This talk was composed for the Qatar Teaching and Learning Forum, on the topic of “Encouraging Student Authenticity in Writing.” I was part of a panel responding to recent articles about contract cheating. Full disclosure: I self-plagiarized a few sentences from one of my own articles.

I always feel a little guilty on the first day of class. I talk about my plagiarism policy, but the plagiarism policy on my syllabus is sandwiched between two paragraphs which were straight up copy-pasted from my institution’s policies. 

I’ve conducted a study on plagiarism in conference abstracts. You want to know who most often plagiarize conference abstracts? Maybe graduate students, some of whom are just now learning advanced disciplinary conventions and citation methods? It would be kind of understandable. No, it’s FULL PROFESSORS who ring up the high scores on Turnitin, most often because they self-plagiarize their own work and submit it as a new paper. They should know better, right? 

So I’d like to note that we could have gathered today for an alternative panel on Encouraging Authenticity in PROFESSOR writing. 

But we are here to talk about students, so I will note that one of my first principles of encouraging authenticity is to point out when it is perfectly ok, even preferable, to NOT be authentic. I teach technical writing, and to my knowledge, Qatar Petroleum does not want its new engineers running around putting all of their policies “in the student’s own words.” They want graduates to use what we call boilerplate text – text that you use verbatim; unauthentic text. 

Deborah Brandt studied workers who are ‘ghostwriters’ – people who, as part of their work, write speeches, policies, letters, reports, and other documents that are never acknowledged as the author of their work, much like the author or authors who wrote the policies on my syllabus. She concludes that “when it comes to writing, people’s expressive voices seem inevitably tangled with interests and liabilities of the organizations that employ them – and often cannot be comfortably extricated even off the job” (p. 164). In simpler terms, ghostwriters were proud of their words, even as those words were credited to others. They took great care in blending their individual voice with the voice of their employer. 

If we aim to prepare our students for work in the neoliberal corporate world – and we are remiss if we don’t acknowledge the reality that academia is largely such a world – we need to prepare students to be ghostwriters. 

What I think is important here is not to demonize these practices. As I hope I’ve pointed out, we as faculty members are implicated in and participate in practices that we don’t necessarily want to see in our students. What this looks like in my classroom is that when I analyze texts with my students, we talk about how, in the words of Leslie Seawright, documents in both the workplace and academia “accrue power for writers and readers, and […] are used for ideological purposes as well” (96). I show them chains of writing – what once was an email to me becomes part of my email back, and then that becomes an abstract that I submit to an editor, who provides feedback that shapes my first draft and on and on. I think it was Bakhtin who said something about how our mouths are full of other people’s words, but I couldn’t find that quotation when I googled it, so maybe I misremember it. 

Some technological tools for academic integrity are used for ideological purposes as well, and that’s why I won’t use Turnitin. Although it bills itself as a plagiarism prevention service, Turnitin, as a text-matching software, cannot distinguish between properly cited quotations and plagiarism (Purdy, 2005), nor can it detect if another writer has been paid to write the submission, and it does not often flag patchwriting, or when the writer changes a few words in a quoted phrase. Essentially, it can’t do more than a professor who Googles a few phrases here and there. Turnitin’s internet database, more than 45 billion webpages, is roughly the same size as that of popular search engines, over 49 billion webpages, which are free for any internet user (Turnitin, 2016; de Kunder, 2016). Turnitin uses this database to sell themselves to universities; however, this database has a large population of student writers who did not provide informed consent – their professors required them to submit their original work to a company that then makes money off of the students’ intellectual labor. 

My biggest problem is that Turnitin and programs like that is that students are presumed guilty before they are proven innocent – well, maybe innocent with 15% guiltiness. 

Some of you may have been thinking earlier, “Well, I have much higher goals for my students than to be the next cog in the corporate machine – writing is for expression of ideas and exploring what it means to be human!” Well, I agree with you, too, and this is where my second principle of encouraging authenticity comes in. I can refuse to adopt practices of the police state and start with the premise that writing in university needs to be meaningful to students. 

The authors of The Meaningful Writing Projectoffer compelling evidence that the kind of writing that sticks with students – across all disciplines – are assigned by faculty who encourage student agency, engagement, and transfer of learning. Meaningful writing assignments, they observe, invite students to

  • Tap into the power of personal connection 
  • See what they’re writing as applicable, relevant, real world, and connected to their future selves 
  • Immerse themselves in what they’re thinking, writing, and researching, including engagement in processes of writing (p. 108-109). 

