Guest author: A Modest Proposal or Being an Expat Professor in the Middle East

A friend of a friend got in touch with me – she had read this website and was wondering if she might submit a piece which she had written in the depths of despair, but of course could never make public under her own name. We (royal we) agreed as we believe in 1) snark and 2) supporting other women. Her life is very different from mine but I think her tone fits within the Etiquette Central worldview and we (royal we) have decided to make her an honorary diva (and have edited it slightly to add more expressive details).

Once upon a time a researcher published an article that everyone loved. It became very famous, spawned a catch-phrase, was turned into a book and generally made the author a “name.” That article costs $15, which is not much money unless it is the 12th article you have had to buy this month to do research on your topic.

Sometimes someone turns a famous article into a pdf and puts on their webpage (gratitude unending to those merciful souls) or an author takes pity and sticks in on their webpage (the blessings of thousands of impoverished scholars rain on you like falling petals). But sometimes there is no compassion; the world is bleak, empathy is scarce, the winds are howling and you pony up another wad of hard-earned cash to keep a basic level of competence in your field.

There are mentions of people like me in academia, the people who have to pay for every article, book, conference registration, organization membership and travel to primary sources out of their own pocket. These mentions are usually found in pleas by organizations to donate funds so that scholars can attend conferences. This is nice, but not nearly enough.

Trying to be an academic on the periphery creates all sorts of tensions. Some are small, such as articles and book reviewers suggesting that I have my work copy-edited. I am a native speaker of English; I wrote a 400 page thesis in English with nary a word of complaint from anyone who read it. But since I have non-English first and last names and live in a non-English speaking country, it is taken from granted that I must need a little extra help.

Some tensions are significant. I had the joy of having a book accepted at Routledge. I submitted it in late spring 2021. Since the book’s publication six months later, I have not heard a word from them. Over 14 months of zero communication about how many copies sold and zero payment. May the cars of every member of their royalties team have their cars shat upon continuously by incontinent seagulls and may all the CFO team be blessed with outbreaks of boils and piles so ferocious that they are unable to sit down.

But some of the difficulties of life as an academic in a periphery country are so intertwined that it’s hard to explain them piecemeal; one has to look at the whole interwoven tapestry of a professor’s life.

So I have a modest proposal for academics in upper echelon universities and colleges. This simple proposition explains how they might, without leaving their home institutions, live as I do, and thus begin to understand some of the complexities of being a researcher/ writer/ teacher in the non-first-world. This humble plan requires a few easy adjustments on the part of the academic, as well as a few other participants.

First, every semester the teacher (T) must be given four different courses with at least 30 students each; the courses must either be changed every semester or T must come up with a whole new syllabus (new readings, new assignments, etc.). There must be at least 2 long written assignments and 2 exams, as well as weekly written homework for each class. And no TA or assistance in grading of any kind. T must be in the office 6 or 7 hours every day, without fail, and the office door must be open at all times.

Now here is where I ask for support from T’s educational community. First, all T’s students should come to T’s office. Often. They can come to ask questions or just stick their head in, look at A, yell “Hi” or giggle, then run away. They should come to tell good news, or bad news, or discuss another class or ask T personal questions. Other students should also drop by to ask T to print out something for them, where another teacher’s office is, where the cafeteria is or for T to explain information presented in a different class. T’s colleagues should also stop by to chat and complain. If possible, everyone should work hard so that T is interrupted at least every 10 minutes.

T must appear welcoming and effervescent at all times. If T ever appears less than pleased to see anyone, that person must immediately sit down and repeatedly ask T, “is everything ok?” And persist in the questioning until T convinces the interlocular that T is perfectly calm.

As for scholarly assistance, T may use a printer at work, but only printers that are NOT in T’s office i.e., T must get up and walk to another office. T may use a copy machine but, again, only if T gets up and walks to another office to use it. The copy machine can’t have any special features (such as stapling) and no one else may ever make copies for T.

T may not use any library unless it is on-line and open access. T can buy, from personal budget, any book but it must arrive by mail and once it arrives T may not open the package for 3 weeks to simulate the time it takes for mail to arrive in non-first world countries. T should also hand over any boxes to several small children to play with (preferably jumping up and down on the boxes) before opening. T must pay for or find a free copy on-line of any article. (T can also plead with friends to send pdf copies, but this can only be done sparingly, perhaps 2 articles every few months.)

A few other details. T must be neatly and conservatively dressed at all times, not just when teaching but on weekends, when running errands and visiting friends. At no time may T ever display any anger or frustration in public. Cursing or yelling of any kind is out of the question.

I would also ask for a modicum of assistance from T’s neighbors and fellow citizens: please greet T at every possible opportunity. Please do not indulge in a short salute or discuss the weather, but stand your ground and inquire into T’s health, the health of every member of T’s family, T’s job and T’s future plans. As mentioned above for members of T’s academic community, if T displays the smallest smidgen of impatience, double-down. Ask all the same questions again and add more questions about “how are you really doing?” Do not allow T to leave the conversation until T is displaying every sign of equilibrium and patience.

Create this framework around you and then publish several scholarly articles every year.

J. S.