Random Email Blues #2 by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religionI 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.

Categories: Academy, Education, General, Power relations, Relationality, Women and Scholarship

Tags: , , ,

22 replies

  1. In my prior life as a corporate attorney I half-jokingly would suggest that of the tiny fraction of emails that deserve a response only 3 options should be available: ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘call me.’

    That said, in my current life as a non-academic writer who reaches out to academics that I am well aware might perceive me as having no credibility because I am not affiliated with any academic institution, I find the following to be the most likely to elicit not just one response but even a series of productive exchanges:

    1. Establish your identity/credentials using a 3rd party source (eg, a site the addressee can go to such as a blog like FAR or other internet resource–Facebook, LinkedIn, etc) and refer to your physical location either in the body of the email or in how you close it (ie with a full ‘snail mail’ address).

    2. Reference specifically something your addressee has written or said (eg a youtube video of a lecture/speech) and especially if you are going to criticize remember also to compliment.

    3. Whatever the question(s) might be, keep them to a minimum and focused on issue(s) directly relevant to that addressee’s research/writing interests.

    While it seems you knew your email correspondent well enough that (1) was not an issue, the email did not come close to offering what (2) and (3) require.


    • Stuart, this is good advice for someone looking to get a reply. I think part of what is at issue for me is that these professional/professionalization norms are not universal. Should they be? What do we do in the interim?



      • Given the pace of technological change I do not think anything like a norm–universal or not–is realistic. Even my simplistic corporate advice is out of date: the 3rd option for responding to an email, ‘call me,’ was based on the notion that phone calls, unlike emails, were not regularly recorded and that voice mails could not be readily reduced to writing. We seem to be in an ‘interim’ the beginning of which is the adoption of writing itself as a form of information technology but the end of which is impossible to identify (making any norm inherently problematic). In some ways technology ironically facilitates a return to pre-literate forms of communication where sound and image can be as, or even more, significant than the meaning of what words (if any) are spoken. Women in particular appear to be keen to exploit such a return and ignore whatever norms might otherwise stand in their way. I do not know modern Egyptian and I do not know how to read ancient hieroglyphics but I, like surely many other people, now have a very clear idea of what might well be characterized as a high tech hieroglyphic image of what Egyptian feminism means.


  2. As a freelance book editor, I get a lot of emails sort of like this. “How do I write a book?” Being self-employed, I am unlikely to spend great chunks of time, as you say, helping people I don’t know…….at least until they start paying me. I like your point that women tend not to ask for help. I’ll share what my father always used to say: If something isn’t worth having, it’s not worth asking for. Why he stated this with negative adverbs, I don’t know, but it’s still a good lesson for all of us. Including your pen pal in North Africa. I hope she got help from someone who had time to help her.


  3. Perhaps the problem is with mid-career scholars, in that, assistant and associate professors are really busy people with a lot of time commitments. Would it be possible to enlist professors emeritus or retired people who (might?) have more time on their hands and (might) welcome the opportunity to share their wealth of knowledge with a new generation? My experience and my spouse’s experience has been that we have gotten the most thoughtful comments and critique back from emeritus folks. While they may not be up to date on the most current scholarship (but some actually are), they do know what has been done, so in that aspect, they are helpful with the novelty factor.

    I’m not exactly sure what you are identifying as the critical problem here for developing country/poor scholars. Access to data bases and archives? You would need to establish a foundation to pay for library privileges and internet access. Training in critical thinking? Create an online Ivy league emerituses (what is the plural of emeritus?) buddy system to train and critique junior scholars.


    • I like your idea of involving retired scholars is terrific. And perhaps the answer to the database problem is not a foundation but real sliding-scale access fees, both within and outside the US.



  4. I too feel torn when the writer is from a less privileged country. However, I don’t know what to do except respond politely and get on with my life. What really irks me is when a student from a good college wants to ask me questions for a paper when I have already answered all of them in interviews and in my written work.


    • Carol, you make a really important distinction. People who have opportunity and access and ask for help out of laziness (my favorite are the paper writers who send a long list of questions and then ask me to reply quickly because the paper is due the next day!) are qualitatively different than those who are at sea for different and valid reasons. For the former, I want to take a page from Gilderoy Lockhart: “For further details, see my published works.” Of course, it’s not quite the same if you’re not Kenneth Branagh standing in Flourish and Blotts!



  5. Thank you as usual for not only excellent food for thought but a concise articulation of what is a mammoth problem.

    But really I wanted to say “ouch”

    this hit the nail on the head so hard I almost recoiled. Just THIS week Laury Silver and I decided we would support each other for one week just to learn how to say “No” and not feel guilty.

    Alas the situation with my grandson hit rock bottom so I just ignored that challenge and extended myself further than maybe what is good for me. But in the meantime I actually got irate about a conference preparation gone wacky.

    I felt like, don’t people even KNOW what they are asking?

    and so the problem is not only the asking–which is huge–but the right ingredient to even saying no, and to NOT be guilty about the responses you get for having said it.

    I confess, I have fallen on that, “I am retired” response, to ease my way out of so many requests but then I also confess, I answer calls that are so far way and above any imaginable call to duty I just have to step back and REMIND myself that I am NOT GOD… lol

    I also know of networks of senior women (coincidentally women in religion and religious studies) that have pooled their efforts to respond wholistically in a mentor-ship capacity.

