Spotlight: Ambereen Dadabhoy
Interview by Holly Eva Allen, PFF Fellow
Dr. Ambereen Dadabhoy teaches Literature at Harvey Mudd College
If you practice anti-racist pedagogy and have a commitment to change, then you have to release the dominant narratives and hegemonic structures that are part of the university.
1. What led you to teaching?
Well, when I went to college my plan was not to be a teacher. Originally, I wanted to go to law school. But, as an undergraduate, I had a really fantastic Shakespeare professor who really inspired me to teach. He was a pretty traditional teacher and he loved Shakespeare’s language and poetry. Whenever we covered a play in class, he would emphasize the language and close read it to such an extent that you really understood the play well. You also knew Shakespeare was his passion. I hadn’t even thought of teaching as a possibility until he suggested it. However, if I had known what went into obtaining a PhD and pursuing a career in academia, then I don’t know if I would have pursued it further.
2. So, what are some of those requirements for a PhD or those necessary steps in pursuing a career in academia that may have dissuaded you if you had known of them?
Certainly, the state of the field right now in terms of the what the job market looks like would have dissuaded me. The diminishing of tenure and the extensive use of adjunct and contingent labor essentially means that very smart people with a lot of qualifications and learning have to live on substance subsistence wages. Not being able to live properly and pursue your passion can be really frustrating. It’s really unfortunate that we are in this place, because there is so much value in what PhD training does for you, but that value often isn’t rewarded. Most of us go to school longer than lawyers and doctors do, but they make a lot more money than we do. Money isn’t everything, certainly, but one has to be able to live.
3. And what is it in the requirements or steps to obtaining a PhD that may have deterred you as well?
When I started as a graduate student, I didn’t know all of the additional things that are necessary to being in the profession beyond the schooling. We take wonderful classes; we have a year to do reading. We take exams, and we write a dissertation. All of those things are fantastic, but the kind of professional development and networking needed can be overwhelming. Going to conferences, getting published, and all of those other professionalization activities can be a huge undertaking.
It took me a long time to figure out what I needed to do to be considered an academic professional outside the classes and the exams. Even after obtaining the degree, there were plenty of expectations and practices that I wasn’t aware of; for example, knowing people in your field who can introduce you to others. Being on panels, getting invited to talks, being asked to write a paper for publishing, etc., these are all examples of how academia can work through invisible, backdoor channels. Ultimately this means that you need to cultivate contacts. You can be a genius but if you’re if you’re not a part of any kind of network, then your work most likely isn’t getting out there.
4. Do you have any advice for those looking to become an educator in regard to cultivating connections like these?
You need to go to conferences; People outside of your grad program need to know who you are. You shouldn’t simply attend a conference, present your work, and leave. You should attend other panels, watch the presentations of other people, have who know you introduce you to others. Of course, I am not suggesting that you should ignore your exams, papers, and dissertations, but you should take part in conferences too because it helps put your work in conversation with that of others in your field. I think that’s vitally important.
And then, once you start making those connections and you’re pursuing teaching, you can mine those resources. Talk to faculty, talk to others in your field, and let them know that you’re looking for jobs. If they see anything, they may recommend you for these opportunities. The same goes for when you’re seeking out calls for papers or certain publications.
5. And do you have any advice for those looking to get started with conferences, panels, or publications? Any advice maybe for students who do not yet have this sort of network or connection to their field?
The great thing for us in Southern California is that there are plenty of colleges and universities in the area so there is a lot of conference activity here. Since the pandemic there have been plenty of conferences online, on Zoom, as well. You can find out about them through various organizations and listservs. For example, as an English professor I belong to the MLA, and I can find CFPs and deadlines on their website. Other fields will have their own organization, and within fields you can probably find organizations for subfields, like the Renaissance Society of America or the Pacific Coast Conference for British Studies, both of which are interdisciplinary. Organizations like these can be very helpful but vary depending on your field.
6. I want to shift topics now to your specific pedagogy. When teaching the sort of classes that you do, those that address topics like race or racism in the texts of very popular figures, like Shakespeare, do you feel that there is any pushback from institutions or in the field as a whole?
In the last few years, teaching race and racism has become a part of our national consciousness and a lot of scholars, especially Black feminist scholars in Shakespeare studies, have been working hard and pushing my field towards this topic. It was certainly on the radar with the multiculturalism discourse of the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in the canon wars, so these kinds of topics are not new.
What I do see as being new, however, is the more general acceptance of these topics and student eagerness to learn about them. However, one of the risks of mainstreaming these kinds of resistant knowledge projects is that they might lose their activist teeth and become just critique and not the action that we want. If you practice anti-racist pedagogy and have a commitment to change, then you have to release the dominant narratives and hegemonic structures that are part of the university.