Dec 20, 2010

Teaching in....

The exchanges below happened in December when a Clark student wrote to me for help on an assignment. My initial response was shock and anger. But some better part of me appeared and prevailed for the length of the exchange. Subsequently, I had some exchanges with her and with her instructor. I’m sharing them below. I don’t know that they served the purpose of disrupting their initial positions, positions that I think arise from the misplaced notion of the US’s manifest destiny as world saviors, which when contested is often replaced by equally problematic cultural relativism. One of the many things I would like to write then would be a fully critique of these positions which would then be linked to a critique of liberalism. But for the moment, I think these represent examples of engaging in politics without guarantees. I’ve deleted the names of the student and the instructor.

On 12/12/10 2:38 PM, student@clark wrote:

Hello Dr. Asher,

My name is .... and I am a first year student here at Clark University. I am writing a research paper under the guidance of Professor on the topic of honor killings. An honor killing is a murder committed against a women in the family who has brought dishonor or shame. The murder then restores the family honor. This paper is due Thursday, December 16. With your expertise in international development and social change, and gender studies, I was wondering if you would conduct an email interview with me? If you could answer just a few questions:

1. Is there a possibility for social change to come in the countries, such as Turkey, that practice these honor killings? 
2. Is it detrimental to the development of these countries to turn a blind eye to the crime that is in front of them?
3. Why is it that women are primary targets?
4. Are there any other countries that have stepped into under-developed countries to assist in domestic violence issues in the past?
5. Do you believe that honor killings are detrimental to a society's progress? 

Thank you very much in advance,
Name of student

From: Kiran/Asher
Date: Sun, 12 Dec 2010 15:35:21 -0500

Dear student

I don't know about "honor killings being detrimental to society" --that's a large claim, but I do believe that making generic claims about them is detrimental to how Clark undergraduates learn to engage the world. So before I respond to your questions, I'd like you to answer a few of mine. What is your class about and in what department is the class? Who is Professor ? I don't see her/his name on the list of our faculty. And what are the parameters of the assignment? What is the argument of your paper? Do you have your Professor's permission to conduct this "interview"? What is the background work that you have already done for this topic? How does this interview constitute the "data" for your paper? How did you come up with these questions (which I find very problematic)? How exactly do you think my "expertise" is relevant to your work? Could you send me a draft of your paper for me to assess whether I should answer your questions. Will you attribute my words, or where you going to cite me anonymously?




On 12/12/10 4:06 PM, student@clark wrote:

Dear Dr. Asher,

I am in an expository writing class in the interdisciplinary department. Professor xyz is the professor and she did give us all permission to conduct interviews. If you would like to contact her, her email address is  … The assignment is to write a research paper on a topic  that has been assigned to us. My topic is honor killings and I have done  research on the background and statistical data of honor killings in the  United States and in other countries. My thesis is that these honor  killings take away basic human rights from the women who are targeted.  From this interview, I would use one or two direct quotes, and cite you to  add strength to my argument. I came up with these questions based on my  knowledge of the topic, and what points I believe are relevant to my  paper. Looking on the Clark University faculty page, I came across your  profile and saw that you were the Associate Professor of International  Development and Social Change. In my paper, I discuss how some societies  and police organizations handle these crimes and I believe that  development and social aspects are critical to the honor killings. I have  attached my first draft of my paper to this email for your review. I hope  that I have answered all of your questions. Thank you very much.


From: Kiran Asher
Sent: Sunday, December 12, 2010 5:46 PM

Dear Student@clark

Thank you for providing me with more context on your assignment. Here are my responses. They are not exactly responses to your questions because as I said earlier I think that the questions you ask are problematic, and my
hunch is some of those problems arise at least partly from the way the assignment question is posed. That is why I asked you for the parameters of the assignment. What for example constitutes "research" for your paper? For example, the few sources (I did not see the citations) that you mobilize in your draft would not be acceptable as valid sources in my fields. They are more opinion pieces and from what I read of your draft it reads like an opinion piece. Now there is nothing wrong with opinions except when they are taken as universal truths or when unsubstantiated claims are seen as evidence of "truth."

