Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Serial" as an Asian-American Story

I had been hearing a lot about Serial for weeks this fall, though I didn't actually start listening to the podcasts until I heard family members discussing it at Thanksgiving. And then I pretty much devoured it, listening to episodes 1-10 in a single week on my way to and from Lehigh. It was addictive in the best way; for that week at least, my long commute pretty much flew by.

For weeks, various Asian American writers have been criticizing aspects of the podcast. It's not surprising, given that this is a story where the three principal players are people of color (Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee, and Jay _____ ). Meanwhile the entire reporting and production team behind Serial are white.

It's a thankless task to say that a given cultural artifact isn't racist or exploitative -- you get much more traction on social media if you're angry than if you are pleased with something -- but I'm going to do it anyways. I'm here to say that I think Sarah Koenig and company do a pretty responsible job dealing with issues related to the respective cultural backgrounds of the three main characters in the story. I think of Serial as in effect a new part of the canon of Asian American literature.

I've come across a couple of different examples of writers criticizing Serial along race/ethnicity representation lines,  but both seem like flawed critiques. Jay Caspian Kang's essay in The Awl raises a number of issues early in the series, mainly focusing on the first few episodes. To my eye it seems like he's nitpicking more than making substantial criticisms:

Jay Caspian Kang, Serial and White Reporter Privilege

Conor Friedersdorf has a pretty solid response to Kang here:

Conor Friedersdorf, The Backlash Against Serial -- and Why It's Wrong

And more recently, there's an essay by Aditya Desai at The Aerogram that I have been discussing with friends on Facebook today:

Does Serial Fail South Asian Americans?

I find the main point of Desai's essay harder to suss out than Kang's. Indeed, the author himself doesn't appear to have a clear answer to the question about Serial he raises in the title to his piece. At various points he seems to be accusing Koenig and her team of sensationalizing the murder to create a True Crime potboiler -- and there are certainly elements of the podcast that work that way (though the issue has nothing to do with the race/ethnicity question). At other times he suggests that Koenig is out of her depth dealing with the multiethnic cultural stew of Woodlawn and the Baltimore suburbs, but he doesn't point to any concrete aspects of that cultural space that Koenig gets wrong.

I myself wasn't thrilled about the "Rumors" episode (Serial episode 11) initially, but then I read Rabia Chaudry's funny and quite insightful long blog post about the episode here. Rabia actually liked the episode despite its triviality (can anyone really care that Adnan once pocketed a few dollars from the mosque collection fund?), because it showed us something true about the local Pakistani community:

I come now to what I think was the heart of this episode, which is community. What it means to be a community, and what it means to rely on a community.
Sarah pulled back the curtain ever so slightly on the inner-workings of what most insular religious communities are like. People deeply connected to each other, but not always liking each other, spreading rumors quietly, doing things secretively, coming together in times of crisis, but not always being in solidarity. There should be no surprise when things like this happen in any group of people, on some level all communities operate like the Jersey Shore. Its just a bit of a shame when it’s religious community.
And it was not just a shame but deeply painful for Adnan when, after he was convicted, the community interest and support waned. I’ve gone on the record a few times and called the community out (it’s easier for me to do because I wasn’t raised in that community and my ties aren’t so deep) for abandoning Adnan. I’ve gotten some pushback and my mom has told me people in the community don’t like my stance on it. (Rabia Chaudry)
So while people who might be looking for ammunition to critique Serial for the way its handled Adnan's ethnic background might find it in "Rumors," one of Adnan's closest friends and strongest advocates actually seemed to see the value in airing some of that community dirty laundry.

I would also recommend Rabia Chaudry's commentary on episode 10 of Serial, which is the episode where Sarah Koenig deals at length with the questions of racial bias in the prosecution's case against Adnan Syed. That bias was definitely there -- and it was definitely troubling -- and it's possible that had Adnan been of a different ethnic or religious background it might have been easier for the jury to see him as innocent. It's also likely that a better defense attorney might have handled Syed's ethnic background more intelligently. But Adnan's religion and ethnicity by themselves weren't the core of the case; that core was in Jay's testimony and the cell phone records.

According to Rabia's account, Sarah Koenig did seem initially clueless when faced with that weird document that a consultant had drawn up for the prosecution ("An Overview of Pakistani Muslim Thought and Culture"), which talks about Pakistani blasphemy laws, punishment for fornication, the debasement of women, etc. Rabia says that when Sarah first showed her that document, she was livid at the misrepresentations in the document, but that Sarah seemed not to know what to think ("So this isn't true...?) Ouch. However, by the time this document is discussed in the podcast, Koenig seems to be pretty clear -- perhaps Rabia helped her see it more clearly -- that this is a nutty piece of anti-Islamic propaganda that has nothing at all to do with the mindset of a teenager like Adnan Syed. There is a real and lingering worry that anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistani bias was a factor in Adnan's conviction, but I don't think Rabia Chaudry is critical of Koenig for how this topic was handled on the podcast itself. And the possibility that anti-Islamic bias was a factor in Adnan's conviction lines up with the overall attitude of the show (as encapsulated in the final episode today) -- that we may not ever know for sure either way whether Adnan did it, but that there's certainly enough reasonable doubt now that he should not have been convicted in the first place.

