6 Months Later…

My latest blog post: thoughts on leaving academia and returning to art…

“The melancholic space into which I veered after leaving the course onto which I had so forcibly tied my adult self was – in actuality – the space in which time-as-progress receded enough to allow my childhood love for art to reenter my life.”

Priya J. Shah. Artist.

cropped-cropped-cropped-cropped-dsc04278.jpgAnniversaries can be funny things: overdetermined occasions on which we attempt to fit ourselves into a narrative or trajectory of progress. I tended to think of my academic career in this way: judging where I was by an abstract idea of where I thought I should be (based on yet another abstraction of what counts as success). The problem is, of course, that life doesn’t really work this way. The concept of uniform progress toward a pre-determined goal tends to preclude the formation of new relationships and ideas, to shut out alternative possibilities, and to disallow failure. As I learned intimately last year, failure is simultaneously the cause for acute distress, a personal testing ground, and perhaps – if we let it be – a space of generation and creativity.

Leaving academia nearly a year ago was the most difficult thing I have ever done. For twenty years I had worked toward the goal…

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A most irrational and paramount optimism: life with chronic pain

The Trust of Pain 1 Breaking In by Karen Musick

I have had a headache nearly every day since the age of nineteen. Some days it is a dull ache that starts in my neck or shoulder blades and slowly amplifies until that spot is sore to even the slightest touch. Some days it comes roaring in the middle of the night, intruding in my dreams so much so that I am awakened as if by a nightmare. Other days it bores into my skull like a power drill that has suddenly become actuated, exploring its potential to perforate the inner folds of my brain. And then there are the glorious, beautiful days in which the headache lies dormant, and I forget all over again what it is to feel pain.

I have tried everything: acupuncture, Ayurveda, biofeedback, massage, dietary restriction (no coffee! no chocolate! no onions!), yoga, and every medication on the market.

My mother and my husband, most of all, have carried me through this. They have massaged me, held me, brought me hot towels for my head, and beared witness to my tears of frustration more times than any of us would wish to count. My best friends know about my condition, because I turn to them for help – to pick up my medicine, to watch the kids or take them to one of their after school activities. I have even let my children see me lie down with a hot pack on my head, even though for a long time I tried to hide it from them, afraid that it would darken the innocence of their young lives. I realized however, that perhaps the more important lesson was to show them that everyone experiences pain, and that our strength does not lie in denial or the ruse of perfection. And yet, for some reason, that lesson is completely lost on me in every other arena of my life.

I learned at an early age to appear to be present despite the pain. I go to social events and smile and laugh with my friends and acquaintances because I want to be with them, I want to hear what they have been up to, to dance, to smile at the kids as they play together. But then, when there is a moment, I break away and hold my temples, and pray that the pain subsides. I pick up the kids from school, I give them snacks to nourish those little bodies that have been busy all morning learning and playing and sitting up straight at their desks. I take them to their classes and smile in encouragement, just telling myself to hold on long enough to get home to my husband, whose presence is like a balm to my pain.  Two summers ago I taught a three hour class with a full blown migraine and then collapsed in tears on a bench outside the classroom once I knew that all the students were gone.

I make plans as if I’ve never had a day of pain in my life. I will say yes to every social event, hell, even plan them without a moment’s pause. I will accept every class that is offered to me as if the only calculation at hand is that of childcare. I will stay in office hours as long as my students need me to, I will meet every one of my dear former students who so lovingly come to visit. I will apply to conferences, I will accept editing jobs for no pay, I will volunteer to host playdates at my house, I will promise the children we will go here and there, as if I was the healthiest person on the planet.

I have learned to deny the perpetual nature of this pain as if my life depended on it. And in a way, my life does. At the age of twenty-five, I went to see an esteemed neurologist who told me in the most blunt manner possible that unless I took drastic measures like dropping out of graduate school, I would be depressed and addicted to pain killers by the age of thirty. Needless to say I threw away the bottle of Vioxx that she then proceeded to prescribe to me. I came home that day completely deflated, but simultaneously determined that in spite of – or perhaps to spite – this pain that seeks to destroy me I will live the best version of my life and pursue my ambitions unflinchingly. Instead of being depressed by the age of thirty, I had a beautiful baby girl and a Ph.D.

When our loved ones have chronic pain that cannot be treated by any outside source, we often implicitly task them with the work of getting better on their own because we can’t bear to see their pain, and because inevitably, their pain is a burden we share with them in one way or another. We ask them what they did to cause the pain: did they eat something they weren’t supposed to? Did they work out too hard or too little? Did they take on too much at work? Did they let themselves get too stressed out? I know that I have been guilty of this with people in my life whose pain I can’t bear to witness anymore. In my own case, I know that everyone tells me to take on less, to think about my capabilities before saying yes to everything and everyone, to work less, to scale back my ambitions. I recognize that this is a completely pragmatic set of demands.  And yet, for me, following this advice would feel like my pain, rather than any other of my characteristics, would shape who I am.

When people with chronic pain take on things that will almost certainly result in the elevation of their pain, it may feel like they have lost all capacity to reason, or that they are almost selfishly in denial. But in actuality, it may be that despite the certainty of future pain, they do so as a way to shore up their own sense of being alive in the present. It’s the most irrational and yet paramount brand of optimism. An optimism whose value increases each time it is bombarded with the harsh reality of its own futility. Almost every quarter a student comes to ask how I can be so positive despite the dire quality of what we learn about in class. I have had many privileges in my life – being cisgendered, straight, middle-class, brown but not covered, gender normative among them – that have shielded me from much of the oppression about which I teach and against which I fight. And yet even for me, optimism has become a survival strategy against this unbearable pain that was predicted to rob me of the overriding sense of joy I feel in this life. I’m not speaking of optimism as a socially enforced mode of denial but rather the optimism of pursuing everything that makes me a fuller person with the caveat that I may fail, that I may find myself in greater pain, that I may even show that pain to the world.

I’m not quite sure what made me write this today. Perhaps it’s hearing the children sing “Let it Go” in their sweet little voices around the house nonstop. Or, perhaps it is the hope that someone else who is living with chronic pain may read this and find some solidarity if not solace. Perhaps it is the hope that if you love someone who lives with pain everyday of their life you will recognize that when they tell you of their pain, or cancel plans with you, it is because their trust in you is so strong that they are making themselves vulnerable. And that you will respond by supporting them in all the lofty goals they may express the very next day, because you know that this is what makes them who they are, not the pain.

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The Wish of Happiness

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Indo-Chinese Night!

Indian Chinese cuisine is true diaspora food. Developed over a hundred years ago by the Chinese community in Kolkata, the spicy, Indianized version of Chinese sauces, noodles, soups, and rice is now popular in India and the India diaspora at large. My brother, Sameer, and I were blown away when we first tried it at Welcome Restaurant near my grandmother’s house in Baroda. And I have many fond memories of savoring it again at the now-defunct Tangra in Artesia, CA. I LOVE LOVE LOVE it, but since I learned I’m allergic to onions (don’t ask), I’ve had to rely on cooking it at home rather than eating it on Pioneer Blvd. The only catch is that many of the recipes use pretty much the same ingredients, and making a menu of Indian Chinese food can be difficult if you don’t want to repeat the same flavors over and over. Here is a menu I put together the other night as a special meal to send off my dad. I’ve adapted the Manchurian recipe to create non-veg meatballs (I used ground turkey meat), and made a few little adjustments to the other two dishes (the rice dish is not strictly Indo-Chinese but it tastes amazing with the Manchurian meatballs). The original recipes are linked below and my gratitude to their creators!

Indian Chinese Dinner Menu: Turkey Meatball Manchurian, Coconut Turmeric Rice, and Chinese Corn Soup

Turkey Meatball Manchurian:


The primary recipe comes from Tarla Dalal. Here are the changes:

For the meatballs, add 1 lb. ground turkey, cut down the amount of cabbage and carrot. Add 1/2 tsp. baking soda to the mixture. Also, I used green onions instead of onions.

