Pariah feet in elite academia


I should begin with the preamble that I have been a rather mediocre student my entire life, hovering at or just above average, especially as far as grades are concerned.

Yet I had this innate ability to do really well in standardized tests like the GRE (and prior to that, the Common Admissions Test or CAT, for admissions into ranked engineering and medical colleges with different levels of state-provided funding in Karnataka).

This resulted in me somehow falling through the cracks into a killer graduate program. Cobbling together a tuition scholarship, financial help from my father, and a generous gift from an uncle on my mother’s side, I started an M.S. at the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in the Fall of 2003. A few months into my journey as an international student in the States, I was relieved that I was heading to a more cosmopolitan city and university than Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The graduate stream I signed up for was essentially a free for all in partnership with other departments in the health, environmental, and social sciences. I decided to do my degree with course majors in public health and human geography because, why the hell not?

I hated what I studied as an undergrad (mechanical engineering); both the university environment and the lack of stimulation irritated me no end. Plus, ever since I could remember I knew I had an inclination towards public health and the social sciences. Thus I was excited at the possibility of some engaged graduate studies.

Following my departure from Erie in the Summer of 2003 I stayed with an older family friend, Ash and his wife Sapana, near DC. Family networks like that were invaluable in getting a small leg up in the game, like being able to stay with them for those three months without paying rent. I soon found an on-campus summer job. And because I was living rent-free, I was able to save enough money to pay first and last for a basement room in Baltimore. Those were small manifestations of the middle class privilege I came with that weren’t present for all immigrants.

Thus buffered, I made my way to Baltimore, and soon set myself up in a small room before the fall semester began.

I was eager to get started. Having grown up in a family that valued university education to a fault (my father studied utilizing kerosene lamps and street light to get into college in Tamil Nadu), I grew up with the bias that an elite educational institute automatically meant it was also a bastion of critical thought. I figured that I would find a more progressive, egalitarian place in general.

That preconception would soon crumble rather rapidly before my eyes.

For starters, the location of the room I found would be my first step in coming to terms with one of the richest universities in America squatting, nay, shamefacedly lounging right in the middle of one of the country’s poorest cities. I found a basement room in a slightly rundown neighborhood barely a few blocks from the neatly manicured lawns and polished buildings of the Homewood Campus.

The neighborhood that surrounded my place had more marginalized people than I had ever seen on any American TV show. I noticed just as many panhandlers as one would be able to see at any major intersection in Bangalore. Maybe the shock manifested in hyperbole but I had to remind myself right about then that India was a significantly poorer country than America. I heard four police sirens during my first night there. And, not more than eight blocks from my new abode was a university with an endowment of around two billion dollars – greater than the entire operating budget of the city of Baltimore.

And what of my initial interaction with the university itself?

On my very first day at the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, I walked with hope and eagerness into the office of Professor Barry, who had been assigned as my temporary advisor.

“Dr. Barry?” I tentatively queried as I knocked on his half open door.

“Yes, come in.” said a friendly voice.

I entered his office, which was, like any other academic’s office, stacked with books on wall-to-wall shelves. I’ve always wondered how many of the books were actually read from cover to cover, and how many were just bought to fill up those gargantuan book shelves and/or placate fellow academics.

“Hi, Dr. Barry…my name is Sri.”

I had by now stopped bothering with my full first name, as a way of preventing an awkward introductory clarification on how it wasn’t “Siniam” or “Sirilam” or “Shareefam”, but “Sriram…though you can call me Sri, as in Sri Lanka”

“Sri, did you say…as in Sri Lanka?” Dr. Barry asked, offering me a round pink hand.

I nearly jumped and applauded.

“Yes!” I said, possibly a little too joyfully. “Sri, as in Sri Lanka.”

“And, um…” he started asking

Oh no, don’t say it, please don’t say it.

“…are you from Sri Lanka?”

Even though I knew it was quite a natural follow-up question, the sheer predictability of my interactions with older white dudes was getting a little tiresome.

“Um…no, I’m from India actually.” I said, a little exasperated.

“Oh, really!” he replied excitedly. “We have another Indian guy who’s just joined us this semester…the guy with the turban.”

“Oh, yeah…I saw him very briefly today morning. I hope to introduce myself to him later on today.” I replied.

The other student I had seen was a Sikh man from Punjab.

“He always looks like he’s meditating or something, you know…with that turban on.” Dr. Barry elucidated. “I almost feel like he’s gonna levitate or something, you know…like one of those Hindu holy men?”

He guffawed loudly, like he had unleashed the most scintillating of wit.

I forced a smile, hoping he would realize that I wanted to get some answers regarding my coursework and not his take on all the resident brown people he believed to be ethnically linked to me. The half smile only seemed to egg him on.

“So,” he asked, “you guys, like, talk to each other and stuff, right? You don’t have any problems with each other’s religions or anything?”

The hope I walked in with was swiftly disintegrating in a matter of seconds. Did he not hear me say that I was hoping to introduce myself to the guy later on?

“Um, yeah…I don’t see why we would have a problem at all, Dr. Barry.” I said, trying not to sound sardonic.