    That does not answer how to respond to the (endless, in my case) flow of persons soliciting help. I have even told people: this is really important and deserves a lot of time but I’m afraid I do not have that time at the moment. (alas, I often also mention that if they send this along at a different time later, I might have freed up some times. Yes 9 times out of 10 they just wait and come at it again.. for which I HAVE to make the time even if not as much as I think it warrants)

    So I would like to see people help establish nurturing academic answers to questions that are just way off the possibility or reasonable response.

    This also takes a clear conversation about what are reasonable requests and ways to think collectively about assessing the time merits of requests.

    I think it can be done, but alas…

    it would take time as well.

    isn’t that a paradox?!


    • Amina, first and foremost I hope and pray your grandson is well. As for the rest, readers of this blog get only a glimpse of how much you do. Some days I imagine just reading your email, let alone responding to it, is probably a full-time job. And “I’m retired” is a perfectly valid answer. But “no” is really tricky, especially when it’s a good cause. Another commenter suggested emerita and emeritus faculty get involved. I think that’s actually a great idea, though you are right it would also take time. I know that some journals are tackling this topic as well – encouraging contributions from the two-thirds world and at the same time upholding scholarly norms.



      • No, is very hard to say (hence the challenge to say “No” all week) especially when someone is in need. In part, that’s why I’ve had to get away from activism….not being able to say “No.” It’s hard to say “No” when someone is in real, dire need. I used to spend a lot of time on general academic requests, but maybe since dealing with the mosque I’ve come to see dire need in a different light!

        I don’t see this person as someone in dire need. I guess with this person, I would have affirmed her for asking, then asked her to take the guidelines to someone in her own university to discuss further (I imagine that there are more than enough capable scholars there), and finally volunteer to answer more specific questions when she gets a bit further.

        Academics have been very generous to me and I want to keep that kindness alive. I feel a special obligation to women and those who may not have access to the same resources as I do. So I guess the question for me is sorting out how to help as effectively as possible without creating a relationship of dependency that I cannot honor. Very happy to read all the ideas set out here!


        • Laury, your suggestion that she take the guidelines to someone at her own university is terrific. I wish I had thought of it! And your point about dire need is also worth thinking more about. This was clearly not a life or death situation, and not one that I felt compelled to address (briefly tempted, but not compelled). But most of what I am able to offer is mentorship or advice in academic contexts, and not responses to dire needs. And so it is a question of how to do that effectively, efficiently, and, as you put it, without creating expectations of longer-term relationships or greater involvement than I can sustain.

          Actually, I think I mentioned to you that I am reading the JD Robb “In Death” series, centered on a homicide cop, Lieutenant Eve Dallas. One of the more surprising things for me in the series has been the deft way the author weaves mentoring – both longer-term and sustained as well as one-off encounters – into her storylines and character development, both for the protagonist and for other recurrent characters.



      • Sorry, I didn’t mean you thought she was in dire need….I meant I’m in this weird place of not knowing when to say “no” and so stuck doing triage. Someone who could be helped like this woman, I might just blow off because I feel so overwhelmed by other things. So how does JD Robb do it???


        • How JD Robb does it – that’s a whole ‘nother blog, I think:

          Lieutenant Dallas: Kick-Ass Mentor

          Meanwhile, about dire needs: Those are the ones I tend to pass off. I am not equipped to do crisis intervention. I know social workers, chaplains, people who do DV counseling, mosque leadership, etc. Those are situations where I immediately know I am not qualified (by training or temperament) to do what is necessary. I can, in good conscience, reply swiftly with a name or two and a website and then go about my other business. It’s where I am the right person and still don’t have time, or inclination, or motivation that it gets stickier.

          The Guide for Women in Religion that Mary E. Hunt and Monique Moultrie and I revised deals with some of this in the entry on “Yes and No.” Triage is a great name for it. (The Guide should be out in time for AAR.)



    • Waiting eagerly for the guide!


  6. Having encountered versions of this (especially in Fulbright proposal form and as PhD applicants) I share your concern. It is, I think, more than a question of access and norms, in that it relates to questions of epistemology as well as hegemonic academic institutions. I fear, like you, that any intervention in the form of your or my time commitment is not going to address that larger problem. Blues indeed.


  7. I really don’t know how to say “no” especially if it is someone I think could use a bit of extra help. But I do have a bad habit of not answering requests, putting them aside for “when I have time” and just getting a stuffed e-mail box.

    I do try to refer requests for assistance to someone more qualified.

    Most important, I try to identify the person’s strong points, try them out, and give a bit of advice on how to succeed in our business. Sometimes the person proves their potential and then its worth moving on, even if it is clear that person needs more help; but sometimes it becomes clear that all the help in the world won’t move the person beyond a certain point. (I am thinking about specific examples)


    • Ruth, thank you for the response. It sounds as though you do a fair amount of helping. Your practice of identifying a person’s strong points is important – it gives you a place to begin and is probably likely to prove less frustrating than to begin from the point of greatest weakness and seek to improve there.



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