For the sauce, add 1 tbs. ketchup to give a slightly sweet, tomato flavor to the sauce. Also, I would suggest grating the ginger unless you like the taste of chopped ginger in the sauce.

If you want to make a kid-friendly version of this meal, don’t add chilies to the meatball mixture and keep a few of the meatballs out of the sauce and serve with ketchup. They are totally delicious even without the Manchurian sauce. My daughter loved them!



Coconut Turmeric Rice: this delicious rice is my son’s all time favorite! The recipe comes from Cafe Nilson.


Chinese Corn Soup: My mom used to make this soup when we were young. What I remember most is the taste of the sesame oil drizzled on top, and the green onion and chopped chilies marinated in vinegar that you add to the soup just before serving. The fabulous Aarti Sequiera has an amazing recipe for this soup. Here are few changes I made:

I used Trader Joe’s Low Sodium Chicken Broth instead of making my own. To add more flavor in that case, I added 1 chopped leek and 3 chopped carrots to the soup itself. Top the soup with a drizzle of sesame oil and soy sauce and chopped green onion and chilies that have been marinated in rice vinegar and a little salt. I find that this soups tastes even better the next day.



Garnish EVERYTHING with cilantro! Oh, and one more perk about making Indo-Chinese at home: you won’t need TUMS afterward :-p

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Bollywood: Love/Hate

How is it that one can love Bollywood and simultaneously reject its indefatigable stream of misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and racism?

The eve of the 2012 U.S. presidential election is an apt time to revisit Bollywood’s relation to America, particularly how since 9/11 Bollywood has tried to not only control the way Indians abroad imagine their relationship to India, but how the “Western world” imagines its relationship to the Indians within its midst. The 2010 film, My Name is Khan, is propelled by the desire of its Muslim protagonist, Rizwan Khan, to shake hands with Barack Obama, look him in the eye, and tell him, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” It is perhaps the best known of these films here in the U.S. But it’s not just the proposed relationship of Bollywood to the U.S. state that interests me, but also my own relationship as a second-generation American to this crazy thing we call Bollywood.

“Sajadaaaa-aa-aa-aaaa.” Rahat Fateh Ali Khan croons, the lilting pronunciation of the elongated vowel sound seeming to lift up into the heavens. My body expands along with the sound, my spine elongating simultaneously with the alap, my chest expanding ever so slowly, my shoulders rolling backward. One after another instruments enter the song, enriching the rhythm behind the voice, and Khan begins to sing:

“Teri kaali ankhiyon se jind meri jaage/Dhadkan se tej daudu, sapno se aagey/ Ab jaan lutt jaaye, ye jahaan chhut jaaye/ Sang pyaar rahe, main rahun na rahun . . . ” [Your lovely black eyes make me come alive/ I run faster than a heartbeat and gallop ahead of dreams/ Now my life can be stolen/ I can leave this world/ But my love will be with you whether I live or not] [I’ll worship you/ Day and night/ I’ll never rest]

The sun’s rays boomerang off the endless pavement, the heat entangling with the pungent smell of dosa/chaat/chana masala and so many onions, entering the nostrils, enveloping the body that is still except for the opening of the spine and the senses, so as to experience this ephemeral beginning of the song, the sensorium of the alap in the time-space of an afternoon in Artesia’s Little India. The tabla enters, marking a steady beat. The rapid drumming of the dholak marks the commencement of the song proper. “Sajda….tera sajda/ Din rain karoon/ Na hi chain karoon . . .” The chorus begins, and I am pushed into motion, the moment marking the transition from pure bodily affect into emotion and meaning.

In the spring of 2010, “Sajda” became the soundtrack to one’s life in the diaspora: filling the space of ethnic grocery stores, of clothing shops, blaring from friends’ cars, broken down into its component parts by eager culture show choreographers, remixed by DJs and played at clubs and fashion shows. Potential viewers of the film were bombarded with trailers, commercials, interviews, and clips on both Indian satellite channels and locally produced shows like Showbiz India, all featuring the song and clips from the film, along with news and images of the stars themselves, all components of what Amit Rai calls the transnational media-assemblage (Untimely Bollywood). My Name is Khan stands out among Bollywood films about life in the diaspora because not only did it receive attention by the American and international press, but because it is so invested in exploring and offering solutions for the problematic relationship between South Asian Muslims and the American nation-state. As such, the media-assemblage of My Name is Khan seems to be particularly ripe for an exploration of the relationship between second generation Indian Americans and this all-encompassing behemoth we call Bollywood. More specifically, for me it stands as the quintessential example of the conflict between my often rapturous embrace of the culture and my unavoidable disappointment with the actual narratives of the film’s themselves. In other words, how is it that one can love Bollywood and simultaneously reject its indefatigable stream of misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and racism?

The answer lies, I think, in the realm of affect and emotion, so let me start with the spring of my romance with My Name is Khan, before the winter of our inevitable discontent. Some scholars of culture define affect as those physiological changes that affect the body before individual cognition. Others argue that the body’s physiological and emotional responses cannot so easily be distinguished from one another, and that affect is a response to stimuli that shapes the body and its relations with other bodies and objects. In either case, affect is understood as the opening up of the body to potential connections it would not otherwise have been primed to make. In the case of My Name is Khan, as with most Bollywood films, it is the music (both alone and tied to images in the form of trailers or scenes of the songs’ picturizations) that reach our bodies first. The qawwali rhythms of “Sajda,” what one critic referred to as its “meditative and spiritual powers,” immediately affected my body and seemed to align me to an imagined community for whom this particularly Sufi musical form is associated with spiritual love, with mythologies of a romanticized pan-Indian past, and with nostalgic memories of a putative homeland. I say putative because, of course, India is not my homeland, it is my parents’ (if they even think of it in that way anymore).

And the nostalgia evoked here is not necessarily even a personal one. I did not grow up listening to qawwali music, nor was the watching of Bollywood films a special ritual in our home. Rather, the music seems to tap into a collective form of memory formed by the interplay of stories, films, TV programs, newspaper articles, dance competitions, wedding traditions, religious spaces, cultural shows, and the other myriad practices in which we take part, reject, challenge, and turn to as a way to make sense of the hyphenated identities we find ourselves inhabiting in the diaspora. Cultural practices that may have changed, lost their meaning, or be otherwise rooted in particular regional and religious identities come to take on a more generalized cast of “Indianness” in relation to stereotypes and misunderstandings, loss and yearning.

The song’s picturization plays with these nostalgic memories by evoking not just “ideas of India,” but more specifically invoking the celebrated pairing of actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol – the embodiment of a certain brand of Bollywood romance for those spectators, who like me, came to age during the heyday of the Yash Raj blockbusters (Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai). In so doing it creates a bridge between collective nostalgia for India and the more particular time-space of a post-9/11 U.S. “Sajda” plays as Shah Rukh Khan’s character, Rizwan Khan, a newly arrived Muslim immigrant with Asperger’s Syndrome weds Kajol’s character, Mandira, a more settled Indian American Hindu woman, with roots in the community. The religious identities of the film’s protagonists are important, of course, since the director, Karan Johar, explicitly sees the film as intervening in the plight of Muslims in the United States, but the film also seeks to quickly disturb the notion of essentialism usually associated with religious identities.

