vulnerable

I would like to make a comment about the vulnerability of many international scholars, in particular those who depend on a visa. I have a very good job at a prestigious university in the United Kingdom. I run a lab, I publish cutting-edge research, I supervise students. I also have two children and a house here, and my partner works at the same university. It seems I have the dream job for a researcher, and a dream life (if you like children!). And I do. However, my passport, issued in one of the countries from the former soviet union, spoils the dream. My dream job and everything else can vanish if I don’t get my visa renewed, which depends on getting my job contract renewed, which in turn depends on having a grant approved every 5 years (not to mention the scariest of the stages in the process of having a visa renewed: the usually arbitrary criterion applied by the officer who decides whether or not to approve your visa). If I don’t get the grant, I have to face deportation and leave everything here, my career and my family. Many academics live with the pressure of having to publish and get grants in order to continue in their jobs. That is part of the academic work. What I try to point out is that those who depend on a visa have an extra pressure: it is not only a matter of keeping your job, but also the life you built and are living.

It is often invisible, this vulnerability, and I haven’t found yet a way to cope with it, with the constant fear of one day having to leave my family and everything I love. Vulnerable, I’d say we foreigners are.

privileges of passing

I am a German, got my Ph.D. in the US and I currently work in Sweden. I was fortunate to almost completely lose my German accent during my time in the US, so that to most non-native (and many native) speakers of English, I sound American now. This more or less accidental “language setting” has a number of undeserved benefits in academic contexts. Because of the lack of an accent, I’m likely to be perceived as more confident and more competent. I actually feel more competent when I can speak English (rather than Swedish, and even rather than German). Listeners will find it easier to follow my train of thought. I might seem more approachable in post-talk situations, because speaking American English (rather than Swedish, and rather than German) will make my demeanor more jovial.

I am lucky to not have to worry (much) about students or conference participants finding themselves unable to focus on the content of what I’m saying because of how I sound to them. I am lucky to have that piece of professional authority simply handed to me. (And on a lighter note, I get to amuse myself with confusing people when they can’t quite figure out why I sound the way I sound, work in Sweden, and complain about German politics.)

I am grateful, on the other hand, for the challenge of conversing and teaching in Swedish, because it makes me (sometimes painfully) aware of the limitations of my own language skills, and it hopefully provides a corrective to judging my peers merely by what sort of accent their English happens to have.