This week, what that looks like in my first-year writing course is that students are emailing me their ORQs – original research questions – that they will then use as a basis for a series of interview questions (another small assignment that will be recorded in their research journals). They will ask these interview questions and write up their findings in a report, which I will see probably 2-7 drafts of, depending on the student and how much they want an A. 

Designing meaningful assignments and scaffolding them into shorter, manageable but also somewhat challenging stages helps my students see how they can do writing that seems out of their league. I want my students to be like ghostwriters: confident that they can tackle ANY writing assignment that comes their way, whether at university or in the workplace. 

I gave this speech at the 2018 Best Writing launch party in 2018, where we celebrated the newest edition called “Stories We Live By.”

Since this year’s theme for Best Writingis “Stories We Live By,” I thought I’d tell you one of my stories that has led me to be here.

When I was growing up, I loved spending time with my grandparents at their farm. I especially loved being with my grandmother, who seemed to know how to do everything – milk cows, gather hidden chicken eggs, grow plants from a single leaf. I adored her and wanted to be like her. 

Until one day, when I saw the grocery list she had made. Almost every word was misspelled. “Carrot” was spelled “carot,” “bread” was spelled “bred.” These were simple words that even I at 8 years old knew how to spell. I was crushed that my hero couldn’t write well, and I made fun of her errors.

My grandmother stands in the woods with her leg on the stump. She looks confident.
My grandmother Martha Foote

What I didn’t know then was that the misspelled words on that grocery list was a source of shame for my grandmother. She didn’t go to school after 4thgrade and never graduated from elementary school, much less a university like the one we stand in today. She was married at 13 and had three children by sixteen – the same year her husband died. 

The story I live by is that no one else should ever have to be ashamed of their writing like my grandmother was. I am here at university because she couldn’t be, and because she would have wanted me to appreciate the many gifts – including the gifts of multi-literacies – that every individual has.

We need stories to live by. Stories explain why we exist here on Earth or why we attend TAMUQ. Stories remind us of what kind of person we want to be, and they tell us what we are like at our worst. 

I encourage you to listen to the following student authors for the ways in which they tell us truths about each individual human spirit. These are volunteers who are speaking to you tonight, people who are answering a higher call than a professor assigning an essay. 

They are telling you the stories that we live by. 

This is a talk I gave at “Experience TAMUQ,” a recruiting event aimed at helping potential applicants learn what university life is really like.

Howdy! I’m Amy Hodges – my students call me Dr. Amy – and I’ve been teaching first-year students for twelve years. In addition to watching many, many students come into my classroom and four years later walk across the graduation stage, I have done research on how first-year students transition into university.

What I love about this research and what I love about teaching is that each student has a special journey from secondary school, to university, and to whatever lies beyond. But when I thought about sharing the bigger picture with you – what REALLY happens to students when they choose to come to university – I tried to find some common truths from the research and from what I’ve heard from my own students at TAMUQ.

First, I want to be completely honest. When you choose to come to university, you’re choosing to take a risk. You’re choosing to walk into a new place, with new people, to learn new things. The scholar Ellen Cushman says that “very few places in society act, feel, and sound like universities.” Coming to university is both a very scary and very exciting thing to do.

The good news is that everyone – including professors like me – are choosing to take risks right along with you. Taking risks is how scientists discover new knowledge and how engineers design new worlds. And universities like TAMUQ create support systems, like the ones my colleagues will tell you about in the next few minutes, so that it’s safe to take a risk and learn from what happens.

Second, when you choose to come to university, you’re choosing to explore new perspectives on who you are. That is, many students think that you come to university to learn more about your area of specialization, like engineering, which is true. But what they often don’t expect is that they learn a lot about their own abilities: their ability to be a leader, an expert, a friend, a poet, an adult.

I’m biased, but at its best, the American university system helps students discover this self-knowledge. The scholar Mike Rose says that “a good education helps us make sense of the world and find our way in it.” When you choose to come to a university like TAMUQ, you choose to take classes (like my first-year writing class!) and join clubs and meet friends that make you see yourself in a different light.