* * *

Above I said that I consider "Serial" to be a new addition to the canon of Asian-American storytelling. Let me unpack that a little. We've had a number of great works dealing with generational gaps and questions about assimilation (my parents don't understand me... but am I Asian enough?). We've had stories dealing with interracial and intercultural relationships and families (I really want to marry my non-Asian girlfriend, but my family wouldn't understand...). From Gene Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese to Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, we've seen the struggles of middle class Asian Americans to sort out their identity and find a place for themselves in the middle of American life. On screen, we have the eminently likeable and untroubling figures of people like John Cho and Kal Penn to make us laugh (mostly; I guess #Selfie was kind of a dud after all).

What we've had less of is the idea of Asian Americans in a complex multicultural setting, where people of several different ethnic groups are all close friends and dating across racial and ethnic lines: whites, blacks, East Asians and South Asians. We've not seen so much the kinds of things that can happen when Korean girls -- with parents who speak little English -- date Pakistani boys who lead prayers at the local mosque. And we've definitely not seen writers like Lahiri deal with what happens to immigrant communities when one of their members gets accused of murdering an ex-girlfriend. So the world and the experiences depicted in "Serial" are new -- and valuable -- additions to the kinds of stories we have seen Asian American writers producing. It so happens that in this instance our guide into that world of Asian American voices happens to be a white woman named Sarah Koenig. For me at least, that isn't a problem. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

In Defense of Steven Salaita

My initial reaction upon hearing about Steven Salaita’s “unhiring” at the University of Illinois this week was shock.

One reason for that is that I can see myself in his shoes. I have been involved in sometimes vehement arguments online for more than a decade. In some rare instances (mostly in the first months I was online), I let my emotions get the better of me. Arguing with people with radically different political views, I at times said things that were snarky, rude, and dismissive. Some of these intemperate comments are buried deep inside long comments threads on blog posts, and probably pretty hard to find; I doubt anyone cares today. And the vast majority of my writing online has not been like that. But I can definitely understand how a person engaged in online arguments could find themselves carried away by passion and a feeling of anger towards one's rhetorical opponents. I have been there.

With the Steven Salaita situation, there are two dimensions that I think need to be talked about. One is the nature of Professor Salaita’s Tweets. Are they largely defensible, if at times over-the-top? Or do they reveal the true colors of a person who might not be a desirable presence on a college campus? The second question is whether UIUC’s decision to unhire Salaita after he had already been sent a contract for a tenured position is a violation of academic freedom. Everyone agrees that academic freedom should protect unpopular views (here: deep dislike of the state of Israel and Zionist ideology), but does it also protect a rude or intemperate mode of public expression? Is Salaita being unhired because of what he thinks, or because of how he said it? 

Let’s start by considering briefly what Stephen Salaita actually posted on Twitter for a minute. I think this is important to do – it’s one thing to defend freedom of speech and/or academic freedom in the abstract, but as people like Stanley Fish have pointed out over the years, “freedom of speech” is by no means an absolute concept. People who express really extreme views may have the “freedom” to say them, but other actors can choose not to help defend that right. If Salaita's statements are really "loathsome," as Cary Nelson has suggested, I personally wouldn't be quite as concerned about his being fired without due process from a position he had been offered. I wouldn't be writing this blog post.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Priorities of the New BJP Government

This weekend brought us a troika of stories indicating the drift of the new BJP government in India.

One is an interview with the new director of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, in Outlook Magazine. Another was a story in the Washington Post about the funding for the proposed statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, which if and when it is completed will be the tallest statue in the world. And a third was a surprising and thought-provoking story about the causes of malnutrition in India in the New York Times.

 1. In Praise of Eurocentrism (sort of)

Here are some choice quotes from the with the new director of the ICHR, and my brief responses:

"We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths." (link)
Yes we can, and there's no embarrassment in doing so. All great religions are founded on myths. The word "mythology" doesn't suggest truth or falsehood, it suggests a narrative framework. The Hindu right's obsession with the word "myth" has always puzzled me.
There is a certain view that the Mahabharata or the Ramayana are myths. I don’t see them as myths because they were written at a certain point of time in history. They are important sources of information in the way we write history. What we write today may become an important source of information for the fut­ure in the future. When analysed, of course, they could be declared to be true or false. History is not static. It belongs to the people, it’s made by the people. Similarly, the Ram­ayana is true for’s in the collective memory of generations of Indians. We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths. Myths are from a western perspective.

What does that mean?
For us, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true accounts of the periods in which they were written.(link)

This is one of the strangest ideas to have emerged from the Hindu right's approach to ancient India. Instead of studying the culture from which these stories emerged (which some scholars have done and are doing), and instead of dwelling on the valuable moral insights contained in these texts (i.e., the concept of Dharma; the question of the meaning and significance of taking action...), the approach is to end all intelligent conversation by suggesting that they are somehow literally true.

