In this narrative-based response essay, my goal is to contribute to discussions of merit and diversity while highlighting the international/queer scholar perspective. I present my experiences in US higher education and communication studies. In particular, I narrate lived experiences that were shaped or impacted by whiteness and US-centric ideals about merit and scholarship. Hence, I present a critique of the discipline from an international scholar perspective.
The goal of this narrative-based response essay is to contribute to discussions of merit and diversity while highlighting the international/queer scholar perspective. I came to academia and the field of communication studies out of love. Specifically, I fell in love with media studies as an undergraduate student when I was studying in Turkey as an international student from Cyprus. With this, I embarked on a long but bold journey to come to the United States and complete my graduate training. My story is only one of many.
As an international student accepted to a graduate program and then seeking to become a “somebody” in the field, one must learn to work very hard, often harder than everyone else, because the odds are often stacked against them. After all, we are the “others” of academia, and the system around us reminds us of this in every step, every breath that we take. We often dream that once we complete our dissertations and secure a prestigious or semi-prestigious job, our experience will be different. We experience academic loneliness without knowing the degree of loneliness ahead of us. Bernadette Marie Calafell writes: “It's funny because no one tells you about the loneliness you feel once you are out of the protective shell of graduate school. No one talks about it, but once you are there, you wonder if others were there before you.”1 Academic loneliness is in the DNA of international faculty's reality. Our voices are often silenced and our experiences ignored or devalued. The heaviness of whiteness and US-centric ways of doing things regulate and surveil our experiences.
We often dream. We dream of being accepted. We continue to dream of a place where our intersectional “otherness” is an asset, not a deficit or barrier. We dream of a place where our language skills are not questioned, judged, or laughed at, and our cultural complexities, our skin color, our queerness are accepted and celebrated. We dream of an academic culture that sees us as competent scholars rather than forms of human playdoh to be molded, shaped, and assimilated. We dream of a place where we can keep all of our cultural complexities without being stripped of our personalities, training, and nuances. I dreamed of a place; my voice was silenced.
As international faculty, we all travel, alone, with so many hopes. The journeys that we engage in, both physical and academic, often see us maneuver between cultures and translate languages and experiences. In Homi Bhabha's words, we are cultural hybrids. In particular, we are academic hybrids. Pico Iyer reminds us that we are also global nomads.2 Including academia, our disciplines, and our departments, we belong nowhere. When I feel that I finally belong, someone always reminds me of my “otherness.” I belong nowhere.
The road that I traveled was full of obstacles. Instead of receiving mentoring, I often dealt with hurdles and roadblocks. As Calafell articulates, the structures of academia are not built for the academic “others.” I arrived on the job market when the recession was at its peak. There were only a handful of jobs available, and advertised jobs were either being cancelled due to lack of funding or receiving hundreds upon hundreds of applicants. Only the “crème de la crème” who graduated from the top R1 institutions were being hired. For international faculty who planned to get a job in US academia, not being hired after completion of their PhD programs meant returning to their home countries. I had only one shot in the very tough job market that favored white, American individuals. International faculty members often work harder and endure more academic pain than their US counterparts. Our academic lives are not only dictated by the job market or shifts in disciplines, but they are also regulated by immigration laws. In order to survive in the white, American academic structure, we must first survive the job market.
I drafted my first application letter. I was hopeful. I had waited so long for this process. I poured my heart into my first application letter. When I had the letter edited, the editors took my heart out. My words read sterilely. Then I learned that I had to write for predominantly white faculty members who serve on their institutions' hiring committees. First, my circular writing style was straightened out, then my words whitened. My words were lost in academic translation. I learned to write whitened letters.