Its goal in this scene is not only to represent the coming together of Muslims and Hindus, but, perhaps more crucially, to induce the viewer to partake in the formation of a South Asian American community premised on affect rather than identity. My Name is Khan attempts to not only create an intra-religious community within the narrative, but involve the audience in a relation to this filmic community founded not through direct identification with any particular character, but through a combination of bodily propensities, imaginative relations, and investments in the celebrity culture of the assemblage. The film counts on the audience’s knowledge of SRK’s status as a (nominal) Muslim, Kajol’s as a Hindu, and even more recently, of SRK’s being stopped at the Newark airport for questioning (a publicity stunt?) to surpass or even eschew the religious identities that have been reified by the intersection of Hindu nationalist discourse and American Neo-Orientalism. Furthermore, it hopes to build empathy for SRK’s character and the family he and Mandira try to build in the context of an increasingly Islamophobic America in which all South Asians become suspect, and which – in the film – leads to Rizwan being detained and interrogated, Hasina being attacked and stripped of her hijab, and, most tragically, to the murder of Rizwan and Mandira’s young son.

The film’s trailer, which could be downloaded for free from iTunes, and which played incessantly on home television screens, on the TV screens of Little India music shops, and before other Bollywood films in under-air conditioned theaters, strategically interweaves scenes of Rizwan and Mandira’s wedding with its echoes of the entire repertoire of SRK and Kajol’s iconic moments (the green suit and hot pink dupatta she wears at her mehndi referring us directly to the green salwar kameez she wears at the most famous mendhi ceremony in recent Bollywood history) with other iconic shots of their very American love affair (that is carried out on San Francisco trolleys, the bleachers of baseball games, and the front porch of their first suburban home).

Who could resist the electricity of the first time Rizwan and Mandira see each other on their wedding day? She, framed by a host of multiracial friends, is first surprised and then pleased; he, accompanied by his sister-in-law (her peach-colored hijab and Mandira’s surprise reminding us that within certain discourses this union is by no means inevitable), cannot meet her eyes, a result or symptom of his Asperger’s. The camera cuts back to Mandira who teases him with her eyes, he smiles and – just for a moment – looks directly at her/us. I was smitten, brought back to that first moment that I, as part of a collective diasporic audience, watched the two of them on screen. Rahat sings “Now my life can be stolen/ I can leave this world/ But my love will be with you whether I live or not,” Mandira kisses Rizwan on the cheek despite all his protestations against tactile affection, the dholak starts, he moves his head to the rapid-fire beat in unconscious pleasure, and I am taken into the affective community of the film.

Seduced by the sensorium, by the promise of an affective community to counter the stereotypes and hate I witness daily, I watch the film itself. The community founded in the wedding of Rizwan and Mandira soon extends to include South Asian Americans of all religions and classes. More unpredictably, however, the film attempts to forge another affective community, this time among South Asians and African Americans. After Rizwan’s stepson, Sameer, is beaten to death by his erstwhile best friend, who associates Sameer’s new last name (Khan) with the people he blames for his father’s death while fighting in Afghanistan (talk about the manipulation of the audience’s emotions!).

In contrast to the racist characterization of South Asians and African Americans as essentially different (in both American multiculturalism and prior Bollywood films), My Name is Khan represents, in the friendship between Rizwan, Jenny Williams, and her son Joel, a model of friendship that allows for mutual recognition and regard despite different racial and political identities. While it the building of an intra-religious South Asian American community was a predictable move, the bridging of South Asian Americans with other racialized groups in the U.S. was a welcome angle, and one that speaks to the rich history of coalitions formed by people of color to counter forms of racism, and economic and cultural ostracization. It seemed to suggest a remedy for the “Indian exceptionalism” that characterizes both the model minority myth as well as Bollywood representations of life in the diaspora (for example, Kal Ho Na Ho).

Encountering a stranded Rizwan by chance one rainy evening in Georgia, Joel’s mother Jenny recognizes Rizwan as South Asian, and certainly a little peculiar, but despite the fact that her son James had been killed in Iraq, she shelters him, and Jenny and Rizwan immediately form a friendship that based not on a shared identity, but a mutual recognition of suffering and loss. Once again, we are asked to project itself into this affective community through the interplay of song and story. Jenny and Joel bring Rizwan to the local church on the day of a special memorial for soldiers killed in the Iraq war. As red, white, and blue flowers are placed in front of the images of the town’s fallen soldiers, Jenny places a small picture of Sameer into the frame which holds a larger image of her son James. The scene represents the mutual sympathy between Rizwan, Jenny, Joel, and their community, but through the juxtaposition of the church setting with Rizwan’s invocation to Allah in his elegy for Sameer, and the layering the classic protest song, “We Shall Overcome,” sung by the church members with Rizwan’s vocals in Hindi, it refrains from swallowing up difference in order to build a coalition. This affective community between Rizwan and the townspeople of Wilhelmina is brought together with the community of South Asians near the end of the film, when Rizwan’s supporters (first and second-generation immigrants, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, working-class motel managers and successful professionals) come to help him bring relief to his friends in Wilhelmina after the town has been hit by a hurricane and the government is either incapable or unwilling provide relief.

The emotional coming together of these seemingly disparate groups inspires a sea-change in the nation’s attitudes, and in film’s final moments, Barack Obama, now the president of the United States, recognizes Rizwan Khan as a citizen of the state, cheered on by a crowd made up primarily of people of color, many in hijabs and Muslim prayer caps. My Name is Khan has succeeded in the creation of a new affective community, now inclusive of the entire nation, that bears the promise of a new relationship between America and its citizens, regardless of religion or skin color.

Or, at least, the plot succeeds. And here is where I must get to the part where MNIK breaks my heart. In “Differences Disturbing Identity: Deleuze and Feminism,” Elizabeth Grosz asks a crucial question: “if the subject strives to be recognized as a subject of value in a culture that does not value that subject in terms it seeks, what is such recognition worth? And once the subject is recognized as such, what is created through this recognition?” (“Differences Disturbing Identity,” 102). In other words, what work has been accomplished by My Name is Khan, its millions earned and international acclaim not withstanding? Inasmuch as the script is controlled by the production team, the plot succeeds. But the film’s larger project of building affective communities beyond the scope of its limited narrative fails, miserably. Why is it that by the time Rizwan finally approaches the stage to shake hands with Barack Obama (or, more accurately, the actor playing Obama who looks nothing like him), Mandira beaming at his side, I no longer see myself in the cheering crowd? Why is it that even in that moment when Hasina emerges at the flood water’s horizon, do I feel only a momentary thrill and then detached again from the story into which I had initially invested so much emotion? Why have, to use Sara Ahmed’s apt phrase, I have become an “affect alien” (“Creating Disturbance,” 35)? It is not just that these scenes bear the imprint of Bollywood hyperbole, melodrama, and patent lack of realism, rather, I would argue that this disaffection stems from the hypocrisy of the film’s reliance on certain stock assumptions and stereotypes of gender and race even as it seeks to move beyond such narrow identity politics.

Firstly, it relies on an assumption of heterosexual marriage as the kernel of immigrant life and the symbolics of immigrant womanhood as nation, family, and sacrifice. Affect is the presubjective opening of the body to unforeseen potentialities and connections. And an affective community is one based on the radical credo of noncoercive, horizontal relations in which differences are neither obliterated nor fetishized. Using the courtship, wedding, and marriage of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol is an easy choice to manufacture a certain type of affect, but by its very definition marriage is hierarchical and based on expectations of sexual, economic, and emotional exchange, and thus antagonistic to the development of an affective community. Kajol’s character Mandira is once again the modern diasporic Indian woman: it is her labor, aided by Hasina, that roots Rizwan in America and that creates the family that stands in for a larger affective community. It is her sacrifice that propels Rizwan on the journey that will lead him to further expand the film’s affective community and recuperate the state, and her feminine irrationality that deprives her of a place in that crucial journey.

