Another Look at Being a Migrant Academic

On Monday, I spent time discussing the personal aspects of being an applied linguist that is also a migrant academic, or an academic that has moved from their home country to another country for work. In today’s post, I’m going to focus on the professional aspects of being a migrant academic.

Professional Challenges

I work for NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学), which is a Sino-American joint venture (SAJV) university. Now, the joint venture university is a relatively new beast. There are very few of us that are degree granting and in full operation (e.g., NYU Shanghai, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Wenzhou-Kean University). Because we’re so new, this means that we’re often in Start-up mode. Now, like a tech start-up, there’s a flurry of activity and changes happen from moment-to-moment as we attempt to find our stride and the policies and procedures that work best for our school, students, faculty, and staff. Being a start-up also means that there’s a lot of administrative work that needs to be done. And at times, these administrative tasks can feel like they’re encroaching on your regular work of teaching or researching…or even of administering other areas. It can be a real challenge to keep up with it all. There are days where it can take a considerable amount of energy to keep up with the changes and the attempt to be an active change agent.

However, in this challenge comes great opportunity. Working through the challenges of start-up gives you the opportunity to affect positive change and to be a part of setting the direction for the university. Also, being a start-up means that the argument “that’s the way it’s always been done” no longer holds any water. But, one of the best possible benefits of this challenge is that the experience can help you to become an agile academic—one who can quickly adjust meet the changing needs of the university. Agility is a vital skill for a faculty member to have, especially when many American universities are facing a wall of changes.

Another professional challenge, although this may vary from one institution to another, can be access to resources. If you’re working for an SAJV, this means things like the Great Firewall (防火长城) are a reality in your daily life. This means that you may need to adjust your schedule to make sure that you have access to resources for research—perhaps you can only access certain library materials on the school intranet. It may also mean that you must be creative in seeking out alternative methods of acquiring resources. For example, learning how to gain access to, and make use of, national research databases like the Chinese National Knowledge Infrastructure (中国知网). Or, perhaps it means using an institutional VPN. But, VPNs go down, Infrastructure credentials can expire, and it can be a sunny day that you don’t want to spend in the office. You just get to learn how to be extra creative, which is fantastic because you end up expanding your professional repertoire in exciting ways.

Professional Opportunities

My work with NYU Shanghai has brought about many, many professional opportunities. And, I am so very grateful. Now, I understand that what I might discuss in the follow paragraphs may not apply to all cases or all institutions, but I want to share some of the professional opportunities that this position has brought about for me. In doing so, I hope it highlights some of the possibilities that exist.

Working for NYU Shanghai has been a professional boon. There are so many things that I’ve gotten to do by working for them that I don’t think I would have gotten to do otherwise—from supporting writing across the curriculum to designing new courses, to mentoring para-professional staff, it’s just been amazing. So, here are a few of the most memorable opportunities.

Being in Asia means that you have relatively cheap airfare to a host of other countries. At this point, you may be thinking, “that’s great for travel.” And, you’re right. It is perfect for travel, which means it’s ideal for tapping into a vibrant regional professional community. I can safely say that I wouldn’t have the chance to get to know so many energetic TESOL professional from places like China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Japan if it weren’t for being so close to other TESOL conferences. Yes, big-T TESOL in the U.S. has an international draw, but sometimes it’s too big, and it feels centered on the Americas. But, the regional TESOL conferences like CamTESOL in Phenom Pehn are much more accessible, and you get to learn about great work being done in a wider range of national contexts. It’s been amazing.

At NYU Shanghai, I’ve also gotten to design and teach two new courses. This is stimulating intellectual labor that requires you to critically apply what you learned during your pre-service coursework. And, sometimes, it may require you to work collaboratively with other units on campus. For example in Fall 2015, I started working with the Silver School of Social Work to design a professional writing seminar for some of their students. This allowed me to be an advocate for L2 English students, and to apply my knowledge of writing and rhetoric to a new context. I’ve taught that course twice now, and it’s been a thrill a minute. In Spring of 2016, I designed a course on language variation and identity for Perspectives on the Humanities series of classes. Through this course, I got to introduce a group of students to World Englishes, showing them that American and UK English aren’t the only Englishes out there. There’s a whole world of variety that requires us to be open to and accepting of diverse linguistic practices. Also, through this course, I was able to find a small group of students to engage in scholarly collaborations. A group of my students and I are working on a World Englishes analysis of queer identities in Ha Jin’s The Bridegroom. We hope to add in a bit of a queer Marxist reading as well. Currently, we’re attempting to present a draft version at the International Association of World Englishes in New York this summer, and we hope to send an article treatment to the Minnesota Review in the fall. It’s very exciting to work with such passionate students because they draw out your own passion in return.

There is a host of other professional opportunities that NYU Shanghai has helped to create for me. But, I won’t go on anymore. I will say, however, being a migrant academic can open many doors that you never even considered. It’s a very challenging, very rewarding experience.

Come back on Friday as I wrap up this week’s series by talking about some considerations to bear in mind if you want to pursue the path of the migrant academic. Cheers!

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