In the past, when I debated Hindu nationalists on Sepia Mutiny and elsewhere, the response to this would inevitably be: "but many Christians in the west believe in the literal truth of the Bible!" My response is simple: they shouldn't.
"Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything." (link)
This is also nonsense. There is plenty of material evidence available related to ancient Indian civilization. We should use what we have. There are also admittedly gaps in what we have, and many questions that historians cannot comprehensively answer. But we shouldn't just make stuff up, as Yellapragada Sudershan Rao suggests we do.
"For the last 60 years, our writing and understanding of history has been influenced by the West. Indian research has been far too dependent on the West to write its own history." (link)

If the alternative to Eurocentrism is this guy, I would rather throw out "postcolonialism" entirely and declare myself a proud Eurocentric.

2. The Tallest Statue in the World.

Narendra Modi is planning to build the world's tallest statue. Dubbed the "Statue of Unity," the figure to be represented is not Mahatma Gandhi. It isn't Nehru. Or Ambedkar. It isn't a figure from Hindu Mythology. It's Sardar Vallabhai Patel.

A 600 foot statue, at a total likely cost of $400 million. As of now, only $34 million have actually been budgeted to build it. How much does India spend on, say, the education of young girls? It turns out, about half as much:
As the Associated Press notes, the budget allocated more money for the statue than for women’s safety programs (1.5 billion rupees/$25 million) or the education of young girls (1 billion rupees/$16.5 million).

Those numbers say a lot about where Modi's priorities are.

All I can say is this: The taller the statue, the bigger the noise when it's knocked over.

3. The ongoing Sanitation crisis. 

It's long been a puzzle as to why India, far from the poorest country in the world, has far more malnourished children than the poorest countries (Democratic Republic of Congo, Somali, and Zimbabwe). The answer is outdoor defecation:
Two years ago, Unicef, the World Health Organization and the World Bank released a major report on child malnutrition that focused entirely on a lack of food. Sanitation was not mentioned. Now, Unicef officials and those from other major charitable organizations said in interviews that they believe that poor sanitation may cause more than half of the world’s stunting problem.

“Our realization about the connection between stunting and sanitation is just emerging,” said Sue Coates, chief of water, sanitation and hygiene at Unicef India. “At this point, it is still just an hypothesis, but it is an incredibly exciting and important one because of its potential impact.”

This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from theDemocratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting afflicts 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families. (link)
On the one hand, this story might be seen as depressing given the overwhelming numbers and the fact that we are still talking about it (Mohandas Gandhi was talking about toilets back in 1925). That said, if there were people running India who actually had their priorities straight, this could be a fixable problem. My guess is that you could make a significant dent in the sanitation crisis for less than the cost of that completely superfluous and obscenely unnecessary statue of the president of the Indian National Congress in 1934.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Twitter Series: Direct Quotes from Narendra Modi

I'm trying something a little different today -- a series of direct quotes from Narendra Modi, likely India's next Prime Minister. If anyone reading this has suggestions for short quotes I might want to add to this list, please leave a comment or email me.

Update: Earlier, I had posted a widely cited quote from Modi along the lines of "Every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction." Someone sent me the entire quote in Hindi, which actually seems to mitigate the ominous implications of that statement somewhat:

"Kriya pratikriya ke chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahte hai ke na kriya ho, aur na pratikriya (A chain of action and reaction is going on. We neither want action nor reaction). (link)
The quote of just the one sentence seems unduly biased against Modi, so I'm removing the Tweet from this series.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Is it Time to Update the File on Narendra Modi?

So it appears that Narendra Modi is on the cusp of becoming India's next Prime Minister. We'll begin to get a real picture of the actual election results in about a week, with the actual outcomes to be announced beginning on May 16. Is it time for us to update the file and reassess the record of Mr. Modi, especially now that the bulk of the voting in various Indian states has already taken place?

I have been quiet thus far on the India elections, but I have been following pretty closely. And my general views are probably not a big surprise to anyone. Not long ago, Modi booked to speak at the University of Pennsylvania, was denied a US visa. At the time  I wrote a satirical short essay that tried to make a couple of serious points about Modi's involvement in the violence in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. (It feels like that happened eons ago -- though in fact it was just March 2013!)

However, the 2002 factor does not appear to have made a very big difference in how Modi has been perceived in the current general election. He has not been charged with a crime (a Supreme Court investigative team concluded that no charges were warranted in 2010), and even for Indians who have some suspicions about his role in that violence, there is a widespread sense that all that is now far enough in the past that we should be moving on. I'm not sure I can agree, but a sense of indifference to past violence appears to be the political reality in India for now.

In any case, the ruling Congress party is so thoroughly discredited and rudderless that it's hard to mount any kind of vigorous critique from the center-left point of view. Secular intellectuals may not like Modi, but the traditional embrace of a conventional "Congress isn't perfect, but it's better than what you have to offer" line has been falling flat.