Second, the film relies on a lexicon of dialect, dress, behavioral codes, and stock figures like the pick-a-ninny and the mammy drawn from the racist representation of African Americans in nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. culture to craft the characters of Joel and Jenny (referred to as “funny-haired Joel” and “Mama Jenny” in Rizwan’s voiceovers). The viewer is so appalled by the seemingly unconscious utilization of these racist tropes (twangy “Southern” banjo music, Jenny’s unshapely cotton shift, Joel’s wide-eyed innocence) that she is hurled out of the film, and all future efforts to build an affective community in the film carries the bitter taste of ignorance and racism.

If Bollywood wants to intervene in the plight of South Asian Muslims targeted by U.S. anti-terrorism policies and the agents of Islamaphobia in our general discourse, then it needs to understand it cannot do so at the expense of South Asian women and African Americans (while acknowledging that all three groups are not mutually exclusive). On a more personal level, until it does, I’ll be trapped in this love/hate relationship with a media-assemblage that at once speaks to that which I long for and turn away from.

What is your relationship to Bollywood? Have you seen the film? Please leave share your thoughts in the Comments section!

A big thank you to Jen Kosakowski, Vanita Reddy, Neha Vora, and Mimi Nguyen for all your feedback on various versions of this essay!

For Amit Rai, today’s Bollywood must be studied not simply in terms of the film text, but as a transnational media-assemblage: songs, diasporic TV programs, online media blitz, university culture shows, mutiplexes, the herding of bodies, sitting arrangements, time-pass, image. That is, representation must be deprioritized, and the material substrate of its emergence must be diagrammed. See Amit Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage (Duke UP, 2009).

Translation by Rakesh: http://kingsrk.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/my-name-is-khan-sajdaa-lyrics-english-translation/

Sara Ahmed, “Creating disturbance: Feminism, happiness and affective differences,” Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences, eds. M. L. a. S. Paasonen (Routledge, 2010): 31-44.

Grosz, E. (2010). “Differences disturbing identity: Deleuze and feminism,”Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences, eds. M. L. a. S. Paasonen (Routledge, 2010): 101-111.

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Do we really love our teachers? Online education and the future of college

Mitt Romney: “And that — and that’s why it’s so critical that we make America once again the most attractive place in the world to start businesses, to build jobs, to grow the economy. And that’s not going to happen by — by just hiring teachers. Look, I — I love to — I love teachers…”

Bob Schieffer: “I think we all love teachers.”


Richard Stengel: “The term iron triangle is not from geometry class but from experts describing the three big, interrelated problems facing America’s colleges and universities: access, cost and quality… Higher education has been the great engine of American prosperity, innovation and social mobility, and we weaken it at our own peril. We must find a way to do better.”


In this week’s Time magazine cover story, “College is Dead. Long Live College!,” Amanda Ripley explores the role of MOOCs (massive open online courses) in addressing the crisis of “access, cost, and quality” of higher education in this country. It’s a good article and worth reading. Ripley explores physics courses from two out of the three MOOC start ups gaining a lot of attention right now (Udacity, Coursera, and edX) and compares them to physics courses at the elite Georgetown and the much less prestigious local university, University of the District of Columbia (UDC). As she notes, most online courses these days are both expensive and uninspired. They basically consist of low-budget lectures, Powerpoint slides (with or without narration), and problem sets, and are offered either as an alternative to traditional courses at for-profit online schools or in conjunction with them at brick-and-mortar universities. On the other hand, Udacity and Coursera approach online learning in non-traditional ways, creating student-centered, dynamic courses that retain the attention of thousands of online learners at a time. In one case, when Sebastian Thrun’s Stanford students participated in his Coursera course along with students around the world, the Stanford students scored a full letter grade higher on average than previous classes, but were still edged out of the course’s top performers by 400 online students. Frankly, after hearing how Udacity professor Andy Brown captivates his students by taking them to the birthplace of Archimedes in Siracusa, Italy, encourages them to send in videos of themselves measuring shadows, splices his short lectures with pop quizzes, and inspires his students to such an extent that when a twelve-year-old Pakistani girl loses access to youtube during the final exam, other students from around the world recreate the exam for her, I was inspired to try out some new techniques in my online course and spent the night brainstorming ways to get myself on location to Chengdu.

Ripley provides a fair assessment of the relationship between MOOCs and traditional courses. She finds that the Georgetown and UDC courses provide their students a level of detail, attention, collaboration, and motivation that courses with hundreds of thousands of students simply cannot. Here is her final assessment: “Ideally, Udacity and other MOOC providers will help strip away all the distractions of higher education – the brand, the price and the facilities – and remind all of us that education is about learning. In addition to putting downward pressure on student costs, it would be nice if MOOCs put upward pressure on teaching quality.” Yes! I completely agree. But what is missing from this article, and from the eight other opinion pieces on “how to fix higher education” that follow it (including pieces by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama) is a discussion of the role of actual TEACHERS in this brave new world as well as what it means to offer COURSES THAT ACTUALLY TEACH the “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills” the authors of the much-quoted 2011 book, Academically Adrift, argue students are lacking (Ripley 37).

In tonight’s presidential debate, the moderator, Bob Schieffer, glibly shut down Mitt Romney’s tortured attempt to maintain that he “loved teachers” while effectively calling for their complete transformation into an insecure labor force by stating, “we all love teachers.” My Facebook wall exploded with fellow teachers who declared that if this was love, they didn’t want any part of it. Teachers cannot do their jobs well if they lack secure employment, a living wage, intellectual agency, and institutional support. Unless we envision an educational system in which a handful of professors from Ivy League schools teach millions of students around the globe with no physical contact between either the instructor and the students or among the students themselves, we need to think about how we position our teachers to learn the dynamic pedagogical strategies implemented by Profs. Brown and Thurn, and utilize them in both online and traditional environments so that students achieve the types of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills that they need in a globalized world.

Today, adjunct professors make up to 75% of academic faculty. That means that 75% of teachers in higher education are often hired on a semester-to-semester basis, are barely paid a living wage for their work, are often ineligible for consistent healthcare benefits, and have little interaction with those offices and programs in the university that are meant to help instructors gain the types of skills Ripley rightly calls for (check out Josh Boldt’s incisive survey of this crisis). For students this means that their professors are not consistently available as mentors, that they are traveling from job to job within a given semester and are therefore not always available on campus nor have the time to devote to intensive feedback, and that classes are not staffed until a few weeks before they begin. And when contingent faculty are hired to teach online courses, these issues are only exacerbated. Learning how to create online courses takes unpaid time and institutional support that instructors are left to seek out on their own. At Cal State Fullerton, where I teach “Gender and Globalization” online, these resources are extraordinary. However, it is very difficult for an instructor to put in the double, even triple, work time to craft an effective online course when they do not know if they will be hired the following semester, thus making all that unpaid time a unsure investment, to say the least. As long as teachers are treated as exploitable and expendable components of the higher education machine, we will not see the types of increases in quality across the board that we must demand of our online courses.

Ripley’s article, as well as Barack Obama’s subsequent opinion piece, focus solely on math and science courses. Yes, clearly, math and science are integral to innovation and growth. But here’s the thing I’ve learned anecdotally from my students: these courses do not necessarily make space for the learning of precisely those skills so needed in our future leaders and innovators: how to make sense of the ideological information bombarding us in our contemporary wired society, how to read history critically to understand the genealogy of current geopolitical crises, how to make a researched and persuasive argument, how to discuss the political issues of our day, how to build one’s own confidence in their ability to transform the world in which they live. Interdisciplinary departments and programs like Writing and Composition, Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, and Ethnic Studies, among others, are built upon the fostering of these skills, among their faculty, their students, and ideally, the greater public. When people like  Walter Bumphus, President and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, calls for the elimination of “boutique programs with limited demand or practicality” (Time, 10/29/12, 51), he is in actuality calling for the elimination of programs and courses that are central to preparing students for the future as people who can not just pursue a vocation, but effect transformative change. And if there is anything our desperate public discourse during this election season has shown us, it is that we need to new visions of our economic and social future.