I see ... is a related problem with your questions, and the over generalized claims you make in your paper. For example, in the first two paragraphs you make broad statements about Muslims societies and Muslim women with
almost no citations or supporting evidence. ["Racism" is a loaded term but you should be aware that it could be applied to many of the claims you are making or mobilizing. But Eurocentric certainly.] Nor do you give your reader any sense of why they should be particularly concerned about "honor killings" or why these are more "human rights" issues than say
lynching of blacks before civil rights, the killing of Mathew Sheppard, the dragging and killing of James Byrd, Jr. in Paris, Texas, the bullying and subsequent suicide of gay teens in the US, the rape of women by US soldiers in the many wars that the country has waged, the genocide of American Indians, the holding of prisoners without accusation or trials in Guantanamo; the US strategy - supported by US feminists of targeting African American and Puerto Rican women for forced sterilization. I can list a whole lot of other examples. Please do not misunderstand me, I am neither justifying nor condemning "honor killings." Rather I am asking you as a writer to contextualize the topic of "honor killing" as
particularly "human rights" worthy. I am also asking you a researcher to interrogate or think about your role in examining this topic. So these two paragraphs are necessary precursors to any response I might give or that you might cite in your paper. My responses to your questions are in blue.

1. Is there a possibility for social change to come in the countries, such
as Turkey, that practice these honor killings?
I would say this question is too broad. Also why "Turkey"? What do you mean by "social change"? In what context? A counter question would be, Is there a possibility of changing the way you think about "issues" such as "honor killing" (See for example Uma Narayan's essay on dowry murders in India and Domestic Violence in the US in her book "Dislocating Cultures," or the many essays in Ella Shohat's book "Talking Visions"

2. Is it detrimental to the development of these countries to turn a blind eye to the crime that is in front of them?
What do you mean by the terms "these countries"? "development"? What is "the crime"? According to whom? How do you know that "they" turn a "blind eye" to it?

3. Why is it that women are primary targets?
This is an interesting question and there is a vast literature in feminist studies about why women are particular targets of violence in many "cultures" including in the United States. You may also want to think about how the "race," "class" "sexuality" "nationality" and "culture" of the "Women" whose conditions you wish to interrogate. For a particularly visual take on this, take a look at the videos put out by the Media Education Foundation ""

4. Are there any other countries that have stepped into under-developed countries to assist in domestic violence issues in the past?
I believe one justification for the US war on Afghanistan war is that the "US" claims to want to "rescue" Afghani women. There is a vast literature on the colonial and current fantasties and practices of "rescuing brown women from brown men while visiting violence on brown women themselves." [Kiran’s note for blog: this clearly comes from Spivak] Also if the issue is "domestic"(to the US) than should other countries intervene? What would be the justification for such interventions?

5. Do you believe that honor killings are detrimental to a society's progress?
I believe that violence of any kind is detrimental to societies all over the world. Indeed, the modern notion of "progress" involves figuring out "nonviolent" solutions to societyal problems. Yet violence is all around us. So I would answer this question with the suggestion: Contextualize your question and your topic.

I hope you find my responses useful. They may be more or different than what you bargained for but please know that I am engaging you and your task seriously. The first two paragraphs of this message and my approaches to my field contextualize my responses. I hope you will let me see a draft of your paper and check in with me about the accuracy of how you represent my positions. I would also like to receive the final version of your paper if you wouldn't mind sharing it with me. Finally, please do come by and talk to me during my office hours this semester or next. Better still consider taking one or more IDSC classes. There are several (including Culture, Health and Development) where you will get to critically engage issues such as the one you explore in your final paper.




On 12/12/10 9:05 PM, instructor@clark wrote:

Dear Dr. Asher,

Thank you for your very thoughtful and challenging response to my student … questions. At this busy time of the semester, I truly appreciate that you devoted so much time and consideration to the needs of a student who was not enrolled in one of your classes.

As a bit of background about the paper -- students were encouraged to draw on both scholarly and popular sources when researching, and the ultimate goal was to craft a paper that would both inform and influence their peers (first drafts of these papers were presented in class) about an unfamiliar issue. As part of their research, I required the students to obtain an email interview with a person who could add authority and weight to their paper. A transcript of that interview would've been required at the final turn-in so that I could verify that the student had kept their interviewee's comments accurate to the original context of the statement. This was part of ongoing instruction about correct and thoughtful uses of quoted material.

