The Way Academia Is Supposed to Work

I can’t believe I’m writing this at 3:30 AM. I woke up about a half hour ago from a very disturbing dream, in which the character with whom I identified–I say it that way because he didn’t feel like a dreamed self; he felt like a fictional character I had created–was at the center of an awful lot of killing. It was disconcerting enough that I could not get back to sleep, and so here I am, sitting at my dining room table, still a little shaken, trying to find my way into a story I’ve wanted to tell for a while now.

I actually started writing this on Thursday night, the last night of Chanukah, after a general union meeting–I am both the secretary and one of the vice presidents of my higher education local–at which I had to act as presiding officer because the president recused herself. It was a very difficult meeting, requiring us to navigate, debate, and ultimately vote on an involved parliamentary ruling that brought to a head a division within the union that has been festering for quite some time now. The vote we took settled the issue before us, but it did not resolve the divisiveness, which made itself felt in the invective hurled at me both from the floor”–which I put in quotes here because we held this meeting, as all meetings are held now, on Zoom–and in the chat. It was personal; it was hurtful; and some of it was downright hateful.

Much of that aspect of the meeting is a blur to me at this point, though two instances remain clear in my mind. Some colleagues concocted a complicated collusion between myself and the union president so we could hold on to power, and they kept repeating, in the chat and also aloud whenever they saw the opportunity, that we both had to go.” Another colleague, whom I had to declare out of order and mute consistently throughout the meeting–and this perhaps is the most egregious example of what I’m talking about–characterized my silencing him” as a form of rape. Then, when someone suggested that such a comparison was not just inaccurate, but entirely inappropriate, he wrote in the chat something along the lines of, I’ve been raped; I know exactly how it feels.” (If that’s true, of course, it’s absolutely horrible; but it also makes his use of the comparison even more unsettling.)

I often felt like I was presiding over an out-of-control Twitter mob, not a gathering of 300 or so higher education professionals–though, to be fair, it was only a small minority of my colleagues who made me feel that way. Those who engaged in the debate did so thoughtfully and decorously, in keeping with what you would imagine an academic discussion ought to be like–and that, at last, brings me to the story I’ve been wanting to tell you: my recent experience of the way academia is supposed to work.

If you’ve been following my work, you know that in 2003 or so I was commissioned by an organization called the International Society for Iranian Culture (ISIC, now defunct) to produce book-length literary translations of selections from masterpieces of classical Persian literature. Between 2004 and 2011, I published three of them:

At the time, these books earned for me in the world of literary translation, and in the community of those who were translating the literature of Iran, what I continue to think of as a very small name. I gave readings; I was on conference panels; but, aside from one or two favorable reviews of my Shahnameh, the work itself garnered very little critical attention. Then, starting in 2007 or so, I started to get emails from graduate students in Iran requesting a PDF of my Gulistan. I don’t think any of them knew each other, but they were all writing their MA theses in translation, and all of them seemed to be interested in comparing translation strategies in different versions of what is probably Saadi’s best known work in the west. I corresponded with some of them for a while, and I still hear sporadically from one or two, but we eventually stopped writing and I just assumed they had finished their work and gotten on with their lives.

Then, earlier this year, I received emails from two Persian Studies scholars in the United States. One, Aria Fani, from the University of Washington, had actually reviewed The Teller of Tales. The other, Cameron Cross, from the University of Michigan, I’d never heard of before. They each wanted a copy of my Gulistan for possible use in their classes. I struck up a correspondence with Professor Cross, who told me he’d learned about my work from reading a thesis comparing the strategies used by different translators of Gulistan by a scholar from Iran. He couldn’t remember who the scholar was, but it is too much of a coincidence for it not to be one of the people who’d contacted me.

When I explained that I really think of myself as a co-translator, since I am not literate in Persian and relied in making my translations on the well-respected-if-out-of-date versions that ISIC gave me to use as trots–which is probably the subject of a whole essay in itself–Professor Cross and I got into a very interesting discussion about the nature of translation and its connection to the reception of classical Persian literature in English. As a result, he invited me to speak to a small group of students from the class he is teaching this semester on the Shahnameh, something that was possible only because the pandemic has forced everyone to teach remotely.

That happened back in September. It was the first time in a long time that I had a chance to talk about my translations and the political, creative, and other issues surrounding them, and I was glad for the chance to use those muscles again,” so to speak. What truly excites me about having made this connection with Professor Cross, however, is that he has expressed interest in working with me to revisit my translations, in particular Saadi’s Bustan, which is out of print, with an eye towards publishing a new, more complete version, including notes and other material that would make it usable in a college classroom, but would not interfere with a general reader’s enjoyment of the text.

Given the state of the world and the unpredictability of life, of course, I have no idea if this project will ever come to fruition. (If it does, I will be sure to let you know!) For tonight, though–or, rather, this morning–that’s not the point. Right now, I’m just glad, in stark contrast to the behavior of my colleagues at the union meeting I told you about above, to be able to hold onto this experience of academia as a network of scholars and educators engaging enthusiastically and respectfully with each other’s work. Now that the semester is coming to a close, it is the former rather than the latter that I plan to focus on.

If you have already celebrated Chanukah, I wish you a belated Chag Sameach! For everyone else, I hope your holiday season, whatever and however you celebrate, is lovely and that you and your loved ones have a happy, safe, and healthy New Year!

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