If the “institutionalized disrespect of teachers,” as Valerie Woodward puts it, concerns you, please consider signing the petition below.

Via Ana M. Fores:

Mitt Romney: Look, I — I love to — I love teachers…”
Bob Schieffer: “I think we all love teachers.”

The contingent labor force –what they call us, adjuncts, “add-ons”– is now at least 70% and still growing. That makes us now the majority of the teaching labor force in higher education, the New Faculty Majority. Yet we are not in the front news. We are not talked about. We are not anyone’s concern. We are the invisible. Yet the classrooms keep filling up with students, their test grades keep faltering, and we keep teaching out of car trunks, managing 2, 3, sometimes 4 jobs to eke out a living.

Sign and share this petition: make it go viral so that we can have someone of substance take it to the front page news, to change things around, to better our chances for a future with a real education.  http://signon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts?source=s.icn.em.cr&r_by=4164338&mailing_id=6566

Posted in Academia, Online Learning, Pedagogy | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

For my Father

Feeling much gratitude for my father today, as he steps in to help us out of a bind. There is something about his quiet presence that makes me feel like I can accomplish anything. So in his honor, I would like to share an essay I wrote last Father’s Day (originally posted at Wordydoodles)…

My parents, c. 1973

This Father’s Day I am very lucky – not only is Jaspret celebrating his second year of double fatherhood, but my parents have been staying with us this week, and so I’ll be able to toast my own dad in person rather than over the phone! The kids have been excited all week at the prospect of taking Nana to their school’s Father’s Day Breakfast, and Noons even asked her teachers if she could make a special drawing for him: her rendition of her beloved grandfather’s face with a caption that reads “I love my Nana because… sometimes he gives me water.”

This is particularly hilarious because in fact, Noons’s Nana does EVERYTHING for her and her brother (above and beyond keeping them hydrated). When we wanted to take Noons to the zoo for the first time, it was Nana who volunteered to stay with Nickles so she could enjoy herself without the distraction of an adorable, but rather moody brother in full throes of the “terrible twos.” When the babes started school a few months ago, it was their Nana who came down to stay for two weeks to ease the transition, who took them to school on their first day, and who sat with Noons while she completed her first homework assignment. And when Nickles was very young and couldn’t fall asleep, it was Nana who walked him around for hours in his arms until his eyes finally closed.

And I wouldn’t expect anything less from him! My dad did all the same things for me and my brother, Sameer. My memories of childhood are replete with little moments that have added up to the constant undercurrent of unconditional love, support, and groundedness that my father has provided for both of us. I don’t think I could have survived these first years of new parenting, with all its emotional ebbs and flows, fatigue, and sacrifices, if I didn’t have my father’s example to inspire me, his advice to guide me, and his infallible confidence in the values and ethics he and my mother have instilled in us to anchor me.

As a culture, we seem to always be debating, discussing, dissecting, and representing motherhood. The recent brouhaha over Amy Chua’s memoir, Tiger Mother, is a good case in point. The internet and airwaves were ablaze with analysis of the types of mothering we have collectively seen, experienced, benefited (and in some cases had to therapeutically recover) from. While the crux of the debate was the (false) dichotomy between Eastern and Western styles of mothering, there was at least some room for more nuanced analysis of the multitudinous forms mothering can come in. What is also interesting to note is that throughout mothering served as the metonym for all types of parenting, and that in fact, a critical discussion of fathering never really ensued. Chua’s husband, when mentioned at all, came to stand in for a lax, emotive, “Western” style of parenting, and Asian/ Asian-American fathers fell out of the picture completely.

But in a way, that’s not really surprising at all. Certainly, representations of Asian mothers are still plagued by caricatures (hello, “Tiger Mother”??) and an Orientalist paradigm of tradition versus modernity, but as I mentioned, we’re beginning to see more richly textured portrayals of mothers and mothering, particularly in the diaspora. I don’t know if the same can be said for representations of Asian fathers. Speaking specifically about representations of Indian fathers in Bollywood, Hollywood, and diasporic films and literature, besides a few notable exceptions (a big shout out here to Geeta Malik’s film, Troublemaker, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, which in very different ways provide us with touching, complex, and very real portraits of South Asian men) I would argue that we’re still locked into a polarized vision of Indian fatherhood. On one hand, you have the glorified patriarch of Bollywood films (i.e. every Amitabh Bhachan film since his comeback), the imposing figure whose wisdom guides his ever extending family through the dangers and hurdles of a rapidly changing world. On the other, of course, is the “Desi dad villian,” the traditional father whose inability to deal with the shifting economic and social realities of migration and liberalization leave him emotionally bereft and often violently protective of whatever shreds of patriarchal power he still imagines himself to hold.

Yes, without a doubt, stories do need to be told about the kinds of violence that exist in our community. But stories also need to be told about all the various avatars fathers come in as well, about all the other creative ways men deal with the exigencies of migration and modernity. I always felt that my own dad was missing from the repertoire of representations I would see and read. He grew up in Halol, a small town in Gujarat, the eldest of six siblings. As the eldest, he helped his mother with nearly all the household tasks – bringing fruits and vegetables, getting them ready for dinner, taking care of his brothers and sisters. His village did not have electricity until he was in high school, but this was no reason not to excel, coming first to Baroda for higher education, and then Bombay, Utah (BYU), and eventually Toronto, where he and my mother settled after their marriage.


Growing up, my father was always engaged in our lives. He was ready to play the minute he came back from work, and always sat down with us when it was time to do our homework. Wiffle ball, Mille Bornes, Monopoly, algebra, trigonometry, the science fair project where I experimented with exhaust fumes and plant growth (??), you name it, Dad could do it. But it was not just games and homework, my father was the one who helped me pick out fabric to make my first quilt, who comforted me when my homemade prom dress turned out a hot mess and then convinced me to give it another try (the same could be said for boys I suppose), who gave me my first feminist lesson in the unjust and purposeless nature of cheerleading (I ended up joining the basketball team instead). He came to every award ceremony, cheered me through every decision I made in college, and encouraged me when I chose to go to graduate school to obtain my degree in English literature (while other men of his age and background questioned why I needed to get a Ph.D. in English when I already spoke English or condescendingly referred to my profession as a “little job”). He moved me to Michigan and then, without one word of admonishment, moved me back to Irvine when I realized I was perhaps a California girl after all. And still, to this day, he is the one I turn to read my work, to remind my why I got into this field, and to give me hope and, more importantly, perspective, when I feel like my future isn’t what I once thought it would be.

So, this Father’s Day, I celebrate my husband and my father, two men whose incredible devotion to their families and children defy stereotypes and continue to make me strive to be a better woman.
Posted in Diaspora, Parenting | Tagged , | 5 Comments

“Creating Disturbances”: What I Wish I Had Said

You know that nagging feeling you get when you know you should have said something but you didn’t?

The other evening, a few friends and I encountered an affable young man who engaged us in conversation. Somehow we got onto the topic of some popular film or other. I mentioned that I had found it incredibly boring and a good example of Hollywood-style masculine self-indulgence. Apparently this touched a nerve. Getting animated, he declared that *this* was the problem with feminism. For too long feminists had been teaching young men that they had to be ashamed of their masculinity. No more. That is why he now defines himself as a MISOGYNIST.


I’m not kidding – exact words. “What the WHAT????? Do you even know what a misogynist is? I don’t think you are saying what you think you are saying,” we challenged. And yet he pressed on. He was not going to let a group of “girls” (a good ten years older than him at least) tell him he had completely misconstrued not only feminism but also the meaning of this term he was going to so boldly RE-APPROPRIATE (his words). We went back and forth a bit, but I could feel some tension in the room and backed off, giving one of those “it’s all good, no harm done,” smiles. No one wants to be accused of ruining the mood.

