Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lessons from MESA 2012: On Using Accessible Language

I was fortunate to attend MESA 2012 these last few days, and the so-many things that I learned from it, along with my overall experience and impression of the conference, are I think very much worth sharing on my blog.

First, an overview of MESA. MESA stands for the Middle East Studies Association. So the MESA has an annual conference that takes place at a different location each year. Next year, inshaAllah, it is scheduled to be in Louisiana. The association states that:
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is a non-political association that fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom.
The presidential address, aside from a potentially problematic and highly troubling comment made about the acclaimed French scholar Derrida, discussed the corporatization of academia and academics—e.g., who gets replaced by whom and why, who gets tenure-track positions and why, who’s “important” and who’s not and why, and so on. As I will discus momentarily, the address also emphasized the notion of “access” by the public and “non-experts” to issues related to Islam, Muslims, the Middle East, Muslim regions.

One of the most important themes that kept appearing throughout the conference was access to the public. You know how Judith Butler’s work is often easily dismissed as inaccessible to the public because her writing is too difficult for anyone to understand— sometimes even for scholars and students who study her work and are familiar with her theories? Yeah, like that. (The president said something similar about Derrida’s work—that Derrida, but it was more than a dismissal of his scholarly abilities. But let’s not talk about that.) So the idea was to remind students, scholars, academics, and researchers that we need to:
1) be clear and concise when talking about our research, studies, scholarship, and intentions with the public. Our audience is important; we need to be able to know how to talk to them, how to discuss our work with them and how to explain to them why what we do is important, why it matters, what kind of a difference we hope to make with it, and so on. It’s not enough to be an intellectual—it’s also important to be a public intellectual.
2) be careful about our phraseology. Again, we need to keep our audience in mind. We need to talk to them in a language that they will be able to appreciate and understand. Kecia Ali, a favorite scholar of mine (she is most important in, among other things, discussions on gender/sexuality issues in Islamic law) starts off her new book Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam with this. I'm reading an online version of the book and am unable to copy/paste her text here AND it's too long for me to type it all out (ha), so I'm just going to take a screenshot of it and share it here. It's from Page 1, in the Introduction:

3) realize that if we cannot explain our work (and intentions) to people who are not familiar with our work or are not “experts” in our fields, then we are not experts in our fields after all. Here, I’ll quote another favorite scholar of mine—Azfar Moin, who said the following when discussing his book The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam and the concept of sacred kingship (as understood by Mughul and Safavid rulers) with our class last week: "A colleague of mine once mentioned that undergraduate students won't understand this concept [a particular concept we were discussing at the moment], so don't worry about explaining it to them. To which I replied, 'If we can't explain it to undergraduates, who are supposedly not familiar with this concept, then we don't understand the concept ourselves very well.'" I'm quoting him very roughly here; I don't remember his exact words, but I think the message is clear.

So, that's one of the best, most important things I got from this year's MESA conference, and for this, I'm infinitely grateful. To be reminded that it is a part of our responsibility as students of Islam, Muslim affairs, the Middle East, and Muslim regions generally to write accessibly, to explain our work and our motives clearly to those who do not study what we study, to be able to explain clearly to others what it is that we study and why we study it or why it's important that we study it. It is our responsibility in that  we need to be able to respond to misconceptions, falsehoods, and other inaccurate information on Islam-, Muslims-, and Middle East-related issues not necessarily to give the message that they don't know anything, or that they are wrong, or that they are stupid--but to offer a different insight, maybe to correct them humbly and respectfully when necessary, and to explain to them why the perspective they uphold is problematic, unfair, or maybe even completely false and thus needs to be evaluated critically.

P.S. If you're a student or scholar of Afghan/Pashtun issues, or anything related to Afghanistan or KPK/FATA and would like to present at MESA 2013, please let me know so we can form a panel together so as to increase our chances of success. I can be reached at qrratugai@gmail.com. Thank you, and please spread the word :) God bless you!

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