Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Chat with Dr. Dohra Ahmad

Dr. Dohra Ahmad
(picture from St. John's University site)
On November 23, Dr. Dohra Ahmad stopped by for a chat with Dr. Steve Mentz's Introduction to the Profession graduate class. Dr. Ahmad is the author of Landscapes of Hope and the editor of an anthology of vernacular literature-- the first of its kind-- called Rotten English, among other fantastic articles. Her work addresses the fine line between the individual histories of marginalized figures, the aesthetic nature of vernacular literature, and ethnographic interpretations as viewed by the mainstream, which often assume that the writing of an Othered person or the action of an Othered character stands for the experience of an entire group. She cautions against reading marginalized literature as "authentic" voices or representations of a native tongue or group sentiment. She also calls for the defamiliarization of the familiar as a powerful learning experience, especially notable in her article "Not Beyond the Veil: Muslim Women in American Popular Literature." 

Lucky for us, Dr. Ahmad decided to settle down at St. John's University after completing her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in 2004. Now, she teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses and acts as an advisor to the faculty teaching the university's "core" world literature course (my classmates and co-workers rave about her teaching). Her research and teaching interests include Postcolonial Literature, Vernacular Literature, American Literature, Ethnic and Ethnic American Literature, Utopian Literature, Critical Pedagogy, and Pop Culture Studies. 

I was fortunate enough to get to interview with Dr. Ahmad, who had some wonderful words of wisdom for my class.

NP: How did you decide that you wanted to become a scholar/professor?
DA: The reading seemed better than social work or education coursework, which were the other 2 graduate programs I most seriously considered. Any kind of teaching would have been fine by me, but this is definitely the most fun.

NP: How do you prepare to teach a course?
DA: Read a lot, look at how others teach similar classes (if there are any), and talk to people in related fields.

NP: What do you think are the keys to being an effective teacher?
DA: Be open to new ideas, listen to students, give students a lot of responsibility but don't be afraid to be directive as necessary.

NP: Which piece of scholarship are you most proud of?
DA: Rotten English, definitely. I far prefer to write for a general audience rather than a specialized audience.

NP: What goes in to editing an anthology like Rotten English?
DA: Read a lot, have a vision and stick to it, be committed to only including selections that you absolutely love.
Also, be prepared for the fact that dealing with text permissions is incredibly tedious and annoying.

NP: For those of us embarking on the journey to becoming a professor, what advice do you have?
DA: For one thing, do test out other options and don't be convinced that this is the only way.
Have a life, and try not to obsess too much. Don't be a perfectionist.
Give yourself a break.
As much as possible, try not to compare yourself to other people; just do your best by your own standards.

NP: 30 years down the road, what kind of impact are you hoping your work will have?
DA: Honestly, I don't think about things this way.

Before she left, Dr. Ahmad also reminded us not to let the drive for perfection or the drive for greatness stop us from writing and submitting our work to journals and conferences as graduate students and future professionals. Sometimes, one just needs to finish because writing will never be perfect.  Not that one should settle for mediocrity, but that every one should strive for the best that they can achieve at the moment instead of an unattainable ideal of what could be. It is better to risk letting something that is perhaps imperfect out of the bag, then to never to be satisfied and fail to seize opportunities. She also cautioned us that self-doubt can prevent us from doing many things and moving forward. Finally, Dr. Ahmad left off by reminding us that we are often our own worst critics and that sometimes our flaws and strong points stem from the same place.

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