In her book, The Promise of Happiness, and essay “Creating Disturbances,” Sara Ahmed explores the consequences of our cultural obsession with happiness as a marker of life-worth. She brilliantly exposes that way in which the pursuit of happiness becomes an imperative that “demands that others live according to a wish” (“Creating Disturbances,” 31). In other words, when we make the state of happiness the primary goal of our own lives as well as others (particularly children, partners, friends, and those who live in close proximity to us), we push upon them an emotional state this is contingent on the acceptance of socially constructed practices, behaviors, and conditions as if they are universally agreed upon (for example, the cliche that only “true love” can bring happiness). Furthermore, we (often unintentionally) police those who question or choose not to abide by these norms when we attempt to cajole them out of other emotions they may be feeling or admonish them for bringing everyone else down (I realize I do this with my own children, against my best intentions).

Those who choose to feel differently than their communities risk being alienated from them; “we become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience happiness in proximity to objects that are attributed as being good” (34). Feminists have long been the target of this type of social policing and Ahmed remarks on the long history of the figure of the “feminist killjoy.”


You know, the one who audibly sighs when “Mr. and Mrs. [man’s full name]” is announced at the beginning of a wedding reception, or critiques the rampant Orientalism of The Mummy while you are sitting with her in the movie theater, or points out the man-obsessed through line of every SATC episode, who embarrasses you by staring down “mansplainers” at coffee shops, or who takes the bait of the belligerent uncle when he vociferously declares that Obama is a Muslim? Alright, clearly all those examples are my own, but you get the point. While I may have not been called a “killjoy,” the rolling eyes, and warnings “not go there,” and admonishments after the fact taught me – at a young age – that it’s best to hold your tongue to keep the peace. Ahmed relates much of the same personal story, and then – on a more general level – gives the example of a young bride who is pressured to smile on her wedding day even as she negotiates the irrational and oppressive demands of family members and participates in social rituals that offend her sensibilities, because after all, the happiness and enjoyment of all the guests depends on her emotional state. So she pushes back all the fears, the questions, and the concerns, reapplies her lipstick and smiles.

(I wonder if perhaps there was a similar calculation happening in President Obama’s mind as Governor Romney accused him of pushing the health care bill through Congress in a dictatorial fashion in relation to Romney’s own “glowing” record of bipartisan cooperation. Did he bite his tongue and swallow back “that’s because your party has decided to completely refuse to do the work of governance in a childish bid to take back power at the expense of not only the American people, but your OWN POLICIES?” because he knew that if he forthrightly challenged Romney on that stage he would be labeled an “Angry Black Man” and accused of being divisive?)

One response to the bad rep that feminism has gotten is to propose that the new feminism is “about letting everyone live however they want.” I hear this well-intentioned notion at least once every time I ask “what does feminism mean to you?” at the beginning of introductory courses. While this idea fits nicely into our politically correct culture (it offends no one – how could it?) it also doesn’t really accomplish anything. By making the question into one of personal choice, it sidesteps the issue of structural injustice and allows the status quo to simply maintain. “Oh, you say you’re a misogynist? Well, that’s your prerogative [insert smiley face emoticon]!”

Instead, Ahmed offers a provocative (re)definition of feminism: the introduction of disturbance into this moral and gendered economy (38-9). In other words, what if instead of smiling and moving on at those moments when condescension and offense rear their ugly heads to patrol the borders of someone’s privilege, we reign in our ingrained tendency to smile, nod, and wave it off, and instead get up and shout, “YOU ARE TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR MIND IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO LET YOU GET AWAY WITH THIS OFFENSIVE BULLSH*T!!!!!”? Maybe it would have ruined the mood. Or maybe it would have led us all to question the normative expectations that have been hoisted upon us. And then maybe if I would be catching up on “Parks and Recreation” rather than writing this post.

Works Cited:

Ahmed, S. (2010). “Creating disturbance: Feminism, happiness and affective differences”. Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences. M. L. a. S. Paasonen. London, Routledge: 31-44.

Posted in Mansplaining | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Little Job

For some reason, this particular conversation has stayed with me. Not because it was the only one of its kind, but because of that phrase: “little job.” It suggested not only that everything I believed in so passionately – teaching, learning, literature – didn’t amount to all that much in terms of real world importance, but moreover, that in the final analysis it was fine that a young woman pursue such a goal because it was only a matter of time before she would have to prioritize caring for her children and household.

“Little Job”:

It must have been early summer in 2000. A welcome breeze surreptitiously entered the crowded room as someone ducked out the door to exit, a drink or two in her hands. The community clubhouse was filled to capacity with heavily perfumed women in saris and men in rumpled shirts, suit jackets having been disposed of by this point in the party. My friends and I were making our way through the group, being embraced by aunties and uncles who had known us nearly all our lives but who we hadn’t seen in the years we were away at college.

“So beta,” one such uncle began, “what are you doing now, after graduation?”

“I’ll be going to graduate school!” I beamed, just having received my coveted acceptance into a Ph.D. program in English.

“Oh, very good. What will you be studying? Medicine? Law?” he trailed off, satisfied perhaps that he had exhausted all possibilities.

“English,” I responded, still glowing with naïve pride at my hard-earned acceptance.

His face changed. “English, huh? We’ll have to watch how we talk around you!” he chuckled.

“Yeah, not grammar, English literature.” And then in an effort to regain his diminishing admiration, “I want to be an English professor.”

And that – as they say – was that. “Oh good, you’ll have a nice little job.” He patted me on the back (need I add patronizingly) and went on his way.

For some reason, this particular conversation has stayed with me. Not because it was the only one of its kind, but because of that phrase: “little job.” It suggested not only that everything I believed in so passionately – teaching, learning, literature – didn’t amount to all that much in terms of real world importance, but moreover, that in the final analysis it was fine that a young woman pursue such a goal because it was only a matter of time before she would have to prioritize caring for her children and household.

I had spent much of my life challenging just these kinds of heterosexist assumptions. My default proto-feminist position, crafted, polished, and shined as a defense against the patriarchal ideologies of womanhood I found in all the cultures in which I moved, was to declare that I simply had no interest in marriage or motherhood. Other girls may waste their afternoons fantasizing about dashing Prince Charmings, gyrating Bollywood Heroes, and lavish weddings. Not me! I was spending those same precious moments building elaborate fantasies in which I (looking suspiciously like a browner Anne of Green Gables) ventured off to Nova Scotia to attend Redmond College and later, brilliantly expounded on little known literary texts while wearing perfectly burnished tan leather boots in London.

And then ish got real. In my case, that meant graduating with a Ph.D. in English Literature during the worst economic downturn in recent history. It also meant finding an amazing partner and having two beautiful children. So now, twelve years since that damningly frustrating conversation, I find myself once again deliberating the meaning of having a “little job.”

I began lecturing part-time because of a confluence of factors: the position was only funded part-time despite initial hopes of a full-time visiting professor position and I had a new two-month old baby. Since I explicitly do not want this to be fodder for the superficial “mommy wars,” I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of working versus staying at home as if these are choices that all parents are able to make or that they are diametrically opposed. I am privileged in that, financially, my paltry pay (barely enough to cover child care for the hours I’m at work) is not a radical detriment to my family. However, after four years of teaching as an adjunct, I’ve also come to understand the exploitative nature of part-time academic work, as well as the joys of teaching and being with my children. But what I’m faced with, time and again, is the discomfiting realization that accomplishments in the classroom, hours spent advising brilliant students who are involved in meaningful activism, teaching, and study, and even publications and conference presentations do not matter to administrators nor to many prospective employers who will read the four, five, six-year position of lecturer on my CV as evidence of someone who prioritized her family over academia.