I hope that if you decide to come to university – be it TAMUQ or elsewhere – that you enjoy taking these risks and learning new things about yourself. And if you don’t – because even at TAMUQ every day is not sunshine and happiness and A pluses – I hope you know you’re not alone. As a university community we are committed to making sure you don’t regret this choice.

This essay was originally a Facebook post I made after the Executive Order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. 

Some of you have asked me if I’ve been impacted by the recent “Muslim ban” executive order, which bans nationals from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya from entering the US – even legal immigrants who have obtained green cards or visas, even those who contribute every day to Americans’ safety, happiness, education, health, and hope. My answer is probably a lot like yours, people who live in small- to middling-size town America: no, it doesn’t impact me. But here’s who it does impact.

It impacts many of my students, who can no longer visit the main campus, where they participate in cross-cultural Study Abroad, enriching both their own perspectives and the perspectives of the students in College Station. It impacts many who can no longer dream of going to the US and working for technology companies who are innovating in the field of engineering. It impacts many who believed in the myth that America is post-racial and a land of opportunity for all.

It impacts many of my colleagues, one of whom cannot visit her children and grandchildren in the US – and they can’t come visit her here in Doha because they won’t be allowed back home. Another can’t carry out his research that contributes to the efficiency of oil rigs, because the companies he works with in the US can’t fly him in to take advantage of his years of expertise.

It impacts many of my American friends, who are now concerned that this is only the first step. I was once questioned in a Tel Aviv airport for my associations with Muslims, and it wasn’t a fun experience. (Word to the wise: I gave their security people a bunch of “alternative facts” about my life. If I’m in a database somewhere, my dataset is contributing a lot of baloney to their profiles of terrorists.) Many of my friends now wonder, “Are they coming for me next? Will I endure extra screening? Will I be allowed into my own country? Just how far will this go?”

It impacts everyone I know in Qatar, because it feeds a culture of fear. And in that way, the “Muslim ban” has probably impacted you and me. The white nationalists who surround our National Dictator fear Muslims because they “aren’t like us,” a fear which is apparently justification enough to terrorize a group of people. If you’re not part of that group, then you’re in fear of what this country has become when its racism is worn on its sleeve, or maybe you’re afraid for the future, the world that your children will inherit. Me, I don’t get off on fear, but maybe that’s just my white female overpaid expat privilege talking.

So if you support the “Muslim ban,” you’re impacting all these people – pretty much everyone I know. Maybe you don’t have a single Muslim in your town, but I’ve got close to two million of them. They matter to me, so if I matter to you, you’ll think twice, three times, four times – as many as it takes – about your support for such an ethnocentric policy. If I don’t matter to you, well that’s too bad. I’m a pretty amazing person, and so are my Yemeni, Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Somalian, Sudanese, and Libyan friends, acquaintances, and fellow human beings.

 

This is a long blog post about my recent trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. I still have trouble articulating what I saw, how I felt about what happened, and what all of this means.

When I first moved to Qatar, I wrote about my feeling that it was important to listen and to learn. Now I think I have found my voice.

1. My tour guide, my brother, and I go to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. We walk towards the mosque and through a tunnel ending in one of those metal rotating doors used in prisons. At the checkpoint before we are allowed to enter the mosque, people are removing coats and handing purses over to the Israeli guards. My brother removes his coat to hand to the guard, and I get ready to give him my purse.

“Americans?” he asks, and we hand him our passports. He glances at them and nods. “Do you have any weapons or sharp objects?” When we say no, he tells us to go on through. John tries to hand the guard his coat, but he waves us on impatiently. He then pats down our Palestinian tour guide’s coat, feeling around deep down in the pockets before he’ll let Yamen through.

2. After we see the mosque and the tombs, we walk outside to a market street. There’s only about five or six shops open – some touristy trinket places, a small cafe that advertises juice and coffee, and several boarded-up doors sprinkled throughout. Storefronts are even more deserted down the street, where the only signs of life are a cautious orange cat and two Israeli guards with AK-47s at their waist. “There used to be a wall here,” Yamen says, indicating a line between the sidewalk and the street. The wall separated Palestinians on their way from the mosque and Israelis on their way to the synagogue on the other side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Now both groups can walk on the street, but Palestinians have to turn left at the next block so that they don’t go near the Jewish settlements at the top of the hill. That’s why the guards are there.