I am sorry that you found questions problematic -- as her instructor in Expository Writing, I certainly take all the blame for that, and will work harder in the future to help my students craft and refine their questions.

All best,


From: Kiran/Asher
Date: Mon, 13 Dec 2010 15:34:17 -0500

Dear instructor@clark

Thank you for your note. Student@clark’s response to my first set of questions and yours below help me understand her assignment and contextualize her questions. Without those I really had little reason to respond to such a request for various reasons including the fact that all of us are busy at all points in the semester. If you ask your students to reach out to faculty “experts” for interviews (though I don’t think it is a very good idea for a research paper – better to read our work first) it would be useful if the students provide a clear sense of the parameters of their writing task. Having had those parameters I would still find ’s topic and questions problematic for the reasons I outline in my response to her (which is shamefully riddled with typos). I would not have responded to them had I succumbed to my first reactions to her message. Among them was anger at the topic and the questions posed. But I also wondered —why is the student asking me questions over email? Does she want to plagiarize? Why should I respond to a perfect stranger? Why was the writer assuming that I shared her prejudices? Why did she think I should give her my time at the end of the semester is crazy busy for all of us? Or indeed at any time? But perhaps the lull in the cold brought out my better side.

I wonder rather than asking the students to recraft the questions, perhaps you may want to recraft the assignment? I am not a writing instructor so I don’t now but let me outline some of my thoughts on why I think so. As a social science teacher and an engaged citizen of the world, I find that no matter how unfamiliar a topic, students (or indeed any of us) come to it with prior assumptions. In my parlance it means all topics are political. But the assumptions or parameters of that politics are not necessarily shared. This is not an issue of “cultural” differences or cultural relativism. As someone who teaches about the “third world,” one of my many challenges is how to work with students so that they engage the unfamiliar beyond what they already know. How can we recognize and communicate our assumptions and the passions that the seemingly unfamiliar topics generate? It seems to me that is a common pitfall (or hubris if I want to use a strong word), to want to intervene without understanding. Again I am not talking about “cultural determinism” but politics. I find the challenge is not just in student (or indeed our) writing but also in the “knowing,” the “learning” and the “research.” This then is linked to the issue of the authority of sources, of what represents what, and to whom. These are some of the assumptions I brought to my reading and response to student@clark’s questions. But without my articulating them, my responses would be uncontextualized “expertise” on a topic about which I don’t know anything specific but which evokes my passion, albeit for different reasons that it may in others. Such passions can have dangerous effects.

There’s lots more I can say. But I think this is long enough! Good luck and happy holidays


Jul 25, 2010

On race and diversity in my workplace

It seems that at the end of every academic year, the tensions that are always, already present in the Department erupt to the surface. Students and faculty write, talk and attempt to communicate. And then the summer comes and de facto aids in the Department's "image and tension management." By the beginning of the new academic year, only whispers and rumors remain of what occurred only a few months ago.
What happened in April-May of 2009 was similar, and yet different. One of the two women faculty of color in the Department left her job. She was a smart and loving person who, during the six years she was visiting faculty in the IDCE Department, had worked hard to try to make it "put its money where its mouth is" regarding "diversity" and social change. It was an uphill climb and she was much-loved, especially by the students of color for her consistent climbs and for her solidarity and support of so many struggles. In 2009, she resigned in protest at what she saw (and I concur) as the Department's lack of commitment to its mission and its claims of social change. The resignation was seen as a bomb blast and there was a flurry of activity including several email exchanges among faculty and students (staff tend not to be put on the communication lists). Many alums wrote in to ask about what was going on, and many of us wrote yet again about the racism in the Department. Others wrote to denounce us. I cannot post all of those exchanges (though I circulated them among faculty, staff, students and alums in an attempt to keep a semblance of discussion alive). Needless to say the euphemism of "diversity" replaced any discussion of race and racism and by Fall 2010, the issue was considered dead as the Cold War after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Below I post what I wrote while on sabbatical in India. Perhaps a conversation may yet emerge....