He nodded, “Of course, of course…it’s just that, we never know how internationals will behave with each other, you know, in a new culture and all. Especially, India being such a crazy place and all.”

“Uh huh.” was all I could manage.

“So…right now in India…” he started.

Oh, come on. Not again. Please, no. Ask me about India’s nuclear weapons or cricket team or the political system, even the fucking snake charmers for crying out loud, please, anything but…

“Um…what’s the population like now?” he asked.

What was with these people and India’s population? Why was it such a potent source of voyeurism for them? Did they fantasize about teeming crowds of brown people while they masturbated? Did it titillate them to imagine swathes of thin South Asians standing shoulder to shoulder with each other? Was I simply unaware of a fetish for masses of Third World natives in this part of the earth?

My meeting with Professor Barry at Johns fucking Hopkins University was instructive on how unilaterally brilliant minds were just as capable of jaw-dropping ignorance as anyone else. It certainly made me feel better about myself.

I realized then that the “temporary” in “temporary advisor” was the primary operative in that title as far as I was concerned with Dr. Barry. I was not there for long, but I was determined to find someone whom I could actually learn from. There simply had to be a professor in a supposedly elite academic department who didn’t showcase a fascinating lack of common sense.

And, thank heavens, there was.

I was about to head into a class called Political Ecology that I was advised to take in a rare moment of clarity that Dr. Barry had during that ill-fated first conversation. He probably realized that with the kind of politics I was espousing, a progressive, quasi-pariah professor would be just the thing I needed.

How right he was.

I walked into the graduate lounge just before class to get some coffee, when I spotted a middle-aged black and white sheep dog that hadn’t seen sheep in a long time. It was panting invitingly while lying on the floor with the kind of carefree innocence that only non-human species could muster. I knelt down and started petting him immediately. The more I petted him the happier he got. I was so involved in trying to get him to lick me that I didn’t notice the three students standing over me looking at me incredulously, while an older middle-aged women with whitening blonde hair and a glowing face stood by the doorway smiling widely.

“You know, you can come into my office any time and hang out with him.” she said sweetly.

“Oh…yeah, that would be great.” I said with a smile, glad that I hadn’t offended her by cuddle-torturing her dog.

I walked into my Political Ecology class, waiting for the professor, while the other students chattered away. In walked Professor Erica Schoenberger with Sasha, both recognizing me immediately.

And thus began the first real learning experience for me in my academic career. I was on a double course-load at Hopkins so that I could finish my masters in one year since my scholarship was only for a year and I didn’t fancy taking a loan for a second year of graduate studies.

I think more than half my courses were under Erica. I was told that it wasn’t a good idea to load all my coursework under one professor, but I didn’t care. I had finally found a professor who didn’t make me want to stick a pencil in my eye each time we met, who actually listened, and who taught me with remarkable distinction. I was more than willing to risk loading the majority of my courses with her than having to endure the Dr. Barrys of the world.

The classes were one aspect of my interactions with her. She brought forward critical thinking on issues surrounding environmental justice, colonialism, capitalist exploitation, health rights, and social justice in a way that I could understand, especially when the density of the reading material got the better of me. She did this without being condescending, always making me believe that I had as much to offer as she did. At the time I thought that all progressive professors did this, so didn’t think much about it. But years later when I returned to the world of academia for my doctorate, I would realize how unique it was.

However, it wasn’t only via the classroom that I found an enriching learning experience. Erica also helped me get a measure of rationality in the midst of the giant irrationality that was Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I knew that personal therapy was not what she was there for, but it helped to sense some very real existential angst she had in being a radical progressive in the middle of academic sterility. It helped me struggle with my own internal contradictions with the place.

The experience taught me that learning could be liberating, indeed had to be liberating, first and foremost from the institutions of learning themselves.

Most importantly though, she made me feel like I didn’t have to hide my politics. I felt like I had the freedom to, for instance, come into her office for an appointment on my coursework and instead launch into a discussion on how the overwhelming majority of the janitorial employees were black while the overwhelming majority of the students were white or Asian.

“That’s the system of elite academic production for you in the middle of one of the most gentrified cities in the country.” she replied indignantly, suppressing a slightly nervous tick. “The poorest of the poor clean the hallways and toilets for the children of the wealthy.”

“Isn’t this just further polarizing communities to the point where there might be an explosion…you know, a revolution?” I asked.

“That’s true, but this country has also constantly found remarkable ways of either smashing militant movements that fight for greater change or subsuming them into the system through non-profits.” she said with resignation.

Even though I knew she had that sense of anger against the systems of elitism that surrounded her, I never did broach the topic of how she herself was fighting the good fight while teaching in an elite university. I think I didn’t want to hear her engagement with the kinds of contradictions any progressive within an elite setting engaged with (or at least should engage with). I don’t think it would have been good for me to hear that right then.

I liked having her on the pedestal because she was a source of sanity for me. I was on a double course load, while working a shitty part-time gig to pay the rent, soon to navigate the all-important job market in order to get a work visa and save some money while staying involved in as much political activism as I could. I didn’t want that pedestal to disappear because it temporarily made the effort worthwhile.

Thus did my pariah feet find their way in elite academia.


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