As international faculty, we all have scars. I came to the job market with hope and passion. I was first told I should carefully consider the places to which I would apply. I was very happy when I secured more than one interview at the National Communication Association (NCA) conference. I went to these interviews wearing my best clothes that had I purchased during my last trip to Europe. On that day, I felt nervous but well prepared. I was warned about the unpredictability of interview processes. I was nervous about not finding the right words. I feared not properly translating between languages and experiences. I feared coming across as too “foreign” and too “queer.” I had walked into the coffee shop located in the conference hotel and sat down once I located the faculty members. During this particular interview, the head of the search committee told that me they hire faculty members only from prestigious R1 institutions such as Northwestern University or University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I left the interview puzzled and feeling sick. Why would anybody want to interview me and tell me that they would not hire me? As I searched for answers, I also realized that acceptance meant having a certain pedigree. Having a certain pedigree also shows having certain racial and national privileges. Considering that only a small percentage of international students are admitted to these prestigious programs, the number of international students with a certain pedigree is very limited. Folks like me, the others of academia, do not often end up in Ivy League schools. Those are often reserved for particular white-American bodies. This also shows that from the first step of acceptance to a graduate program to the next step of securing a job in the field, there are cultural biases. The academic journey of international students and faculty is fraught with peril. We learn to suffer, often alone, until our first breakthrough. One of my first interviews was greatly shadowed by disciplinary blinders; the “other” bodies were “othered.” I felt insignificant. I still carry some of those scars—scars caused by academic structures of whiteness and the discourse of merit.
I initially secured a one-year position as my first job. Even though the job market was not any better than the previous year's, I secured a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at a selective private liberal arts college. I was told that being at a small liberal arts college might be better suited for people who do not have ambitious research careers. Once again, I was placed in a box. Other scholars told me that staying at such a place would be academic suicide. I was spoken to by the “authorities” and stereotyped. Just because I was an international scholar who specialized in critical and cultural paradigms, I was written off as being less productive. I was less white, less US-American, less straight, less meritorious. I was “othered.” Another scholar kindly told me that large R1 institutions are interested in hiring international scholars who specialize in quantitative research methods because they can produce greater volumes of work and publish material on diversity-related issues. Hence, merit meant a particular type of research produced within a particular research paradigm. I was, once again, discouraged.
Mentors play key roles in our academic trajectories. However, finding mentors who truly care about us and our academic goals is not always easy for international faculty. Academia can be a very lonely place. I spent the first couple of years of my career learning how to balance demanding teaching responsibilities, lack of mentoring and research support, and setting up a sustainable research agenda. Along the way, I failed. Therefore, I tried again. Once more, I failed, so I tried again. One of the benefits of working at a small private liberal arts college is resources. Our college is very proud of offering a generous research leave program. This was one of the reasons I chose to come to my current institution. When I qualified, I applied for a year-long research leave. My project was an extension of my dissertation work, and I wanted to focus on the experiences of diasporic queer individuals. I attended a workshop on how to write a successful research-leave proposal. Despite securing housing and arranging to collaborate with a colleague in London, my proposal was denied. It was determined that my research was not “meritorious.” I was the only faculty in my cohort to be denied. As an international faculty member struggling to establish an active research agenda, this definitely put a dent in my academic trajectory. During the summer break, instead of traveling to Cyprus to spend time with my family, I stayed in Ohio (where my institution is located) and focused on research. The following year, I reapplied. This time, instead of a full year, I was offered a semester-long research leave. When I asked for their justification, I was simply told that my ethnographic research does not require a year and that I should be able to collect my data and write my article in four months' time. I realized that conducting international research as an international faculty will remain one of the main obstacles in my career. This time, I will try not to be hurt.
Choices we make as well as choices that others make on our behalf will shape or alter the academic paths we take. When the odds are against us, all we can do is pause, regroup, and create an alternative plan. When we fail, we hurt more. It hurts more because we spend more time, energy, and money to become somebody in academic settings that are not always welcoming.
Over the years, I learned that my international faculty identity, where I completed my doctoral work, and where I teach would be the defining features of my academic pathways. I learned that my “otherness” would count against me. Perhaps I would never become “Distinguished Scholar” because I speak and write in accents, and experience the world through translations. Unless the structures are changed and we can decolonize our disciplinary academic culture, being located outside of R1/R2 institutions would likely never qualify me as meritorious. I also learned that I have to be more resilient. I learned that I have to publish and address the issues that I found important even though they might not be published in what are considered NCA's “top journals.” Finally, I also learned that I have to create more academic spaces for others whose voices are silenced, whose experiences are marginalized, whose realities are disregarded, and whose language skills are questioned or judged.
I was never told that I must stay tall and strong and fight the academic and disciplinary structures that privilege white, straight, US-centric bodies. I was never told that the critical work that I do would set me apart and label me as “less productive.” I have been scared. I now know and understand every inch of those scars. These scars are shaped by whiteness, altered by US-centric academic ideals. My scars are circular, accented, diasporic, and translated. I have no intentions of whitewashing or straightening these scars. They are part of my scholarly journey.