------ Forwarded Message
From: Kiran/Asher
Date: Wed, 29 Apr 2009 16:56:21 +0530
Conversation: To IDCE students and alums
Subject: To IDCE students and alums

Dear IDCE students and alums

This is a “personal,” (in both senses of the term) message inspired by the message from current students and the one from alums, regarding Miriam Chion’s departure, and about the separate but related issue of “race” and “diversity” at IDCE and Clark.

Over a decade ago, as I was leaving graduate school someone gave me a button which read “Silence is the voice of complicity.” I’ve long lost the physical button, dull gray metal with the words in purple. However, the message though inscribed in my memory came home to me again on reading these exchanges. Thank you IDCE students for not being silent. Thank you for speaking thoughtfully, reflexively and respectfully. Thank you for asking questions so that others too may speak, and thus open possibility of hearing each other (however painful our messages). In short, thank you for communicating.

There is so much that is remarkable about your messages – that you organized collectively to bring together alums across time zones and programs, and current students who are surely in depths of trying to finish their first year or to graduate; that you do not assume that there aren’t differences between and among you; that you came out not only to show your love and respect for a beloved teacher and mentor but also to draw attention to the frightening four-word elephant in the room which includes the IDCE department, Clark University (indeed the country). Of course, these spaces are not unique in having “racial” issues among their/our midst. Given that “race” is one form of power, and power is exerted across history and space, this issue exists across the world. But it is not everywhere the same, nor is it necessarily manifested and dealt with in the same way everywhere, or ignored as it tends to be in our spaces. So what is remarkable is that you are trying to make that issue visible in those spaces so that “we” (here I mean ALL of us) can DO something about it in our spaces. I’m not sure that the “Undoing Racism” workshop is a good vehicle for such doing in a Department where “marked” bodies are such a small minority but who may be called on to make the “unmarked” bodies see what they don’t want to see. And the “unmarked” bodies feel resentful at having to be made to see. At the end of such exercises, I leave feeling more lacerated and more unsafe than at the start of these things. By this I don’t mean to say, “let’s not do anything,” rather I mean that this is addressing (undoing) power and privilege is tricky business and the burden of that trick should not fall on the minority.

That is, it will require speaking, hearing and communicating not by making power absent but by grappling with how shapes us and speaks us differently even as we try to speak against it. This message is already too long, too dense and possibly self indulgent. But as I sit alone in the sweltering heat of New Delhi on the last day of the longest trip “home” in two decades, the only thing that makes me want to get on that flight to the US is that I return to my compañero, friends, and the knowledge that I must take this opportunity (opened by Miriam and all of you students) to build a community-in-exile (and here I think we are all in exile from somewhere and someone).

Before this gets longer and denser let me end by saying that I am struggling to communicate with my colleagues and students. Communicate not in general, but specifically about the issue of race and power. This communication is hard for many many reasons not the least of which is that I find email to be an inadequate (though necessary) means of communication. Communication with my colleagues is hard because over the years we have a history of speaking, (non)hearing, and silence which means risking (more for some than others) the possibility of more misunderstanding and marginalization. I’ll risk making this already-long message longer and append (in blue) my part from an earlier exchanged inspired by a Clark faculty’s posting of Peggy McIntosh’s words (attached). Like most of my communiqués on the faculty list, this one met with silence (except from one self-described curmudgeon who is retired and responds to EVERY message on the faculty list). Communication with “students” is no less complicated as “power” in its myriad forms, including racial ones will crosscut both the form and contents of our conversation. No wonder we balk at tackling that elephant, or approach like the five blindfolded men of the children’s fable. But approach it we must – it’s the least IDCE and Clark can do to honor Miriam Chion’s work and time here.


Kiran Asher
Associate Professor of Int'l Dev't & Social Change (IDSC) and Women's Studies

Spring 2010 Sabbatical fun!

Spring 2010, the second semester of my sabbatical was fun and busy. Here are some of the things I was doing.

April 14-18, 2010. Gender and Environment: Critical Tradition and New Challenges (Panelist), and ‘What do we mean by ‘critical’? “Critical Geographies of Latin America and the Caribbean, Part 3 (Discussant). Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). Washington DC.

