of what I do, I speak more specifically of academia.

I often think of academics who work in spaces where faculty governance is not properly practiced, where embarking upon exciting new mid-career endeavors becomes a veritable minefield. One struggles to find meaning anew in the workplace, but these liberties are not available to all equally.

Autocratic administrators are loth to share control of faculty work. When faculty are delivered most decisions from on high, resentment and apathy grow. When faculty decision making entails only “Check yes or no,” they have little reason to be invested in the growth and creativity involved in academic work.

When faculty do not engage in collective decision making, resentment due to differential treatment also occur. After all, administrators like some faculty more than others, and they also fear some more than others. They may spend more time with some faculty more than others, and listen to some more than to others. Their decisions are informed and shaped by their subjective views.

Even routine matters become an activity devoid of personal meaning, as administrators hand down decisions with little discussion. In this climate of precarity, especially for junior and contingent faculty, any discussion of decisions can be fraught with danger.

Academic workers become alienated from each other, since the only route to getting the course, the sabbatical, the approval, or the funding you need is through the administrator – who divides and rules.

In such organizations, as apathy grows, collective investment decrease, and faculty lose the ability to work together, power becomes even more concentrated in administrators’ hands.

When it is difficult for faculty to design work that is responsive to pedagogical strategies, scholarly growth, long-term professional plans, or family and personal needs, they become alienated from their own academic labor.

An autocratic administrator is the death of an academic institution. He destroys the faculty’s desire to work by cutting off their creative and collective decision-making, gathering all power and all vitality in her/his own hands.


Honoring the small struggles, embracing the Plan

I am exactly where I should be.

There is no mistake.

I keep questioning where I am, my location, my journeys, and the struggles I am placed within. The dysfunction of persons, organizations, and movements, the profound oppression and injustices by individuals and collectives, the heartache of disconnection.

God is manifested in beauty as well as majesty, terrible as well as compassionate. The Prophet instructs us to attribute ourselves with the attributes of Allah, and Allah’s Mercy and Love overcome God’s ghadab (hardness/wrath/displeasure).

But in our interactions with people, we encounter hardness, injustice, perversion. We encounter hardness and injustice in our own selves as well. For many of us, this generates a tumult of disorder. It feels wrong to be hard and unjust. It feels wrong to engage with it. It is an imbalance. Even the Beloved Prophet grieved over the oppression of the Quraysh, and even he went to war.

I’m placed in a Struggle, a series of small struggles, many of which involve engaging with injustice, oppression, selfishness, dysfunction, imbalance. They all feel wrong. But they are part of a larger plan. They are there to be fought. But on one level, they are not a surprise.

I try to find serene embrace of the larger Plan for us, while I honor the Struggle into which I have been placed. I still wrestle with my embrace of the Plan, and I still wrestle with putting the small struggles into their perspective.

Stop working

I had a breakthrough on my birthday this month. I was extremely stressed about some things, and it became so unbearable, I took a moment to call a friend.

I realized that just talking to her made my worries seem relatively trivial. Not pointless. But less significant.

I realized that all my days are spent simply in work. I have no time for joy. So anxieties are all I have.

The academic work calendar – perpetual work on weekdays and weekends – has much to do with this. And then we have bad family habits of perpetual work. So I sat my husband down and said, “We need to change these habits. We must do things that are not work. We must allow ourselves joy.”

Anxieties are king in our hearts and minds when they have no rivals. When joy is not sought out and claimed, the only occupants of our hearts are worries and grief.

I know for many of you this is commonplace knowledge, but some of us have to re-discover this. Repeatedly. And rescue our hearts and souls from the soul-crushing monotony of the endless work cycle.

Teaching post: Watching ‘Shikoku’ in ‘Religion in Documentary Film’

Today, for my Religion in Documentary Film class, my students and I are watching one of the Bruce Feiler Sacred Journeys: Shikoku. We are using the film as a window to some Buddhist ideals and experiences, while examining how the film frames the Shikoku pilgrims.

I ask my students to compare the Shikoku pilgrims to people visiting a Sufi tomb/mazar. What are the purposes, experiences, and rituals, in this Buddhist pilgrimage? Is it similar or different from Hajj or umrah, or pilgrimages to the gravesites of revered Muslim persons? What is the role of hardship, nature, relics? How does the Shikoku pilgrimage shed light on the key pursuits and concepts of Buddhism? What appear to be features of the Shikoku pilgrims’ religious and spiritual lives? What questions about Shikoku pilgrims and Buddhist life does the film not answer?

But technically and politically, I ask them to compare the framing of this film to Life in Hidden Light, a film about Carmelite nuns which uses no voice-over narration. What purpose does the narration play? How does it frame the religious experience? How does the creator of the documentary portray the Shikoku pilgrimage and the pilgrims?

I miss you abbu

Around this time of the year, I was born half a century ago or so.

And because I can’t get time off work easily, I miss the woman who gave birth to me and who is devoted to me, as she ages swiftly.

Because he is dead, I miss the man who loved me fiercely. I cry in anguish for him and his fierce protective love. Loss and pain take out chunks of me.

