Just the other day, I ran into students from my law school at a local café; they asked me why I had my computer with me—school is over! I’ve repeatedly had some version of this interaction over the years, with students asking me what I am doing for winter vacation, etc., and I’ve always been a bit bemused but also a little concerned that maybe not all students realize the ‘double-lives’ of teachers and scholars which many of us in legal academia lead. Admittedly, I do perhaps live a bit more of a multi-sited life than others, and it’s not always clear, even to my faculty colleagues, what I’m doing in Delhi, or Islamabad, especially when it’s summer and awfully hot in South Asia (and Saint Louis, let me note!).
As a comparative legal scholar, I’ve always felt it an imperative—one might call it a moral imperative—to be in the places about which one is writing. I’ve felt this not only in relation to my U.S.-focused work, but especially so with respect to places that often get wildly mis-represented in both popular and academic discussions in the U.S. (and elsewhere), namely India and especially Pakistan. As a result, I’ve tried to find ways to live and work in Pakistan and India; this used to be easier when I didn’t have a full-time teaching position, and I could spend a year or more at a time abroad, but now I try to make as much as I can during summer and winter breaks. But these aren’t ‘vacations' in any usual sense.
Yes, I get to meet up with friends and family while in South Asia, but there is also hard work in bringing language skills back up to some workable level (BBC Urdu is a mainstay otherwise), tracking down complete strangers for interviews and informational meetings, conducting interviews, collecting documents, buying books—wondering how this is all going to fit into your suitcases and whether immigration control is going to freak out on you again because you’ve been to Pakistan or have spoken to Muslims in India—and often attending a local activist or academic conference or two. And not just for a week, but for months. Doing this kind of work in a megalopolis like Delhi is often especially exhausting; indeed, repeatedly having to cold-call and meet strangers for interviews can be very exciting, but also often awkward and sometimes infuriating as people relate in detail their prejudices about you (an American) or Muslims, or both.
That being said, I can’t imagine another academic life. I’ve learned an incredible amount about law, religion, and sexuality through the ethnographic enterprise. I’ve also met some incredible people—such as ‘Ayesha’—who have been interview subjects, but whose personal stories have also provided much motivation for completing my current manuscript project (“The Rule and Role of Islamic Law: Constituting Secular Law and Governance in India”). So, this summer I’m staying in Saint Louis to write, but I’m hoping to get back on the road soon enough; there’s a lot of work (and shami kebabs) ahead of me.