Students may not expect to walk into a classroom and learn that places like Dubai and Qatar are not that different from the U.S. But that is exactly what they will find in class with Neha Vora, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology.
It is also the subject of her forthcoming book, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora, to be published in March by Duke University Press. Indians and other South Asians, Vora says, comprise the majority of Dubai’s population, but they are considered temporary migrants by the Emirati state. They rely on renewable visas or business partnerships with citizens to maintain homes that they have had for many years or, in some cases, several generations.
“The book is inspired by a paradox: Dubai is in many ways an Indian city, yet Indians are legally not able to obtain citizenship or permanent residency,” Vora explains. “The book argues that Indians are ‘impossible citizens’—they belong within, and despite, this condition of permanent temporariness.”
Vora is beginning a project that focuses on the expansion of globalized higher education, mostly in the form of American branch campuses, into the Gulf Arab states. It is something Vora knows firsthand. Before coming to Lafayette, she was an assistant professor of anthropology and women’s & gender studies at Texas A&M University, and spent three summers teaching at Texas A&M Qatar. She is compiling the initial fieldwork data she collected as well as from interviews at other campuses in Qatar’s capital of Doha.
Much of Vora’s work challenges how Western society views the Gulf States, in particular, and the Middle East, in general, as opposite or exceptional in relation to its own lived experiences. Indians in Dubai, for example, express very similar forms of belonging and identity as other diaspora populations, despite being legally very differently situated than their counterparts in the U.S. and U.K.
Challenging conventional ways of thinking is among Vora’s most important tasks in the classroom. It was her own undergraduate experience as a psychology and women’s studies major at Wesleyan University that shaped her teaching philosophy. She hopes to provide that same one-on-one mentoring and encouragement that she found at a small liberal arts school.
“My goal is to make sure students find a hook—something that makes them think differently about the world than they had before coming into my classroom and inspires them to continue along that path of inquiry,” she says. “I prioritize critical thinking, discussion, and reading and writing skills in all my classes.”
Vora also is a student in her own classroom. Especially with her project exploring U.S. satellite campuses around the world, her students become what she calls “participant observers.” They experience study abroad, global citizenship ventures, and changes in the American university system at home and abroad. Not only can she learn from their experiences, but she can help guide them in similar research.