Like many other Indian election-watchers, I have been interested and hopeful about the emergence of the Aam Aadi Party (see this New York Times article from last November introducing the party). Admittedly, I'm not sure that the leader of the AAP party, Arvind Kejriwal, is quite ready for prime time based on the debacle of his brief Chief Ministership in Delhi a few months ago (see this critique: "How the Aam Aadmi Party Lost Its Way"). But the AAP party is now much bigger than just Arvind Kejriwal; it has gone national quite quickly, and developed quite a broad base of support and a diverse set of quite vocal supporters, some of them from disillusioned Congress voters, some from further left on the political spectrum (Medha Patkar, for instance). Despite contesting the election on a minuscule budget, there are some hints that the AAP may have a surprisingly strong showing in some unexpected places. The under-representation of voices from vast rural areas of many Indian states means that political polls and journalist reports are only sketchy predictors of actual election results. Is it possible that the AAP party will win enough seats to lead a coalition government? There are also regional political figures like Mayawati to consider; a strong performance from her in certain districts of UP could make her a king-maker type figure (see this analysis from

That said, for now I am presuming that even with some room for surprises, the BJP will perform as experts are predicting and Modi will be the next Prime Minister. But how long will he last? If the way Modi has run his campaign is any kind of indication of what kind of leader he will be, it may not be very long at all. Here I take the lead from Shivam Vij's recent editorial column in

For one thing, he seems to have pretty clearly violated Indian election law just a few days ago:
Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was booked by the Ahmedabad police on the orders of the Election Commission on Wednesday for making a “political speech” and taking a selfie of his inked finger holding the party’s election symbol, both after voting.
(Indian election law forbids political candidates from making speeches on the day of voting.)

And even as he's flouting laws, he's accused the Election Commission of rigging votes in certain states:
In an election speech in Asansol in West Bengal on Sunday, Narendra Modi said that the EC was not acting impartially against violence and rigging in the polls in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal on April 30. That was a very serious accusation, but it came without specifics about constituencies and polling booth numbers. (link)
And his response to a recent massacre of 32 Muslims in Assam by Bodo militants is cheap and ill-informed:
As if that wasn't enough, Modi displayed another sign of imprudence by blaming the victims of violence for their own predicament. When 32 Muslims were shot dead in Assam's Bodo areas last week, the prime ministerial candidate decided to raise the bogey of "illegal Bangladeshi migrants". It was unclear why he thought anyone – citizen or migrant, legal or illegal – deserved to be shot dead by militants. (link)
(Incidentally, see this helpful analysis of the background of the situation in Assam. The Muslims in the region are by no means all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as he seems to be suggesting...)

Modi is indeed a charismatic figure running more on a pro-business platform that India's large corporations find enthralling after a decade of a center-left government (and especially after the major slowdown in the Indian economy in the past year or two). If and when the results indicate a BJP led government next week, the stock market will explode with enthusiasm (for a couple of days, anyway).

But the man we know is not going to suddenly change and become something different than he has always been. Modi has not learned is how to speak respectfully or carefully about sensitive issues. He has not learned to talk to his political opponents or to treat them with respect.

It's hard to imagine how a person like this could hold onto a Prime Ministerial seat for very long in a country as complex and divided as India. Modi may have become quite deft at ignoring the left's demands that he account for Gujarat-2002, but in India there are actually a hundred different political conflicts underway at any given time in various corners of the country -- a thousand different political landmines for a blundering politician step on. Modi clearly isn't prepared to speak about what's happening in Assam; is he ready to speak responsibly with regards to the ongoing conflicts in other parts of India as well? Kashmir? Telengana? I don't think so.

So here might be a somewhat reassuring scenario for my friends and colleagues disheartened by the likely Modi victory: imagine him coming into power with a wave of support from the urban, English-language media. He's on the cover of many international magazines. The U.S. rescinds its travel ban (this is pretty much inevitable). The lotus appears triumphant!

But after a few months an incident occurs somewhere in India and Modi says something nasty and unsupportable about one or the other of these conflicts (along the lines of what he said last week about Bodoland: "those who come here for vote-bank politics and take away the jobs of our youth will have to go back" [link]). Mass protests on the streets ensue; an essential regional political party pulls out of the coalition government; and suddenly, there is pressure on him to step down. Depending on how bad things get, we might then see one of Modi's lieutenants take over the reins at the Center. Or the coalition falls apart entirely and some other coalition emerges (perhaps led by the AAP...).

So yes, I am disheartened about the apparently imminent BJP government. But we should trust our instincts and judgment of character, and feel somewhat hopeful that the checks and balances that are built into Indian democracy will do their work.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Thoughts on Turning 40: Two Stories of Survival

It’s a little weird to cross a major personal milestone in the social media era.

Sad to say, but one of my ongoing dilemmas over the past week as I have been contemplating my 40th birthday has not been so much how to celebrate the event with family and friends, but rather how and whether to announce the event on Facebook. A picture? Should I play it cool, or indulge in something sentimental and serious? I have also been tempted to just skip social media altogether. I could see myself at a summer barbecue in a couple of weeks lamenting how bad Facebook and Twitter are for real friendships, along the lines of many recent news articles declaring that people are getting bored of Facebook (and yes, even Twitter).