Yamen encourages John and I to walk down the empty street in order to see the settlements better. He stops at the end of the block, since he won’t be allowed to go past the guards, and John and I continue past abandoned buildings. The guards ask to see our passports and then wave us on. We only take a couple of steps before one calls me back. His face is obscured by a scarf covering the lower half of his face, but his freckly skin and fair hair remind me of someone in his early twenties – my students’ age when I taught in the US.

“Don’t listen to him,” he says, pointing towards Yamen, who is leaning against a wall and texting on his phone.

3. Yamen, John, and I walk back towards our car, and we take a shortcut through an alleyway that also serves as a souq – an Arab marketplace that feels familiar to me after my time in Qatar. Instead of a tented or stone ceiling, the alleyway has chainlink fencing hung from the tops of shops. This makeshift cover sags in places from the trash that has been thrown in it by Jewish settlers who live above the souq. A nearby shopkeeper shows us where a settler threw an egg and damaged his display of pashminas. He tells us that sometimes, the settlers rain down what he euphemistically calls “dirty water.”

“Muslim, Christian, Jew – we are all human! Why do they treat humans like dogs, with this trash on us every day? All we want is to be treated like a human, like a brother.” The shopkeeper points out an Israeli guard on the top of the next building, sitting in a camouflaged structure. “They see how we are treated, and they do nothing.” I ask him about his family, and he spends the next ten minutes singing the praises of his two sons – one is an engineer who sends money back home to support the family, and the other is in school getting top grades.

4. The next morning, John and I meet Yaniv, our Israeli guide for the day. As we walk through the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem/Al Quds, Yaniv points out police officers in civilian dress. I wouldn’t have spotted them otherwise, but they look very much like cops in the US – burly guys with clubs and pistols hanging from their belts. We pass one guard holding an ID card while a woman in a hijab answers his questions.

As we go through the tunnel that will lead us to the Western Wall and divides the Muslim quarter of the old city from the Jewish quarter, we put our backpacks and purses on an X-ray machine. No one asks for our passports, and we stride through a metal detector as the guards stand by, chatting in Hebrew. All of us – John, Yaniv, and I – are treated equally.

5. I am asking Yaniv about how he came to learn all the things that he knows about the history of Jerusalem, given that he was taught the state-sanctioned version of events growing up. Really, I am wondering how he managed and continues to manage what must be a difficult internal conflict between the ideologies he was taught in this culture and the realities he understands about how his people treat Israelis. I want to know when he realized what his country was doing to its residents. Did he serve his three-year mandatory stint in the Israeli army while recognizing the injustices he and his fellow soldiers were doing to Palestinians? Does he share his political knowledge with his friends and family, such as his stance that current Israeli archeological digs are a tool for the state to justify its existence?

I suspect that these questions are maybe a bit too personal for a guy I just met 45 minutes ago, so I’m asking more about his sources of information, given that I am starting to understand the Western bias in reporting on this region of the world. Like Yamen, he relies on local media, and he appears to be incredibly well-read on scholarly sources in history, archeaology, and geopolitics, among other things. Ignorance, he says, is one of the main reasons Israeli policies continue to discriminate against Palestinians, and he doesn’t feel like the violence (“a symptom of the problem”) will go away until Israelis realize what’s going on and change their policies. “And what if someone tells an Israeli about these sources and shows them what life is like for Palestinians?” I ask.

He says, “if you’re an outsider, you’re called an anti-Semite and that’s the end of that.” But what if you’re an insider, I wonder. Yaniv gives me a sad smile but doesn’t hesitate. “Then you’re a self-hating Jew.”

6. We’re almost to the airport in Tel Aviv. I’m sad to be leaving – I feel like I learned a lot and want to learn more – but I’m honestly a little overwhelmed by what I’ve experienced and the sadness and anger I’ve felt about the injustices I’ve seen. Our driver Rami is better than any GPS; he knows the names and history of all the villages we pass. That used to be Arab, this is an Israeli settlement within city boundaries but that Arab village next to it is not in the city boundaries, here is where a famous battle occurred in 1967 – he keeps a running commentary as I keep trying to make sense of all I’ve seen. When we reach the entrance to the airport, he tells us to be ready for the guards to stop the car. “They will ask where you’ve been in Israel,” he says. “You can tell the truth – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, yes. Hebron? Ehhh …” From what I saw in Hebron, I gather that it’s not very touristy and that I, a white American woman, would not have been there if I hadn’t been Up To No Good, aka listening to the stories of people living under occupation.

