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