But there’s also a certain a nagging awareness of the truth about myself: a few days or even just a few hours after I make that complaint I will again be waiting in line somewhere to order coffee, or sitting with my younger child as she settles down for a nap, and again there I will be – scrolling compulsively through my news feed, peeking at Instagram...

So here's the reality: I am, if not addicted, at least very attached to social media. It’s not just something I do for fun: when a real thing happens in my life, I now can’t help but think of how and whether I will share it.

So maybe I should just own it: Facebook, Twitter, and blog friends, I'm forty years old. Many of you knew me when I was an awkward high school student, an awkward college student, or an awkward graduate student. Some of you know me primarily through blogging and social media; there’s even a disconcerting number of you whom I’ve never met. (Hello, strangers.)

Now I’m forty, with a mortgage, an academic job with tenure, a lovely and supportive wife and two lovely children. Not awkward. Pretty good, even.

But let’s not confine ourselves today to the brief announcement and smiling picture combo that has become the thing to do when crossing milestones of this sort. Part of what can be so irksome about social media is that it can all just be so shallow; the need to project a positive image means we are sometimes just being false.

Today I want to share two stories about two difficult moments I have faced in the past decade. One is my experience with cancer in 2007. The other is the challenge I faced in my bid for academic tenure in 2006-2008. There are morals in both stories that I will give away up front.

What I took from my experience with cancer is simply this: don’t take your life for granted, it could change radically any moment. Love the life you have and, as much as you can, the people who are in it.

What I took from my tenure experience was also pretty simple: you can’t go it alone. Your career is definitely your own, and you have to sit down and do real work to succeed (in academia, this is work you often have to do by yourself). But there may be times when you need to ask for help – and depend upon what might turn out to be pretty extraordinary generosity of professional friends, colleagues, and maybe even a few anonymous strangers. That is what I had to learn to accept about academic life: you need to do the work, but you need other people to read it, appreciate it, and vouch for you. To paraphrase the Beatles: you get by with a little help from your friends, colleagues, and advice from the Dean.

Both stories have happy endings. I have been cancer free for six and a half years, which means I am as close to “cured” as it gets. I received tenure at Lehigh, and continue to enjoy contributing to a department and humanities culture at the university that only seems to get better every year. However, it hasn't always been so sunny on my end of things -- as we'll see.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Call For Papers: "Academic Prose and Its Discontents" (MLA 2015)

I am organizing the following panel for MLA 2015. 

How do academic writers navigate stylistic conventions associated with differing rhetorical contexts? Is academic writing in literary studies a necessary set of conventions to be learned and mastered, or merely an intellectual impediment to be circumvented? Do academic prose conventions, argumentative styles, and specialized jargon help or hinder the effort to “defend the humanities” from the perception that it is under attack from other compartments of the university as well as a broader educational climate that values STEM fields at the expense of the traditional liberal arts?

This set of questions of course has a considerable history. The “bad writing” contest sponsored for some years by Denis Dutton’s Philosophy and Literature became so influential in the late 1990s and early 2000s that it inspired a number of theory luminaries, including Jonthan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, and Judith Butler to respond in a collection of essays called Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford, 2003). Some contributors to the collection (Culler especially) responded to the “Bad Writing” accusation quite directly, while others focused on the value of and context of “difficulty” more generally.

The debate was renewed quite recently in response to an essay by the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (“Professors, We Need You!”; February 15, 2014) and a follow-up column by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker (“Why is Academic Writing so Academic?”; February 21, 2014), as well as many responses by practicing academics in the mainstream media, on blogs, as well as Twitter.

Notably, alongside critics of narrowly academic prose (such as Kristof and the New Yorker’s Louis Menand), one also sees academic writers such as Michael Bérubé, who in a variety of rhetorical settings frequently find ways to make difficult concepts in literary theory accessible and relevant to broader social and political debates. This might seem to be another kind of response to criticism such as Kristof’s. What cultural or political work does this sort of “translated” theory do?

This panel, sponsored by the MLA’s Division on Nonfiction Prose, invites arguments and polemics on all sides of this debate.

On the one hand, we are curious to see defenders of academic style argue for the value of academic writing as an aspect of the discipline of literary studies that remains central to the identity of the field. Is it not possible that the stylistic conventions and jargon of literary studies and literary theory are simply a specialized discourse such as may be found in any intellectual discipline? Can we not see “difficulty” in academic prose as requiring a readerly discipline akin to “going to the gym” (as Spivak has described it)?

We would also welcome fresh critiques of the conventions of academic writing from scholars invested in non-traditional modes of writing, including “creative nonfiction,” web publication formats such as blogs, social media, and literary memoirs. How and why do scholars dissent from academic writing conventions? Have the new technologies (i.e., the digital humanities turn) encouraged more experimentation with academic writing conventions?

Prospective panelists are encouraged to be as narrow and focused in their proposals as possible. Owing to limitations of time, papers will likely be limited to twelve minutes, meaning careful focus will be of the essence.

Panel sponsored by the MLA’s division on Nonfiction Prose. Five hundred word abstracts by Monday March 17 to Amardeep Singh: Email inquiries welcome.