Sure enough, Rami, a Palestinian, is pulled over at the gate, and the guard looks at our passports. “You went to Jerusalem?” he asks, and I nod without adding any further information. On the other side of us, an Arab husband and wife are brought into the guard building for further questioning. They are wheeling a suitcase and dodging all the Israeli cars whizzing by.

7. Inside the airport, we join what we thought was a line for the ticket counter, but airport staff are checking everyone’s passport and flight information before they’ll let them through. When John hands our passports to the staff member, he zeroes in on the two Qatar residency permits in my passport, as well as the large sticker in Arabic identifying me as an employee of a university in Qatar.

He starts asking questions. What is the relationship between you two? Where are you from? When did you enter Israel? Where did you go in Israel? Where did you stay?

Do you have any other siblings? What’s her name? What are your parents’ names? How do you pronounce your family name? What’s the origin of that name? Do you speak Hebrew?

He waves at a supervisor, and she comes over to continue the questioning. What’s this sticker on the back of your passport for? Where do you work in Qatar? What do you do there? What do you teach? What are the nationalities of the students who attend this university? Where are your colleagues from? Where do you live in Qatar? What are the nationalities of the people living in this building? What’s the name of one of your colleagues?

Do you know any locals? (I ask for clarification for what she means by “locals,” and she tells me she means Arabs.) What are the names of your local friends? How often do you meet?

The Arab husband and wife from earlier pass us in the line; the airport staff have been trying to find them so that they won’t be late for their flight.

Where are you two going once you’ve left Israel? What will you be doing there? Why did you take the job in Qatar? Couldn’t you get a job in America? How long have you worked there? When are you going back to Qatar? Are you planning on living there for a long time? Congratulations on the new job in Singapore, when are you leaving Qatar? Did you meet anyone here in Israel? Were you with a tour?

In over twenty minutes of questioning, I’m trying to keep my answers short and I’m trying really, really, REALLY hard not to be a smart ass. I realize that these questions are not about terrorism; if you think I’m up to no good, go ahead and scan my bag. I think this is about my sympathies with Arabs, my associations with the beautiful and wonderful and diverse ethnic group I’ve come to know more intimately in the past year and a half. I think that this is about the story I’m going to go back and tell other Americans about what Israel is really like. It’s about intimidating me and silencing me because they don’t want me to share that story with you.

I didn’t go to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in order to get in touch with my own cultural roots of Christianity and its ties to the other Abrahamic religions. I came because I wanted to know more about the realities in this part of the world and about the everyday life of the people who inhabit this land.

So I’m not sharing these stories because I want you to know more about me or I want you to think of me as some kind of great noble crusader. I want you to hear these stories because the people who live here can’t share them. Or they have been trying and the Western media makes it into a different kind of story or you won’t listen because it doesn’t fit into what you thought you knew of the world.

I want to tell you about a world that looks deceivingly like our own, but this is a world in which it is acceptable to shoot rubber bullets at Arab children playing in the street, it is acceptable to make people live in a delapidated, “temporary” refugee camp that has been in existence since 1948, it is acceptable to declare martial law in Arab areas so that you can move Israeli settlers into that area and claim it for yourself (also violating international law in the process), it is acceptable to deny some of your population electricity and water and sewage treatment and social services and yet provide another portion of the population with first-world style amenities for the same needs.

This is a world that we are responsible for. I used to think that both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, were equally culpable for the conflict. After all, that’s all I ever heard on the American news. These Palestinians died because these others kidnapped Israelis, those Israelis were shot because these others were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I feel guilty about the ignorance I spread when I held that belief, and I will feel guilty if you, my readers, come away from this blog post not understanding the depth and the power of the injustice, oppression, discrimination, bigotry, racism, and human rights violations I saw being conducted against Palestinian Arabs on an everyday basis. I will feel guilty if I can’t, in some small way, do something to change that reality.