April 10, 2010. “Ethics and Ontologies of Gender Research, Locating the Researcher.” Panelist and workshop leader at conference Rethinking Gender, Power, and Resistance in Latin America and Asia. University of Pittsburg, Pittsburgh, PA.

April 2-3, 2010. “Reading Black/Afro-descendant feminisms: Notes for a Latin American Postcolonial Politics of Difference.” Paper presented at the Symposium on Black/Afro-descendant feminisms in the Americas. University of Massachusetts (UMASS), Amherst, MA

Mar 13, 2010. “Thinking across Borders: A Disciplinary Nomad’s Reflections on Ecology and Society.” Invited Keynote address at the Uppsala-New Delhi Ecology and Society Network’s workshop, Understanding Global Environmental Change: The South Asian Challenge. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India.

Mar 3-5, 2010. “Are Disciplines masculine? Some reflections on methods, geography and gender.” Plenary address at conference Contextualising Geographical Approaches to Studying Gender In Asia. University of Delhi, New Delhi.

Feb 25, 2010. (with Mónica Amador). “Rethinking Latin America Beyond the Romance of Resistance.” Invited talk for the Open Thinkers Forum, JNU, New Delhi.

February 17, 2010. “W(h)ither Progress and Development?: Some postcolonial reflections on Science and Social Change.” Invited talk at the Center for the Study of Science Policy Colloquium. JNU, New Delhi.

Jul 23, 2010

On power and privilege at Clark University

Clark is a classic liberal arts college community in New England. There is a faculty listserv for discussions. But few discussions happen online and when they do, it is usually the same three or four male faculty who talk to each other. Every once in a while something comes up -- like a discussion in 2007 about marriage (gay and straight), and something led me to think about power and privklege. And so I posted what I share below on that listserv. I used to lament the absence of dialogues and discussions online. But having seen and experienced the ones that occur, I'm disgusted and silent as I trying to find what lies beyond the binaries of silent complicity and pointless babble, between the personal and the political. My favorite social theorist and the one I consider my mentor would say "aporias"...

----- Original Message -----
From: Kiran Asher
Sent: 4/14/2007 9:04:18 AM
Subject: A message with ...

Dear xxxxx:

Thank you so very much for both your contributions. I was going to thank you in a private email. But since the early exchanges around this discussion of “marriage” sounded very much like a private conversation being had in public, I thank you in public/private. The ambiguous boundaries between those categories serves to remind me of my conversations with feminist mothers and sisters. What I do hope unambiguously is that these exchanges generated a good audience for the panel that NK organized, especially among those of us who were deeply invested in the conversations.


xxxx’s message below also helps me establish another partial connection with the previous thread. Power and privilege do not disappear √ not in the world and not at Clark. They take different forms and often become “invisibilized.” I am glad that folks at Clark are not called “*%&^” to their faces for their race, gender, sexual orientation, political beliefs, nationality, or religion (or lack thereof). But the question is how many people think it and more importantly WHY? As a daughter of Marx and Freud, I would ask how those thoughts and fears get manifested and are part of structured inequalities? As a daughter of Foucault and Spivak, I would ask what doesn’t get noticed and what are the effects of that invisibility? [Yes, I have been reading Haraway recently-- the Companion Species Manifesto --which has much to teach us about love and compassion]. So my contribution to the conversation is to ask those ≥meta questions≈ (I≠m not sure that that is the correct analytical term but I am sure that one of you will correct me). Let us not delude ourselves into believing the myths of liberal equality or denying that masculinist, heterosexist, white, liberal logic prevails in our hallowed halls. Or rather I cannot delude myself into believing the myths of liberal equality.

I end with ... more ≥appendages≈ - a poem by Audre Lorde you≠ll see how it fits with the discussion of privilege, and the other poem ...(omitted here).



Audre Lorde (1970)

There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.

But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see cause in color
as well as sex.

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.

Feb 2, 2010

In New Delhi again...

I'm back in New Delhi and busy thinking, doing, experiencing many things. For me sitting at a dhaba on the JNU campus is a much better way to connect with people than blogging. Still, I see how it can serve as an useful tool and an having my personal webpage set up and once that happens maybe then this space may become more active.