Monday, January 13, 2014

MLA 2014: Notes and Comments

I was at MLA from the beginning all the way to the end – somehow I managed to draw a panel in the second session of the entire conference on Thursday, and a second panel at the very end of the conference. So I was in Chicago for a full four days.

It was on the whole a good conference for me -- I got to see a number of old friends, eat interesting food, and connect in person with a few people I've only met online. I had a great 'power' lunch with my copanelists where we worked through our issues with the recent "post-secular" turn, and revived my involvement with an anthology project where I had earlier withdrawn my name. I even went to a party...

Just a quick disclaimer about the notes below... I generally try not to give away too much about what panelists were saying in their papers so as not to "jump the gun" on their ideas if and when they are going to be published. My notes below are intended to give readers a quick thumbnail indicating what people were talking about, and maybe a brief comment from me in connection. 

* * *

1914 in 2014: Body of War. #s28

The research on this panel was very solid and the papers were well-researched and interesting. Stuff I wanted to investigate more: H.G. Wells’ World War I novel “Mr. Britling Sees it Through” (1916); Mary Borden, “The Forbidden Zone (1929) – an experimental nurse’s narrative. Another panelist was working on another nurse’s narrative, Enid Bagnold’s A Diary Without Dates (available on Gutenberg). The third panelist, David Lubin, was an art historian from Wake Forest University, working on images of plastic surgery. He mentioned Dr. Harold Gillies, the famous plastic surgeon ("the father of plastic surgery") who performed thousands of plastic surgery operations on wounded soldiers during and after the war. Soon afterwards, plastic surgery for cosmetic improvement took off -- especially in the U.S.

One line that stood out to me from Borden: “There are no men here so why should I be a woman?” The panelist (Sarah Cole) was doing some really interesting work with gender in Borden's narrative.

This was also the first time I’d seen Wilfred Owen’s poem “Disabled.”

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
— In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
Beautiful poem -- not sure how I'd missed it earlier, since I've taught Wilfred Owen numerous times over the years.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Panels at #MLA14 on my radar

I took a few minutes to look at the MLA program for this weekend's conference. The following is as much a bookmark for me to follow as it is a possible guide for other conference-goers.

First, I am presiding over this one:

76. The Manifesto Revisited
Thursday, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Missouri, Sheraton Chicago

Program arranged by the Division on Nonfiction Prose Studies, Excluding Biography and Autobiography. Presiding: Amardeep Singh, Lehigh Univ.

1. "'Mind It Doesn't Bite You': D. H. Lawrence's Obloquy against Psychoanalysis," Tamara Beauchamp, Univ. of California, Irvine

2. "History Repeats as Tragedy: The Algerian Crisis as a 'New' Dreyfus Affair," Roderick Cooke, Haverford Coll.

3. "What We Talk about When We Talk about the Hijab: Alain Badiou's Manifesto on the Headscarf Ban in France," Nagihan Haliloglu, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Univ.

4. "The Premediated Manifesto: On the US Reception of The Coming Insurrection," Daniel Burns, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro

I co-organized this with Roderick Cooke of Haverford. I think there are some very interesting papers here; hopefully we will have a good crowd.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Reagan and Apartheid -- a Few Reflections

When Nelson Mandela's death was announced earlier this week, I had just a few minutes at my computer before my kids needed to be fed their dinner.

I tried to think of something that reflected my own experience with the South African freedom struggle, and this is what I posted on Facebook:
The South African freedom struggle, which reached a climactic phase my freshman year in high school, introduced me to the idea that the United States could act on the wrong side of history -- that this country, led by supporters of Apartheid like Ronald Reagan, was not quite the noble bastion of real democracy our school textbooks told us it was. It was a difficult but necessary education. RIP Mandela.
A Facebook friend -- we'll just call him "BK" -- soon wrote in with a "correction":
I'm usually the least likely person to defend Ronald Reagan, but this is just wrong. His policy toward South Africa and the ANC was all about anti-communism. That was a hideous failure in judgment and morality, but it doesn't make him a "supporter of Apartheid."
This started a long thread that I won't recapitulate here. Some unpleasant things were said; some people ended up getting unfriended. Enough said.

(In fact, it seems like this debate is not just happening on my particular Facebook feed; it's happening in the media more broadly as well. This conservative site, for instance, is clearly taking note of all of the "liberal" commentators taking jabs at Reagan in the wake of Mandela's death.)

I did think it might be appropriate to do two things that are difficult to do on Facebook: 1) expand out the personal / biographical component of what I wrote, and 2) have a somewhat more nuanced and annotated discussion of Reagan's South Africa policy.