Stories like the ones I listened to in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories disrupt that narrative I tell myself: that this is a world where all of us have the choice to go where we wish, to do what we like, to live in peace and harmony, to laugh, cry, love, protest, argue, and develop our minds and our consciences with other people. I hope that the stories I’ve written here are one small step towards making that world a reality.

This trip hurt my heart because I know we are all capable of justice. I have been privileged to experience equal treatment from people of many different religions and cultural backgrounds, Judaism and Muslim included. It is easy for me to live my life not understanding nor caring about the thousands of invisible markers that allow me to walk through checkpoints all around the world. This trip showed me the importance of the stories of the oppressed who do not have these invisible markers, how they speak despite the world telling them that they are worthless, how they refuse to be silenced by an authoritarian government, and my role in sharing those stories with others.

One of the most common questions I get asked about living in the Middle East is, “How can you feel safe over there?” Violence unjustly perpetrated against Palestine and ISIS’s attacks on minority groups,  are the most recent examples of What Is Wrong With the World Today. Pictures of protesters in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain grace the front pages of many newspapers, often with the word “terror” in the headline.

In some ways, I am a little more fearful than I was when I lived in the US. I have to educate myself about different norms of labor laws, censorship, and the policing of women’s bodies. I worry about saying the wrong thing or doing something that could be interpreted in a way I can’t predict. I do not have rights that I had in the U.S., and trust me, I no longer take those for granted.

On the other hand, sometimes I forget to lock my door at night and I still sleep peacefully. I leave expensive items in my car and don’t have to hide them from view. I don’t worry that a policeman will turn a gun on me because I’m Black or that my government and media will slander me after I’m dead. As a woman, I feel safe walking city streets at night.

I’m not saying that the authoritarian surveillance system is something that I’m ok with, or that everything is as sunny in Qatar as it seems. What I understand now is having to convince international students in the US that they lived in a safe place. Of course this country is safe, I would say. We have an entire department devoted to Homeland Security, for crying out loud.

Well, except for that area of town at night. Well, be sure to say “yes, ma’am” or “no, sir” to cops when they pull you over. Well, only if you bring a friend with you. Well, maybe if you lived somewhere else, but that kind of thing doesn’t happen here.

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Every Friday morning, I watch a group of workers play cricket in an empty construction lot. In Doha, the sunrise pierces through the darkest of curtains at a truly ungodly hour, and I can’t sleep. I stumble into the kitchen, punch the buttons on the coffeepot, and sip my coffee while I contemplate my plans for the day. Should I call a friend for brunch? Go shopping at a mall? Which mall haven’t I visited in awhile? What about the souq or a road trip out of the city? Or should I curl up on the couch and binge-watch a TV show? Maybe I could pull out my laptop and do some work – surely there’s a deadline bearing down on me.

The workers must have woken before dawn in order to get to my part of town while the heat is still bearable – around 90F during the summer, and that’s nothing compared to how hot it will be by the afternoon.  Once, I saw them line up neatly in a row as if to number off and create new teams, but usually they’ve already started a match by the time my coffee is ready. Each man’s swing of the bat sets the other players in motion. The dust kicks up as a worker sprints across the lot, racing towards (from?) a tiny speck of a cricket ball. I can’t hear their shouts from where I stand, but several wave their arms enthusiastically. Even as the temperature inches upwards in the heat of midday, the match doesn’t lose any intensity.

I don’t see the end of these games, when the men board a bus back to their crowded camps, eat some dal and rice around the communal cookfire, rest in preparation for the six-day work week, and probably relive some key plays of the day’s match. I’ve finished my coffee and have chosen how I’ll spend my weekend. I have no idea how you play cricket, and I doubt I’ll ever really understand.

 

 

On a recent phone call with my grandmother, I mentioned the swimming pool on the 29th floor of my building. Mamaw was reminded of a hotel in New Orleans she once visited, which had a pool on the roof, “and that was in the 40s. Heaven knows what they can do now.”

Traveling to New Orleans from Atlanta with only her friends from the bank must have been such a daring adventure for her in the 1940s. They didn’t bring any male chaperones – no fathers, no brothers, no husbands – in an age where young women traveling without men was strongly frowned upon, if not unheard of in more conservative circles. They flirted with cute strangers and drank hurricanes. (Years later, she would drink one sip of eggnog and proclaim, “No more! Ah’m dizzy and I want to drive to Publix in the morning!” I can’t help but speculate on what a tall hurricane would have done to her.)