I take what I do as a lecturer very seriously, and I think my evaluations, the emails and messages I receive from students, and the rapport we have in the classroom (whether physical or online) would prove this to be true. I also take parenting very seriously, and I hope the little people we are raising will prove this to be true as well. But every time I’m reminded, “People stop looking at your CV after five years or so,” “Don’t fall into the ‘lecturer trap’!” or told, “You are so much better than this,” by those who really do care about me, not to mention, “It’s nice that you get some time out of the house,” by well-meaning people who have no damn clue what they are talking about, I am forced to confront all my fears of being circumscribed by the life choices I was expected to make and against which I fought so hard.

In the beginning I wondered if I had failed all of those who had invested so much time in my education and growth. I wondered if I had failed to live up to the feminist ideals by which I have navigated my life. How can I stand up in front of my students and talk about the ideology of separate spheres and the necessity of economic security while I am willingly taking a “little job” in order to provide care for my children in a way that is meaningful for me and keep them close to their extended family? But in fact, the other day in my Introduction to Women’s Studies class, as we discussed transfeminist Julia Serano’s call to reclaim femininity, it suddenly became clear to me that while I may have been capably teaching feminist theory all this time, I had been misapplying it to my own case and instead had thoroughly internalized the sexist dismissal of what has traditionally been considered “women’s work” that so infuses our social and economic thinking.

Sure, our society celebrates motherhood: we have a self-proclaimed “Mom-in-chief,” Mother’s Day, hell, even a genre of so-called porn just for us (IT’S SO BAD). But of course the cult of motherhood that has taken over American popular culture is a consumerist fantasy of worth that superficially covers over the reality of economic and social devaluation of caregiving and the simultaneous compulsion of heteronormativity in our culture. Although there have been significant shifts in the public culture, there remains at the root of how we understand ourselves the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres. This ideology argued that the social landscape was divided into two spheres, the public and the private. The public sphere was the world of capitalist commerce, of political participation, of government, of war, of travel, of great debates and even more radically world-changing ideas. The private sphere was the much smaller domain of the family, of religious and cultural instruction, of reproductive and domestic labor, of love. Victorians used an array biologically determinist arguments to claim that men properly belonged to the public sphere (at least propertied white men), and women to the private (although of course, large segments of racially Othered and poor white women always worked outside the home). If women ventured out of the private sphere it was for shopping, to cultivate their person, their home, and their children as indicators of the social status of their men.

It was against this mapping of gender roles onto the social landscape that white, middle-class feminists like Betty Friedan rallied so forcefully in the 1960s. (Middle-class) women were told that they were “angels in the house,” that they were valued so much by their society that they were put upon pedestals to be protected from the increasingly ugly, grueling, dirty, but oh-so-lucrative world of capitalist profit making. They were love embodied, a pure essence to offset earthly greed and ambition. They toiled and labored in the home, they sacrificed their bodies and their minds out of love for their families, to ask for compensation in dollars was crass, a violation of affective ties. But this conception of femininity was a mystique – a myth that served to undergird capital’s ruthless treatment of its workers, to control female reproduction in the interest of reproducing the middle-class social body as the true beneficiaries of the state, and to create new generations of consumers that literally bought into the ideals of the “American Dream.” Educated women should not be languishing at home, declared Friedan. They should be able to pursue the same goals as their male counterparts, to achieve the same level of monetary success and social prestige. In fact, the idea that women should be able to do what the men do still lies at the heart of Caitlin Moran’s definition of feminism in her much lauded  feminist manifesto, How to Be a Woman.

When it is discussed at all, this is what feminism is taken for in our mainstream cultural discourse. But, is that really all it is: trying to get what (middle-class, straight) men have historically had access to? Surely there must be more than that, for as bell hooks reminds us in Feminism is for Everybody, the reason why so many working-class, poor, queer women/of color never took up the mantle of feminism was that it seemed to be about a bunch of middle-class women trying to attain the privileges their men had, at the expense of everyone else, whose labor would still be needed to do all the things that these women were no longer willing to do. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild talk about the new sexual division in our society as being organized by race and geography. We like to pride ourselves here in the U.S. that we have achieved gender equality, but the reality is that we still organize work in a hierarchical manner, with affective (that is, body-centered, emotional) labor at the bottom and salaried professional labor (mind-centered) at the top. As middle-class women move into salaried jobs, they are still held accountable for what happens at home. In order to fulfill the double responsibilities of home and work, they hire mostly poor, migrant women of color to do the so-called women’s work in the home: caring for children and the elderly, making meals, and cleaning the home.

Let me be clear: I am one of these middle-class women. My partner is equally committed to the responsibilities of the home, but because he works full time, I rely on other women to care for my children when I’m working outside of the home, and to clean the house twice a month so that I can be freed up to lesson plane, grade, and write while at home. I strive to honor and value these women, but as a society we all fail to do so. Domestic workers are among the most invisible and exploited workers in our economy. And just over the weekend, our California governor, Jerry Brown, vetoed a domestic workers bill that would have secured this mostly female labor force with some of the same safety measures afforded other workers.

By and large, says Julia Serano, feminists have accepted those behaviors, practices, and types of labor associated with masculinity as their de facto ideal. She writes with great passion about the trivialization and targeting of transwomen within both feminist and queer circles as well within the society at large for being somehow inauthentic or dupes to patriarchal norms, what she calls “trans-misogeny.”

“It is commonplace for people in the straight mainstream as well as within our queer and feminist circles to presume the feminine gender expression is more frivolous, artificial, impractical, and manipulative than masculine gender expression and those of us who dress or act femininely are likely to be more tame, fragile, dependent, and immature than our masculine or ‘gender-neutral’ counterparts” (“Reclaiming Femininity,” 170).

We can see this so easily in society: why is it that we applaud little girls who would rather play sports than play with dolls, but reprimand boys who would rather dress up in high heels and makeup than play rough and tumble outside? Femininity continues to be the denigrated, whether through the dismissal of “femme skills,” like makeup application and stylizing as trivial and unauthentic (as explained in a brilliant post by Marianne), or the dismissal of caregiving in the home by parents of any gender as mindless, easy, or “not really working.” What if we took up Serano and Marianne’s call to rethink how we understand femininity? Not as tied to particular bodies defined by sex and gender but rather by traits, affinities, pleasures, and practices? Julia Serano is writing specifically about the particular history, positioning, and exclusion of transwomen within mainstream society as well as feminism, and I am concerned about co-opting her theorization for the purposes of working through my own heteronormative, middle-class issues. But I firmly believe that the type of feminism that I aspire to has much to gain from reading radical black feminists like hooks along with transfeminists like Serano, and that more selfishly, I have a lot to learn about how I value the various kinds of labor in which I am engaged.

Can I come to realize that many of my misgivings about the choices I have made to engage in part-time work while raising my young children are a product of socialization to value what a patriarchal, capitalist society has told us we should value (ambition, financially profit, and intellectual labor), at the expense of all of those practices we intuitively know make a lasting impact in peoples’ lives (listening, teaching, learning from, caring, loving, nurturing, feeding, playing)? How we prove that value as a society (through monetary compensation, through governmental benefits, through a re-energized social safety net?) is something we need to work on, immediately. How I prove the value of my “little job(s)” to myself is something that’s going to take me a while to figure out. In fact, by the end of this post, I’m questioning it all over again…

Dedicated to Jennifer Terry and Laura Kang who understood all of this long before I did.

Works Cited:

Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy,” Globalization: The Transformation of Social Worlds, Eds. D. Stanley Eitzen and Maxine Baca Zinn (Wadsworth Publishing, 3d edition, 2011): 188.

bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: A Passionate Politics (MA: Southend Press, 2000).

Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman (Harper Collins, 2012).

Julia Serano, “Reclaiming Femininity,” Transfeminist Perspectives: In and Beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, ed. Anne Enke (Temple UP, 2012): 170-83.