First, my own story:

I started high school in 1988. It was a new start -- I had just transferred from a public junior high school in Potomac, MD to an elite private school inside DC, the Sidwell Friends School. Before Sidwell, I had spent most of my childhood in a relatively protected suburban world, with little exposure to politics. Because of repeated trips to India (especially in those anxious and difficult years after 1984), I probably knew a little more than some 14 year old suburban peers that the world of Nintendo, black felt Guns n' Roses posters, and Redskins' paraphernalia was not the only world out there. But in truth I tended to bracket off my Indian experiences from what I considered proper teen stuff (some Indian experiences: the anxious nights waiting to hear news from family members during the riots; the vehement fights over Khalistanism at the Maryland Gurdwara; and in India itself, the police checkpoints, the sense of fear, bribing corrupt policemen on the train...). I didn't then have the tools to realize that this India stuff was important, because at junior high in the suburbs at least the only thing you had to know pretty much was that Led Zeppelin is awesome and Milli Vanilli sucks.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Ethnic Slurs and College Life: A Personal Essay

Ethnic Slurs and College Life: A Personal Essay

[I read this aloud in my English 11 class this morning. It's a first-year writing class focused on literature related to immigration. Alongside conventional analytical essays I have given students the option on occasion to do personal essays that connect the readings in class to their own families' experiences of immigration. This morning I decided to present my own version of one such paper.

As you all undoubtedly have heard, the African American oriented dorm on campus, Umoja House, was vandalized Wednesday morning with eggs and the N-word spray painted nearby. As of this writing (Thursday 11/7) we don’t know anything about who did it. Still, that event and the conversations that have emerged from it on campus made me realize it was time for me to do my own version of the personal essays I've been encouraging you to write on occasion in this class. 

Today, then, I want to talk a little about my own experience with ethnic slurs. As you know I am a Sikh, with family from India. I wear a turban and full beard as part of the custom for Sikh men. All of the adult men in my family have worn turbans, going back many generations. Given what has happened on campus this week, I want to talk a little about the damage that can come from ethnic slurs – but also about the strange and sometimes paradoxical thinking that leads them to be uttered in the first place. I will use some personal experiences I have had as examples, but my goal is to use those examples in connection with some general ideas about ethnic and racial slurs on a college campus. This is a personal essay, yes, but it's not really about me

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"The First Four" -- Women Faculty in the Lehigh English Department

One of my students was involved with the making of a documentary about the first women faculty in the English department. I had a chance to see the film a few weeks ago at a public screening, and it's terrific -- probably of interest to anyone interested in gender issues in academia. Happily, permissions have been ensured to allow the film to be posted online (on Vimeo). An embedded link to the film is below.

A bit of background. At its inception in 1865, Lehigh University was an all-male college mainly focused on engineering. The university was founded by Asa Packer, a railroad tycoon, and over the years the university had connections to the steel and auto industries as well (major buildings on campus are the "Iacocca Building" and "Packard Lab" -- named after James Packard, who founded the eponymous car company). Colleges of Business, Arts and Sciences, and Education were later added; today they are highly ranked and well-funded.

The university moved to include women as students in 1971 (see "40 Years of Women at Lehigh"). As part of that change, the university also began to attempt to diversify its faculty (which was, not unlike other American academic institutions of that era, universally white and male). A large number of the first women faculty hired by Lehigh in those first years (1972-3) were in the English department.

Three of the first four women faculty were still part of the department when I joined the faculty in 2001. Rosemary Mundhenk, Elizabeth Fifer, and Barbara Traister are friends and have been mentor-figures to me. (Another faculty member hired in this period who also played a mentoring role for me, Jan Fergus, joined the department a bit later.) I consider myself lucky to have started my career as a professor in a department with a strong cohort of senior colleagues who were women. That said, as you'll see from the documentary, things were not easy for these women in the early years.

Finally, I'm quite proud of my student, Laura Casale (@lauralehigh on Twitter), who is one of the four students involved in putting this documentary together. Well done!

The English department's intro to the film is here:

And the film itself:

THE FIRST FOUR from Lehigh IMRC on Vimeo.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"He couldn't provide any descriptions about his assailants, and it seemed to me that in some way, he didn't want to remember them."

As many readers have probably already seen, a Columbia University professor named Prabhjot Singh was attacked by a large group of men on bicycles a couple of days ago in New York City (at the edge of Central Park -- 110th Street and Lenox Ave.). The incident is being investigated as a hate crime. You can read Simran Jeet Singh's account of the incident at the Huffington Post here. There is also a video interview with Prabhjot Singh at NBC New York here (including brief footage of his broken jaw).

A friend who is a journalist wrote me asking for a brief comment. Here's the statement I sent him. 

I don't know Prabhjot Singh personally, though we have many mutual friends and this incident has been saddening and disturbing for many of us.

Most Sikhs in the U.S. know that they are potentially subject to verbal abuse and hostility at virtually any time, though especially in large crowds. We also know that supposedly cosmopolitan cities like New York and San Francisco are actually not any better or worse than small towns when it comes to encountering mean-spirited people and thug-like behavior. What is admittedly a surprise is when that kind of name-calling turns into something else, as seems to be what happened here.

As always, with incidents of Muslim-bashing / Sikh-bashing, it seems important not to dwell on the fact that Sikhs are not Muslims. For one thing, the attackers may not care that much one way or the other. But more importantly, one doesn't want to sanction hateful speech or violence against any vulnerable group based on "correct" identification.

The attackers here appear to be young men in a large crowd thinking they own the city. A lone Sikh with a turban and beard presents a very visible possible target, especially in a relatively quiet place like the edge of Central Park at night. I can't help but suspect that the person they chose to target could just as easily have been a gay person (rightly or wrongly identified), or a woman.

