Moving stories

Many academics have lived the migrant experience – heading into the unknown, feeling the chill of xenophobia and the vagaries of state power but also finding rewards. Tara Brabazon considers the personal and professional costs and benefits

February 11, 2009

February’s snow has been accompanied by a similarly cold soundtrack. Between the road and rail updates, “British jobs for British workers” has been the chant through picket lines and headlines. This slogan anchored the clichéd winter of discontent into a social and political reality of xenophobia.

The difference between buoyant patriotism and violent nationalism is shown on the twisted faces of British men abusing foreign workers rather than the behaviour of subcontractors who took the first sentence of Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto as a challenge rather than a threat.

As someone who conducted a course titled “Cultural difference and diversity” for nearly ten years, teaching a generation of students (and future workers) about colonialism, postcolonialism, biculturalism and multiculturalism, I am professionally and personally interested in movement, migration and settlement.

I am also fascinated with personal stories of how and why academics move between posts and countries. We (glibly) mouth the language of “international scholarship” and the RAE’s much-prized label of “world-leading”, but I wonder how much substance lives behind such labels. The panels featured (only) one “international” (code for non-British) academic. The point of the exercise was that British researchers assessed other British researchers. The resultant judgments of “world”, “international” and “national” quality were the equivalent of winning American baseball’s World Series. The determinations were thorough, intricate and professional, but in allocating British standards to British academics, the RAE creates opportunities for being world famous (in Britain).

The selection and use of words such as “world”, “international”, “national” and “foreign” has relevance far beyond universities. It is acceptable – and beneficial – to acknowledge internationalism in scholarship, manufacturing and the knowledge economy. It is much harder to value the “foreign workers” who help universities, industries and nations reach these standards.

There is a reason for my reflection on academics and their movements. Henry Jenkins, the world’s best-known – and probably best – scholar of popular cultural studies, has announced that he is leaving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Comparative Media Studies research centre after being appointed to the University of Southern California. He has worked in Boston for 20 years. Jenkins wrote a huge number of scholarly monographs and journalistic articles.

He taught first-year students, managed a large undergraduate and postgraduate programme and deployed every Web 2.0 platform available for marketing and promotion, including blogs, podcasts, vodcasts and social networking sites. When news of his resignation emerged – and being aware of the desolation that his students would feel – Jenkins wrote a blog about it.

In “Confessions of an Aca-Fan”, this new appointment was described as a “significant transitional moment in my life”. The reason for this “transition” became clear when reading the entry “Professor Jenkins goes to Hollywood”. The problem at MIT appears to be that very few staff managed an enormous international operation. In effect, two enthusiastic academics initiated and administered Comparative Media Studies:

Despite a decade of arguments, we still have only two dedicated faculty members on whose back all of the activity you’ve been reading about here has rested. I’m often asked how I manage to do everything I do and now you know the sad answer: I can’t – at least not year after year. Even Green Lantern needs to recharge his ring now and again.

Extraordinarily, Jenkins will continue to teach between Los Angeles and Boston so that the first-year students who came to MIT to study with him can finish their degree. He will also maintain the Boston-based research groups for a year after his departure. Jenkins did not want to “compromise the quality of their education”.

I have used Jenkins’ work for most of those 20 years he was at MIT. Textual Poachers remains one of the greatest and most innovative media and cultural studies monographs ever written. It pick-axed the field of audience studies. Textual analysis would always seem narrow, boring and carpingly conservative after its publication. Textual Poachers was exciting, controversial, naughty and brilliant.

When undergraduates read it, they could aspire to a particular way of writing and a mode of doing research. Even last semester in my Brighton-based masters course, I used Jenkins’ Fans, Bloggers and Gamers in the module “Teaching, learning and writing through popular culture”. Through the semester, reading his book created a new group of fan-scholars. One of my extraordinary students commented that he admired his writing so much that he wanted to be Henry Jenkins.

Inspired by Comparative Media Studies, this young man will be incredibly successful in his career, but there is only one Henry Jenkins. The impact of his departure on the students he taught directly, rather than through his books, blogs and podcasts, is enormous. But I also wonder about the personal loss of MIT and CMS to Jenkins.