Marianne, “I’m Tired of Apologizing for Liking Girl Stuff (i.e. Femme Skills),” XO Jane (Feb. 27, 2012): http://www.xojane.com/issues/why-i-talk-about-makeup.

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The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

“The Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” published in Little India Magazine. An essay about mothers and daughters, glamour, and growing up Indian American.

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Creating an online learning environment

Last semester I taught online for the first time. Online learning is clearly one of the biggest trends in higher education. While it does not present itself as the optimum medium for the kinds of hands on teaching and learning we do in the Humanities classroom, there are many ways you can use platforms like Moodle to create a classroom environment that is dynamic and collaborative. Check out this short introduction to my award-winning “Gender and Globalization” course currently featured on CSUF’s Online Academic Strategies and Instructional Support website!

Titanium Tutorial

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My Last Day as a Professor

Prof. Lilith Mahmud and me with the dynamic and brilliant Gender and Sexuality Studies class of 2014! They gifted me my very own stole since I will be leaving campus along with them.

Today is my last day of teaching as a professor. As an adjunct professor to be more specific. In my classes, we talk a lot about invisibility and its effects. Within the university system today, adjunct faculty are made invisible, thereby further reinforcing their marginalization even as their labor becomes increasingly critical to the daily activity of teaching students. Some of us are invisible in hospitals, choosing to suffer in pain because we cannot afford to see the doctor; some of us are the invisible homeless, living in our cars because we cannot afford any other shelter; some of us are invisible on campus because we don’t have an office in which to meet students; some of us are invisible on the schedule because we don’t find out if and what we are teaching until two weeks before classes begin; some of us are invisible at conferences and in the pages of scholarly journals because we cannot afford to pay out of pocket to fund our own professional development. Contingency is always already the logic by which our labor is deciphered by the university: we are presumed provisional and denied those resources and opportunities which would allow us to be anything but. However, there is one space in which we are not invisible – the classroom.

There are many voices challenging the structural inequities of adjunct instructors (now around 75% of college faculty in the U.S.), and doing a much better job than I ever could. What I want to do is to challenge the university’s devaluation of the work of teaching. When the department in which I’ve taught the past five years hired two new tenure-track faculty, the administration would not accept a case for my continued employment. The university was telling me that despite its emphasis on enrollment numbers and peer and student evaluations, my work ultimately had no value. It was a feeling that I initially internalized, spending nights chastising myself for going to graduate school, for electing to carve out full time work at multiple campuses so I could be a part of my young children’s lives, for continuing to be complicit in my own exploitation for so many years.

In one of my nightly bouts, I remembered an evening, nearly four years ago now, when a concerned and beloved mentor warned me that adjunct teaching would never amount to a career. She suggested that I eschew teaching to focus exclusively on (unpaid) research as a strategy for eventually landing a tenure-track job making myself more attractive on the job market. Thinking back on that moment, I realized that while she was exactly right and despite the perhaps inevitable outcome, I was proud that I had chosen to earn the (little) income that I did working with students on a daily basis. When I look back on these past five years, I see that I have been transformed by the interactions I have had with the incredible people with whom I have shared the space of a classroom. Indeed the transformative potential of the classroom goes far beyond its physical borders, and – in its best iterations – affects the totality of one’s relation to the world.


I ❤ whiteboards.

In its ideal form teaching is more than mundane components like key terms, exam writing, fielding emails, and grading. I have sought to approach each class session as a potential – a time and space in which we construct together an assemblage of ideas, methods, and possibilities that none of us could have predicted beforehand, and that will change each of us in ways that often are only evident long after the material components of the assemblage have come apart again. All the components an instructor brings to class – the course goals, the readings, the concepts, even the prompts – are living entities that can shift and change directions in the encounter with students’ engagement with class materials, with one another, and with the instructor. Indeed, it is through the generosity of my students, more so than any training in graduate school, that I learned how to teach.

My very first upper division Women’s Studies course was on a topic with which I had only tangential familiarity. I approached the course with trepidation but found in my class a group of young people whose commitment to a dialectical relationship between theory and activism helped me understand more fully the stakes of what we were learning. Their attention to the lived realities of the marginalized and abjected, their willingness to share their own scholarly and material transitions, and their generosity with a new professor, shaped the way I understood and practiced both learning and pedagogy.


Some of our incredible students, after giving their final research presentations before graduating in June 2013.

Of course, not every class has the magic. There were students whom I just couldn’t reach, classes that weren’t as memorable, moments in which I lost my energy. But when engaged students came together with the right materials and the right questions, a tangible connection formed among the members of the class and it was profound. One such class was “The Politics of Style” in Spring 2012. I had been wanting to teach this class since I saw it on the books six years before, and when I finally got the chance I poured myself into its preparation. For all my planning, however, it was the students who brought a visceral excitement and energy to the class, using the topic of style to interrogate and intervene in the social positioning of bodies, globalized circuits of desire, the fraught relationship between consumption and production, and their own lived realities as subjects navigating their way through a minefield of privilege and oppression. The students so touched one another that when one of them, Christien, left us the following year, many of the classmates who had only known him through our class came back to Irvine for his memorial.

In fact, it was Christien who shared with me the essay that would come to express how I attempt to teach and live, in a chance encounter at the lunch tables one sunny afternoon. Christien, as was his way, was thrilled with what he was reading in one of his classes, and so excitedly shared it with me. The essay was Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic.” In it, Lorde argues that since modernity, power as domination has come to replace other, older forms of relational power, which become feminized and devalued as the pornographic. We have been taught to misrecognize the ineffable, nonrational power to touch and be touched and to be affected by others (human and nonhuman), as not only a weakness, but as nothing more than “the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation” of pornographic sexuality. Lorde reconceptualizes the erotic as a radical opening out of oneself to the world, a making vulnerable of the self in order to feel more strongly and to touch more deeply. The erotic is radical in its power to transform through a relationality that cannot be captured by dominant logics of sex and labor. She writes:

The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society is to encourage excellence…

This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.

For me, this endeavor is teaching. Practicing openness and making oneself radically vulnerable is not only scary, it is the opposite of what we are taught to do within the logic of the contemporary university (and society more generally). Our marginalization, meager pay and lack of job security, along with the attacks on professors by students and the administration’s refusal to back up even tenured professors, all contribute to a culture of paranoia and enmity (among administration and faculty, among tenure-track faculty and adjuncts, among professors and students). Even when we manage to maintain our commitment to our students (and we do), the university seeks to capture this affective relationship and use it to further exploit us when we ask for fair wages or better conditions with the reprimand that “we are doing this for the students and not the money.”  Just as the practitioners of modernity gutted the erotic and sold us the pornographic, administrators attempt to gut the material and affective conditions of teaching and sell us “passion.”


The students teaching us.

And yet, despite all of the university’s attempts to devalue the actual teaching and learning that happens in classrooms, students and teachers find that their work together over the course of a mere ten weeks has the potential to be utterly transformative. I am grateful that my very last class was a course on “queer history making” in which we learned to refuse the imperative of progress that demands from us our labor and then judges it against an abstract criteria of “success” and “value” that benefits capital but does not nurture us in return. I realize that after seven years of graduate school and five years of teaching I may have failed according to the paradigm of academic success. But I will look back on the past five years and focus on the hundreds of students and the brilliant graduate student teaching associates who have shaped my intellectual interests, my pedagogical methods, and the way I understand the world and whose own thinking and choices have been shaped by our work together.  I have no idea what is next. But I do know that the work I did with them these past five years matters and in that I am going to rest, even if just for this moment.

I am honored to have worked with such dedicated teaching associates and students

I am honored to have worked with such dedicated teaching associates and students.

I'm honored to have worked with some of the most dedicated teaching associates and students. Saying goodbye this afternoon.

Saying goodbye this afternoon.

Posted in Academia, Pedagogy | Tagged , , , | 28 Comments