I was especially struck by the following sentence in a post by Prabhjot's friend Simran Jeet Singh, which was published yesterday in the Huffington Post. Simran Jeet wrote, "He couldn't provide any descriptions about his assailants, and it seemed to me that in some way, he didn't want to remember them." This rings true to me. With many crimes of this sort (does it make sense to call it casual racist violence?), it seems the attackers may not know or care that much about the identities of their victims. But it goes both ways: for those of us who may be targeted in such attacks, the particular motivation that drove the attack is, from our perspective, much less important than our overwhelming desire just to be able to walk down the street safely -- and go about our business.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Post-9/11 Essay Fragment: "'War on the Rag-Heads': Learning the Meaning of Racism..."

This is an essay I started writing shortly after 9/11, a time when I was in shock -- and as preoccupied with suddenly being branded as "the enemy" as I was with the massive tragedy that had transpired just 90 minutes away in New York City. I think I wrote this with the idea that it might be published somewhere as an Op-Ed or something, though in the end I didn't do anything with it. 

In the archives of my computer, this file is dated 9/18/2001. I returned to some similar themes a year ago, in the blog post I wrote after the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin by a right-wing extremist. 

One word that I used that today I'm not sure of is the word "backlash." It wasn't really a "backlash" that many of us experienced that fall; more of a kind of ethno-cultural realignment and displacement from a position of complacency and relative privilege. Until that fall I felt that at heart I was really an American, despite my connections to the Indian subcontinent and my visible religious difference. After that fall, I came to feel that perhaps I didn't really know anymore what "American" might mean. 

* * * 
“War on the Rag-Heads”:
Learning the Meaning of Racism in the Midst of a Backlash

Many in the Sikh community in the U.S. are amazed at the kind of hostility they have been encountering in the wake of last week’s world trade center attacks. Some of the attacks have been extreme – one Sikh man in Arizona, for instance, has been killed by a “patriot,” while many others have been assaulted, verbally and physically, around the country. Mosques Gurdwaras and Mandirs have been vandalized, firebombed, even rammed, in one instance, by a mad motorist. Whether or not we have been harassed in such a manner, nearly everyone who looks different (even vaguely Arab) has felt the glare of a newly virulent hostility. Sikhs in particular are gawked at openly on the streets where we have lived for years, as if we just appeared there yesterday; kids torture us in schools, where we are present inevitably as micro-minorities of one or two individuals in masses of thousands; on the highways we are confronted by a juggernaut of obscene gestures; and we are skewered on American talk-radio by callers and even, at times, by the hosts of the shows. As a particularly egregious example of the latter, Howard Stern has suggested that America “declare war on the rag-heads.”

Sikhs have been doing their best to respond to the hostility in a constructive manner, though some of the things people have been saying have been problematic. Sikh leaders protest that "Sikhs are not Arabs, we are not even Muslims"; the attacks, they claim, are “misdirected,” as if attacks against innocent Arab-Americans would somehow be appropriate. Sikh and Hindu leaders seem outraged by the obvious ignorance of the attackers, and the highly vague definition of the Americans who are now being singled out. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister of India, even went so far as to call George W. Bush to ask for help in protecting the Sikh American community. For their part, Sikh community leaders around the country are working overtime to try and get media coverage for the incidents of racially-motivated murder, assault, and racial profiling that have been occurring, along with elementary descriptions of the Sikh religion and the meaning of the Sikh turban. One hopes these educational efforts may make some difference in the long run, especially if they develop a wider base and more systematic implementation. Sikh educational efforts also, one feels, ought to be deployed in direct cooperation with Muslim groups that want to accomplish the same kinds of things.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On N+1's "World Lite"

I'm teaching a graduate class called "Global Cities" this fall, and when I was casting about for a text to use for the first 75 minute session it occurred to me that the recent essay by the editors of N+1, "World Lite," should be it.

I just got out of that session and it seemed like it worked: my students seemed engaged and interested in the arguments. Most had not heard of many of the authors the editors mention. The exercise gave me a chance to do quick spiels on Mario Vargas Llosa, Ngugi, Benedict Anderson, and a few others. So before we go any further I should credit the N+1 editors for writing something provocative and stimulating.

At Tehelka, Pooja Rajaram and Michael Griffith posted a spirited and intelligent critique. The editors have responded to that critique with some clarifications of their main intention and argument.

I'm not going to take issue with the central claim the N+1 Editors are making in "World Lite"; in any case, I feel pretty sure that the editors have defined their terms loosely enough that my main criticisms could be easily parried. As I understand it, their primary interest is in criticizing the "Global Lit" marketplace, and positing instead an "internationalist" literature that preserves (or revives) some of the confrontational energy and edginess of an earlier generation of postcolonial authors from the 1970s and 80s ("angry Rushdie," "angry Gordimer," and early Ngugi are favored; later Rushdie, "Wizard of the Crow" Ngugi, the abstractions of Coetzee, Murakami, Pamuk, and many others are not).