I read your guideline[s] on “Writing a successful conference paper proposal”. I intend to submit a paper for a conference, for the first time, so I am a bit afraid and hesitant. Actually, I have many ideas[;] still I feel that I cannot really focus on a clear argument. Can you advise me please on how to organize my argument? Honestly, I feel that I am not fully grasping the whole idea of a paper. Should I come up with something new or just review books that have more or less the same approach to a particular theme? I really cannot fathom the essence and the main idea of a paper. I am sorry for any disturbance, but I thought that you may accept to help me. If it is possible to send you my attempt and the ideas that I have in mind for the conference, I will be really grateful.
I received this email several months ago from a North African doctoral student whom I had never met, working on a topic (literature) distant from my own areas of expertise (law).
On the surface, her request seems ridiculous, on a par with students who ask about rules clearly stated in the syllabus. The guidelines to which she refers state clearly that the point of a conference paper is to present “something new.” It suggests ways to narrow down “a clear argument” and a “main idea.” And whether she knows it or not, she is asking for a major investment of time and energy. A two paragraph email is not going to help her understand “the whole idea of a paper” if it is not yet obvious from her studies or reading. From a time-management perspective, devoting a good chunk of time to reviewing a stranger’s disorganized ideas, in a field far removed from my own, is neither efficient nor professionally savvy.
Yet it is more complicated than that. Although I ultimately did not provide any substantial assistance, I was tempted to help, despite my unsuitability in terms of specialization and my awareness that female academics are prone to spend disproportionate time on service activities, making us less likely to advance professionally.
One reason I was inclined to help is that the email engaged in a laudable act: asking. If women too often say yes to requests (or fail to say no to unreasonable expectations), the flip side is that too often we fail to ask for what we need or want. Advice tomes insist that part of the reason women get lower salaries and fewer benefits than men in similar positions is that women don’t ask. (Of course given that women may be penalized for negotiating, it’s tricky.) My correspondent did a good thing by reaching out, even if perhaps she could have done more research on her own beforehand.
For academics as for everyone, balancing one’s own interests with those of others requires constant, careful, deliberate calibration. But this email from one individual to another reflected a set of power differentials far beyond those separating mid-career scholar and graduate student. These power imbalances are global and structural. Hegemonic Euro-American norms, practices, and even languages place scholars from majority-Muslim societies in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia at a serious disadvantage when it comes to publications in prestigious journals, presentations at major conferences, and competition for teaching jobs. Access to scholarly resources and recent publications is deeply unequal. Even within richer nations, unaffiliated scholars or those at poorer institutions face far greater obstacles to professional success.
All of this presents a challenge: if diversity of scholars is the desired goal – or rather, if scholarship that better reflects the full range of human experience, in order to address our world’s most pressing issues is the goal – then the patterns of global academic life and scholarship must change. But this change will require more than individual favors: one scholar “sharing the wealth” by extending mentoring, advice, or contacts; another sending a book or two by international mail. These actions are important but insufficient, not to mention that those who undertaken them tend to be those who already carry heavy service burdens.
One reality of the internet is that emails from strangers arrive in your inbox, prompting action (or sometimes inaction, followed by guilt). Another reality of the internet is that people can collaborate and communicate more easily across and outside formal institutional hierarchies, including on spaces like Feminism and Religion. So, I throw open the question: thinking about what our colleagues across the globe need, how do we create and sustain new spaces, norms, and procedures that work for greater inclusion, broader access, and transformation in the direction of justice? What best practices have you found? What would you try if you could? What do you wish someone else would try?
Kecia Ali, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011) and The Lives of Muhammad (available in two weeks, September 8th). She lives in the Boston area with her family.