His love was not cool and rational, his love kept him up nights suffering for me. His love for me knew no balance, no limit. Sometimes, often in fact, he passionately hated others who caused me the slightest pain. Sometimes, he was furious that he couldn’t just keep me in his home forever, and he lashed out in fury. Because his love was not temperate. I reach out to him. Why aren’t you here to protect me, to fight for me? I am unarmed in this world, and it has been so long, so long.

As I age, I find myself holding on to memories, struggling to keep those loves in my life. Demanding that he now reach out to me, – no, I don’t believe in life-death boundaries that chop us off from each others – to feel my heart ache and to hold me in his fierce bear-hug.

Loves and kindnesses in my life right now are too calm and too light, too infrequent. I miss you, abbu; stay with me.

My International Women’s Day reflection

Today on International Women’s Day, I’m asking myself if I’m okay.

I’m telling myself – a woman of multiple homes – that I’m enough; I’m not ‘too much,’ I am not ‘excessive’ or ‘not enough,’ but I am just the way my Beloved made me, aspiring to the One always. 
I am valid, I am legitimate, my voice is important. 
I’m telling myself not to let toxic people shut me down. 
I’m loved, and I’m going to be okay.

This is part of me loving my community and my sisterhood. You’ve got to love yourself if you’re going to connect with others, because we are all one.

Sisters, check on yourselves. In these tough times, when communities don’t always stand together, when we push and shove because there’s not enough to go around, we’ve got to care for our hearts.

The Prophet said that if your heart was okay, everything was okay. Keep your hearts pure, strong, and well. And don’t look too long upon the darkness. 

You are loved and you are going to be okay.

‘Dalya’s Other Country’

Today we watched the documentary film Dayla’s Other Country in my ‘Religion in Documentary Film’ class. The story focuses on a Syrian-American teen who moved to the US during the war. During class, the film generated rich and unexpected discussion about:

  • refugees
  • cultural assimilation
  • gender roles and expectations
  • gender identities and parenting (gender fluid identities, transgender, intersex, etc. and how Muslim communities and faith engage with these realities)
  • gender and parenting (how gender shapes parenting styles)
  • hijab and body politics
  • the stigma of Muslim identity in the US (post-Trump America)
  • passing and covering (Goffman)
  • masculinity (and family politics)
  • masculinity and fatherhood (patriarchy, polygyny,
  • religious schools (she attends a Catholic school, mass, Scripture class, etc.) and questions of indoctrination
  • cultural socialization (how she would be a different person if she’d been raised in Syria)
  • the ethics of documentary film making (how it affects the people filmed)
  • intra-community and interpretive diversity
  • long-distance family relationships
  • and many more!

The night asks questions

Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi, Moonlit night on the Dnieper

In the middle of the night, I am awake.

The night asks me questions and waits, watches me, motionless, silent, as I trip over my answers in my head. What am I doing with the days? How am I spending time? What am I doing occupying space? Why am I filling lungs with air?

The night offers nothing to fill up the awkward shameful silence. No chores to escape into, no phone calls, no eyes awaiting my presence, no activities. The night sits on the couch as I sit with her, my heart thudding, wondering how to answer.

Darkness swallows me up whole and the crescent moon buries a sharp corner into my chest. I have no response. I have nothing but silence as the night watches me with the eyes of a school headmistress, a work supervisor, a senior colleague, an adolescent child. Well? Who are you and what have you done? Not much. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all.

Dear academics: Write for regular people

Dear academic friends:

I am in awe of your work and your minds. But I am continually frustrated by my inability to share your brilliance with ordinary people who do not have doctoral degrees (and vast numbers of people who do.)

I know many of you will sniff at my plea, turning up your noses at my possibly under-theorized work.

But at least people read it and understand my work. I speak and write to people who are educated, and I try to make my work accessible to people who aren’teducated.

Regular people read my book. Ordinary people who most need the ideas and arguments I write about.

And that’s our job.

What is the point of hyper-theoretical work if barely five of the least practical people in the world read it? What is the point of a book if the people who read it are the ones who rarely ever get out of their offices?

We must not write books and articles that are metaphorical walls dividing ordinary people from ideas, blocking people from this exclusive club of ideas.

And to make sure that this idea is brief and accessible, I will end this post here.

When assigning homework:

Dear teachers. When assigning homework:

  • Consider not assigning any at all. Can you get it done at school? It would be better to get the work done at school. This way, you can support your students and reinforce learning.
  • Less is more. Quality over quantity.
  • Avoid busy work. Students recognize busy work for what it is, and invest poor quality effort into it.
  • PROOFREAD your homework. Punctuate. If you’re demanding academic language from your students, the least you can do is invest that same effort into constructing the assignment directions.
  • HAVE SOMEONE READ THE ASSIGNMENT TO CHECK IT MAKES SENSE. Just because it makes sense in your head doesn’t mean it makes sense.
  • Check: Read it in class. Do your students understand the homework? If not, why? Is it because of how you framed the assignment, or because you haven’t prepared them for it?
  • If they are behind schedule on submitting homework, check with them before penalizing them. Maybe the homework is so unclear they can’t even formulate questions to clarify it.
  • If a number of students have failed to submit homework or have failed to do it correctly, consider the possibility that your homework was constructed poorly.