Mamaw and her friends went all over New Orleans, including Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, Canal Street – all of the landmarks that would become famous as the setting for A Streetcar Named DesireNew Orleans jazz experienced a revival in the 1940s, and even though her tastes ran more towards Johnny Cash, she must have been impressed by the way jazz lamented the loss of a decaying, idealized South while promoting a certain kind of sunny optimism and perseverance. (If you don’t know what I mean, try listening to this.)

When I was a little girl, I remember a relative telling me not to be jealous of Mamaw’s treatment of my younger brother, because she had only raised boys and didn’t understand girls very well. But now, I know that her feelings towards me and my sister were more complicated than that.

Especially as we grew older, she must have seen how Kristin and I stepped out into the world much like she did in 1940s New Orleans: brave but wary, daring ourselves into doing things we were afraid of. I think she saw herself in us, versions of herself that didn’t have to abide by the gender-strict rules of the mid-20th century South. Mamaw had experienced just enough of life outside her family home in Chattanooga to let her know what exciting things were out there.

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Mamaw passed away yesterday at 88 years old. She went to Young Harris College, raised two boys, toured Washington, D.C., played the Florida lottery religiously, watched NASCAR races like God himself was going to show up in the 184th lap, said “Hells bells” in public when she wasn’t supposed to, and collected enough birds, butterflies, orchids, and Elvis figurines to populate a beautiful, if somewhat strangely decorated, village. She hated to cook, but would have made me my favorite spaghetti dish every hour on the hour if that is what I would have wanted. 

In short, after her adventure in 1940s New Orleans, she found adventures in the everyday tasks of woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and proud redneck. She would say “I’m just a hick from the sticks” when she was asked to try something new, but we all knew that was only part of the truth. 

Names have been changed to disguise the Worst Girl Scout Camper Ever.

Susie was angry, upset, frustrated, weepy, and homesick. That week, there was an unusually low number of campers, and I had only 8 kids in my unit. With three other counselors, I thought this would be one easy week. What I didn’t know is that Susie would be enough for a whole camp full of experienced counselors to handle.

She didn’t want to do anything, she lashed out in frustration, she cried constantly, she annoyed and antagonized her cabinmates. She talked back to me, she ignored or disobeyed camp rules, she belittled me and the other counselors and campers. Susie was the camper from hell and she intuitively knew how to push my buttons. After a couple days of this, I tried to get other counselors and the camp director involved, and she didn’t respond very well to them either. I resolved to keep trying to find someone who could talk to Susie and find the right balance between listening to her concerns and urging her towards some kind of activity.

I tried to be sympathetic. I reminded myself that everyone, including myself, got homesickness, and that once Susie found an activity she could enjoy, she would feel better and stop lashing out at anyone and everyone within a 30-mile radius. I imagined what I was like at eight, and I pictured what Susie’s home life must be like, based on our conversations. I attempted to empathize when she fought with the other kids and groused about the counselors and camp life in general.

But it wasn’t working. I hated Susie and I hated what she was doing. She was making my life miserable, and I am not a person who secretly enjoys misery. She was throwing her whole unit, including me, out of whack, and I resigned myself to not being able to help Susie, my snot-faced, grouchy pre-teen problem.

I had just given up on her when she walked past me on the trail (without a buddy, of course) and asked me to put a postcard to her mother in the mail. Normally, I’d tell the girls to do it for themselves, but I wanted to avoid a fight and I was on my way to the dining hall anyway, so I said fine. Normally, I wouldn’t read a kid’s mail (privacy and tampering with mail and all), but I was out of answers regarding Susie’s problems and wanted to know if something she wrote could give me some insight. Frankly, I also wondered what the world’s unhappiest kid would tell her mother about our camp. Even happykids complained about the lack of air conditioning, their confiscated cell phones, and their aversion to the gunk at the bottom of the lake. What would Susie’s letter say: “the disgusting gunk at the bottom of the lake is the best part of this godforsaken place”?

It said that she loved camp, although she had some issues with the quality of the food and the horseback lessons. (Susie claimed to be an accomplished rider, and she felt that walking her horse around the arena was beneath her.) She enjoyed spending time with her friends. She missed her baby brother. She said she didn’t like any of the counselors, and I remember this part word for word, “except for Amy because she is my friend.”

