foreign student, and a woman

It’s the end of my first year as a foreign student. During the whole year I found it hard to “fit in”. The issue is that I’ve had the feeling that to be part of the community of my department was difficult: everybody was polite, but there was always this feeling of distance. After my first weeks, I realized that my only friends were foreigners too. We talked about this issue and they had the same experience: You are welcome but not integrated. I assumed it was due to the fact that we were foreigners: different cultures, different ways to interact prevented us from understanding the “non written rules of the community”. Interesting enough, every time I would meet someone from a different department the first question was: how is the atmosphere in your department? I realized it was not only me but that in general the perception other’s had of my department was that it is hard to fit in and interact with the community.  After a few months things had changed: some of my friends had been integrated in the community, some didn’t. I was too busy to think of it, until I had a revealing experience two days ago: the department organized an event to which most of the students of the department attended. After the event, a group decided to go for a drink. I was sitting with some of my foreign friends and someone came to invite us to join them for drinks.  When the group left for drinks I realized it was only integrated by white men. And suddenly I realized: the invitation to drinks was not addressed to all of us, but just to a few of the people I was siting with: men. I couldn’t help but to comment it with my friends, and their answer was astonishing: oh, you haven’t noticed yet that our department is completely male dominated?  Indeed, I realized that the only ones of my foreign friends who were  invited to parties, to join extra academic events or that had been welcome to be more involved in department activities were in fact white men.  I have to confess, I did not notice any of this till my friends mentioned it. I was so convinced the problem was being a foreigner that I had not realized what the real issue is: the problem is being a woman. Honestly, I’m still in shock. Not only because of the reality but because it’s taken me a year to see it!

the fear of being an outsider

I had an interesting experience during my first teaching job at a university in the United States. Note: I am in an important sense a foreigner in this country, and I speak English with an accent. The first day of classes the classroom was crowded, with at least 15 students sitting on the floor or standing up. I asked the department for a bigger classroom, but it took time to find one, and during two more sessions the situation persisted. In the meantime, I had to figure out what to do with those students in the waiting list (I finally added all of them to the course). During the second class, a student raised her hand and suggested that I should ask students in the waiting list to stand up, for registered students are the ones who have the right to a chair. I responded that it was not my position to ask anyone to stand up. The same student then asked me from her chair “can I ask you a personal question?”. Before I had time to say “we can talk at the end of the class”, she asked her question in front of the class “is this the first time you teach here? Because this never happens here”. I felt so nervous that I think my hands starting shaking. My accent, my language skills, my appearance, my teaching skills, my knowledge, my authority as an instructor, my capacity to organize and run a course,…. Everything felt suddenly threatened, questioned, and I had to defend myself in front of a room with 80 people staring at me. I didn’t know what “here” meant, if she meant “here in this university” or “here in the United States”. I felt so disempowered by her question, so vulnerable and annoyed and confused.

The day after the same student emailed me with an apology, but interesting enough, she added three paragraphs of recommendations of how I should manage the course, extend the deadlines and organize the readings (!!). I cannot be sure that it was my accent and my obvious non-native status what triggered her distrust, it could have also been my apparent youth and friendly manners (features that in some students do not motivate respect and trust). I suspect there was a little bit of both. But anyway, it is interesting how her question triggered a persistent fear in me, the fear of being an outsider in that university, of not belonging there (here) with all those (these) Americans.

doing philosophy as a non-native speaker of English

I am a graduate student in philosophy in the United States, and English is not my native language. Even though I have no problem communicating with others (at work and outside of it), I struggle with my papers. I am never sure whether my writing is correct, and I even lost track of what “correct” means, for I often see myself taking “correct” for “sounds like it was written by a native speaker”. The impostor syndrome has an extra flavour of failure for me; when the feeling of inadequacy knocks on my door, I feel inadequate in the first place because I am a non-native speaker of English, and I know I will drag this limitation forever.

I decided to contribute to this blog because I saw this discussion on Daily Nous and found it both helpful and a bit disturbing:

being an alien

I teach philosophy in the United States. I have been here on a visa for almost 10 years. My partner, my friends, my job opportunities, my house, are in this country. As a visa-holder, I am a “non-resident alien” in immigration terminology (although I count as a resident for tax purposes). Being here on a visa (whether doing the PhD on student visa, or working as a Lecturer or Postdoc with a J1 or a H1 visa) really makes you feel an alien. An alien whose status on this land is highly fragile and out of their own control. A small mistake on the visa renewal application (be it yours, or, as it happened to me once, the immigration office’s mistake) means deportation. A gap of even one single day between the end of a contract and the beginning of the next one, means deportation. The pressure to get a job, and not any job, but a job in which your employer is willing to sponsor your visa, is so high that I often lose track of the reasons why I am applying for a job: to keep doing philosophy? To be able to choose where I want to live? To be able to stay at my house with my partner, and not being forced to go back to a country where I do not belong anymore?

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“I immediately felt like an unwelcome intruder in my own classroom”

I am from the UK and work in the US. Recently I was setting up display equipment before a class started. Two students were chatting quietly about how hard it is to understand the accent of a foreign professor they have for a class. One started imitating various examples of this professor’s pronunciation of certain terms and complaining about how confusing it was to have them pronounced differently. I couldn’t decide whether they were referring to me, or to someone else on our faculty who is also from outside the US originally. When the imitation started, I couldn’t help looking up, and they could see I’d heard. While I was debating whether or not it was worth saying anything or simply ignoring it, the student who had been doing the imitating said (loudly, and obviously for my benefit), “Oh, but I like having a foreign professor, it’s very interesting.” The point is: even if it wasn’t me he was complaining about, when I heard this, I immediately felt like an unwelcome intruder in my own classroom. I had to stand and think about whether or not I should say something and risk alienating those students or stay quiet and fail to defend the professionalism of myself and my colleagues (which should be clear anyway, regardless of accents). Then I had to teach the class, and support those students’ learning, without letting my anxiety and discomfort show. People talk about the burden of discrimination: what that means at least in part in the case of foreign academics is that simply turning up to teach is more exhausting and stressful than it is for non-foreigners.