“I entered the academic job market in 2013 and 2014 as an A.B.D. candidate in African and postcolonial literature. Given the scarcity of tenure-track jobs in my fields — and the fact that I was studying at a large public university rather than an Ivy or comparable — I knew that my job search would be an uphill battle.My program and my adviser both had a respectable history of placing students in reputable, if not always spectacular, jobs. The tenure-track market, however, had gone from bad to worse. So I entered it apprehensively and was satisfied to secure 10 initial interviews and four campus visits over two years.
I never expected that the job that would sweep me off my feet would be at a university in the Middle East.
Like many humanities Ph.D.’s, I cast a wide net with my applications. Unlike many others, however, the scope of my applications included positions in Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. Having lived abroad before, the idea of limiting my search to the United States had never entered my mind. If you could get a full-time job teaching two courses a semester in your field in Paris, why would you go to a rural American town and teach a 4-4 load of survey and composition courses? However, when I asked my department’s otherwise laser-sharp placement coordinator about the overseas market, the dismissive answer I got was to maybe try looking in The Guardian jobs section.
With that mindset, I was thrilled when the American University of Beirut invited me to an initial interview at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. I wasn’t sure what to think. I knew little about Lebanon or the Middle East in practical terms and, as open-minded as I may be, I kept looking for reasons to remove my application from consideration. Despite an invigorating MLA interview, followed by an intellectually and socially dynamic campus visit, I kept expecting someone to pull the rug out from under me by presenting some aspect of the job that made it unacceptable. Finally, the offer came and I had no good reason to refuse. So I didn’t.
This is not to say that there were no impediments. My wife would have to leave her job, and the university would not assist her in finding one in Beirut. Thankfully, she found one on her own. We were also bringing our 1-year-old son and had to consider what the move would mean for him. Moving is always a hassle, but it’s even more so when the move is overseas. That cushy leather chair you eyed forever and finally managed to buy? It’s not making the trip. Distance from family was also an issue, but having lived abroad before, this was something I had come to terms with quite a while ago.Beyond these navigable obstacles, the benefits were what drew me to the job. I am contracted to teach a 3-2 schedule, but by the end of my third year, I will have taught only nine courses (rather than 15), thanks to release time from teaching that I received for service work and an internal fellowship.
My department also rarely asks me teach outside of my fields, so I’ve been able to offer undergraduate courses like “African Literature by Women” and a graduate course on “African Literature: A Post-National Approach.” Beyond the freedom to teach in my fields, I have also been given the support to invite African scholars to come to workshops and conferences with my graduate students and to bring Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole to campus, including a visit to my class.
Beyond the professional accommodations, I have also been provided with an apartment by the sea on campus (though not all faculty live on campus), and when my son is old enough, his primary, secondary, and tertiary education will be paid for by the university. Right now he attends a school where the language of instruction is French, and he often comes home sprinkling Arabic into his vocabulary. His linguistic acumen is quickly outstripping our own. Personal travel is another huge boon. We have taken trips to Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Germany, Ireland, and the United States — with trips to Slovakia and South Africa arranged for this summer. Most of those trips would have been beyond our means had we remained in the States.
None of that is to claim that there are not serious issues at my university and other Middle Eastern institutions, particularly regarding the humanities. All I am saying is that those drawbacks are no more disqualifying than anywhere else. Faculty here bristle at poorly conceived administrative policies and criticize the university for not shielding them from inefficiencies of Lebanon’s dysfunctional government. However, anyone having to debate whether guns should be allowed in U.S. classrooms, or trying to figure out the innumerable “triggers” of their students, knows that governmental overreach into the classroom is not limited to the Middle East.
Recently a visiting American scholar asked me if I felt isolated from academe, seeing that I am geographically removed from the American scene that wields so much power and influence. That’s a natural question, given the centrality of American academics in Anglophone, African, and postcolonial scholarship. But, as I told my colleague, I have published in South African, American, and British journals and welcomed to campus postcolonial and Africanist scholars and writers from the United States, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa.
In short, I feel anything but isolated. I am much more central to academic conversations here than I imagine I would be at any of the other places I interviewed where heavier teaching loads would have left me weighed down with course prep and grading. Being overworked in the way that many junior American academics are now seems to me to be a much more decentering and disempowering situation.
As graduate students we were often told to “write your way out” of first jobs that were less than ideal. Now it seems not only that these first jobs are more uncommon but also that they are designed to prevent you from bolstering your CV by burying you in teaching and administrative duties.
Many academics already understand that the faculty job market extends beyond the United States. But having served on several search committees, and looking down the barrel of chairing one next year, I am taken aback by the low numbers of applicants that Middle Eastern universities receive from U.S.-trained Ph.D.’s. My university has managed to hire world-class assistant professors with Ph.D.s from places like Indiana University, New York University, the University of Kansas, Rice University, and Yale University, but it is frustrating to see that so many scholars are taking themselves out of consideration for jobs based largely on locale. As Scott T. Gibson argues in his recent Chronicle essay, “Why New Humanities Ph.D.’s Should Leave the Country,” a whole slew of jobs around the world await humanities scholars who venture beyond U.S. borders.
So what keeps U.S.-trained scholars from applying abroad?
In reference to Beirut and other Middle Eastern locales, the perception of a lack of safety is often involved. I regularly receive emails from prospective students, visiting faculty, and university guests asking me about the safety of Beirut. Ironically, the emails often come from cities like New York, Chicago, Washington, Johannesburg, Paris, and London — all places with significantly more violence than Beirut.
When someone from Chicago — where it’s not unheard of for 80 people to get shot in separate incidents on a summer holiday weekend, — tells me they are worried about violence in Beirut, I smirk. However, I also gain insights into the mindset of a highly educated populace of scholars who live under the constant threat of gun violence nearly unmatched in the world yet somehow still worry that everywhere else is more dangerous.
This is not even to mention the questions I get about whether one can drink alcohol here, whether women must wear hijabs, and what it’s like to live in a Muslim country. (Quick cheat sheet: Yes, alcohol is readily available; women can dress as they please, as well as drive; and Lebanon is not a Muslim country but rather a Muslim-majority one). As judgmental as this may sound, I’m less concerned with wagging my finger at the insular nature of U.S. academics than I am at figuring out what my university is up against when recruiting American faculty and what we need to do broaden the horizons of those who see the Middle East as one indistinguishable unit characterized by oppression and terrorism.
Ultimately, I’m not trying to convince people to come to Beirut or the Middle East, and certainly not as compelled labor chasing capital in support of a neoliberal globalizing project. But I do think that far too many Ph.D.’s do not seriously explore the many viable career options for serious scholarship available outside the United States — some of those options more serious than they would find inside the United States. I have far too many friends with Ph.D.s who are marginalized into adjuncting, endless postdocs or visiting positions, and alt-ac jobs against their will who would be better served in thinking about Beirut, Singapore, Quito, Dehli, Sydney, or elsewhere if they want to pursue advanced professional academic research in the humanities.
The humanities at U.S. institutions have made a point of dismantling the Eurocentrism of our fields of study. Perhaps now is a good time to turn the same critical lens on our own careers. There are more viable options abroad than most American graduate students are led to believe, and I am one of many unacknowledged cases that prove it.”