Susie’s story is a helpful reminder to me that when we teach, we don’t know the full story. Sure, I can diagnose a reading comprehension problem a mile away, but I have no way of knowing all of the literacy experiences that led you to choose that sentence from that source to paraphrase in that way for this particular paper. To teach is to always be confronting the unknown, to be out of patience, good humor, sympathy, and resourcefulness in the face of a Susie.

Living and working in Qatar heightens these tensions of communicating with those we cannot fully understand. As anyone who has tried to order food can tell you, just because we all speak English doesn’t mean we’re talking in the same language.

But what this experience has done for me is that it has made me more comfortable with being the one who doesn’t understand. With Susie, I pushed and pushed to make meaning of her situation, to comprehend what was going on in her mind, and to find “solutions” to her “problems.” Now, I’d have infinitely more sympathy, but not because she was homesick or because she was the spawn of Satan. I would have sympathy because I am in the same boat in many ways, facing new challenges and feeling inadequate to understand what they are, much less meet them.

Last spring, I must have looked incredibly pitiful. Typically, it would take me 10 minutes – maybe less, if I hurried – to walk from my apartment to the university campus. With full blown psoriatic arthritis, the trip was considerably longer and more arduous: as much as 45 minutes from start to finish. I can remember several times where someone I didn’t know pulled over their car and offered me a ride up the hill to work. Sometimes I would have to stop and catch my breath as the waves of pain threatened to overwhelm me. Eventually, instead of walking less than a mile, I started driving my car to work.

I knew that my students noticed; one or more would jump up and help every time I started to pass out papers to the class. My colleagues thoughtfully took the elevator with me and gave me rides home. Friends scheduled meetings in my office or in places I could walk to (well, limp to) easily. My rambunctious sixth-graders would run back and check on me if I took too long to get out to the creek outside their school.

I didn’t mind explaining to everyone the reason for my problems. “I have psoriatic arthritis” is an easy enough sentence to say. It’s much harder to come to terms with what that sentence means or how (whether you want it to or not) it defines your entire life.

I don’t write about my experiences with arthritis to portray myself as a saint. In fact, a lot of the time I was anything but saintly – angry at myself, at Art (as I called my condition), at the world, at the cruelty of genetic diseases. I write about my situation because I see healthcare in Qatar through its lens.

All of that being said, I notice two major differences between my doctor visits in the US and in Qatar.

First, seeing a doctor is incredibly convenient in Qatar. In the US, it took me three months to see a rheumatologist – all while I was in agonizing pain, as noted above. In Qatar, I called on a Sunday and had an appointment by Wednesday. A couple of weeks ago, I went up to the hospital on a Saturday at 8:00 without an appointment. By 8:15, I was talking to the doctor. Another time, I went up to my employer’s health clinic planning on asking them to recommend a dermatologist. In 20 minutes, I was talking to one.

For someone who doesn’t have a debilitating condition, this situation is pretty nifty. For someone like me, this situation minimizes my chronic pain, which is worth far more to me than I can tell you. I can’t be a productive worker or, indeed, a functioning human being, without prescription medication.

The second difference is that doctors in Qatar are much less likely to have extensive conversations with you about your health and your life. In the US, my doctors (particularly the rheumatologist I mentioned above) were very good at talking with me about not only my symptoms, but also the way my health affected my everyday life. In Qatar, the doctor visits are more purpose-driven: I come in with a medication or treatment in mind, I ask my doctor for it, he or she gives it to me.

Early in the stages of my disease, I felt confused and unmoored; my body was responding to the world in ways it never had before. Everything was out of my control. I could read the Wikipedia pages and the clinical trials of the prescription drugs whose names were being bandied about, but what mattered most to me is that someone would take the time to talk to me and answer the (sometimes very stupid) questions I had – questions that weren’t always about medicine or about my disease, but ME.

I can’t quite articulate what I think about these differences, nor can I give anyone a clear answer about which healthcare system is best. (Well, I could, but I freely admit that such a post would be less evidence-based and probably offend a few of my faithful readers.) What I do understand, after living four months overseas, is how important it is that a healthcare system be structured to listen to and validate the suffering (no matter how large or small) of its patients. Neither system gets it completely right, and if my experiences are representative, perhaps they could both learn from each other.