I do not know Jenkins. My only contact beyond a few emails was in 1995, when Andrew Ross, David Birch and Jenkins examined my doctorate. They were all generous with their time and comments. Jenkins in particular was still riding the wave of Textual Poachers and must have had many more important demands on his time than assessing a young Australian woman’s PhD. His generosity and thoughtful remarks guided and shaped my career and I – and thousands of others – owe him a great debt.

What are the personal and professional costs when academics move institutions, cities and occasionally countries? One of my other favourite writers and academics – who I also admire as a scholarly-fan and as a fan-scholar – is John Urry, professor of sociology at the University of Lancaster. Urry – like Jenkins – is a builder of knowledge rather than a gatherer of information. He created CeMoRe, the Centre for Mobilities Research. The papers, journals and resources made available through its website are important and applicable far beyond Britain.

The (reified and simplified) premise of their work is that mobility is a new marker of class and status. The empowered move. The poor and disconnected are stuck in a reality not of their choosing. Writing through the period of September 11 and a War on Terror, Urry has celebrated flows, shifts and transgression. The problem is that we live in a time of border protection, asylum seekers and foreigners, rather than collaboration, social justice and migration. Perhaps now is the time to support a new research centre: the Immobility Institute. It could track and log the snares, traps and moats that restrict the free movement of people yet facilitate the swift movement of capital.

Obviously, I feel for those people labelled as “foreign”. Just about every night when the news mentions “foreign workers” or blames migrants for unemployment/the housing crisis/the credit crunch/the meltdown of the banking sector/Gordon Brown’s haircut/global warming/Paris Hilton’s dress sense, I have to remember that these labels are not abstract. They are directed at me and the thousands of other people who came to the UK to contribute to the country and live a life of learning, respect and international exchange.

I know a fair amount about the treatment of “foreigners” in this country. The Home Office threatened to deport me. I received the letter that chills and frightens every potential migrant: “Dear Professor Brabazon, You have ten days to leave the United Kingdom. Five days if you are in a detention centre.”

Without committed lawyers and a successful (and expensive) appeal process, I would have been separated from my British husband and sent back to Australia. While I can jokingly accept this attempted deportation as a desire to re-enact the colonisation of the colonies, the fact is that I am not a convict. I am an academic who would like to continue teaching university students while living with my husband.

This experience was not a study of excellence in international mobility or world-leading practices in border protection. It was debilitating, and I am not yet able to convey through language how it feels to face and fight deportation. To have had my passport held by the Home Office for nearly two years – unable to travel beyond a train trip from Eastbourne – has enacted a deep personal wound. I carry a burden that most cannot see but is always with me. Urry’s research into the vulnerability of the immobile has a particular poignancy.

The support I received from unlikely sources – students, Facebook users, Times Higher Education staff and the (often stroppy, but always engaged) readers of this column – was remarkable. But that old cliché was right: the silences were deafening. It is easier to celebrate “world-leading research” than support and understand “foreign” workers.

Through the personal struggles of the past two years, I still see incredible value in academic movement. We need to loop internationalism back into scholarly life. We cannot teach the value of cultural difference and multiculturalism to our students if we do not live a principled and courageous life discrediting and fighting injustice and inequality. If xenophobia is the answer, then we need to ask a different question.

Migration is incredibly hard on the workers involved. We rarely hear these difficulties expressed, as foreign accents are absent from picket lines and news stories. I do understand this silence. Migrants always carry a dense melancholic regret of the life they could have lived. The ghosts of our selves that never were, whisper to us at inopportune times: the tired train ride home, as we drift to sleep, or looking at a landscape that is beautiful but not home. We spend our nights dreaming of foreign oceans and hearing the waves of the past.

Foreign workers lose everything they have in the hope that their new life will be better. Sometimes it is not. That knowledge can stab a person with regret, longing and loss. But as in my case, the pleasures of a new home can create a spark of innovation from brilliant students, fresh research challenges, innovative teaching opportunities and a rebooted life.

Jenkins, in leaving MIT and an empire of intellectual excellence, is facing an unknown future. Still, he has the kindness to teach his students for one final semester as a way to mitigate their loss. Jenkins deserves great and continued success, knowing that he has contributed much to scholars throughout the world. His movement has meaning, and new students await him. I wish him the life promised in the title – if not the content – of that old Smokie song: may it never rain in Southern California.

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