In addition to scholarship and publishing on academic forums, faculty at MGSHSS also write for the popular media in Pakistan. They contribute their analyses on politics, economy, history, education, and on many other issues. Op-eds and features by the faculty have appeared in many prestigious dailies and weeklies in Pakistan, including Dawn, The News, The Nation, and The Friday Times. These MGSHSS faculty have, with varying frequency, contributed to Pakistan’s popular print media: Rasul Bakhsh Rais, Hassan Javid, Sameen Mohsin, Asma Faiz, Umair Javed, Kamran Asdar Ali, Nida Kirmani, Ali Usman Qasmi, and Aurangzeb Haneef from Humanities and Social Sciences; and Ayesha Ali, Faisal Bari, Hadia Majid, and M. Usman Khan from Economics. The fall of 2018 was marked by the consequences of the 2018 General Elections in Pakistan and faculty in the Politics program at LUMS made a substantial contribution to the debate through their features and op-eds in Pakistan’s leading English-language papers. Anam Fatima Khan sat down with three professors in the Politics program—Dr. Sameen Mohsin, Dr. Rasul Bakhsh Rais, and Dr. Umair Javed—and asked them about their decision to write for the popular media and why it matters.
Dr. Sameen Mohsin (Assistant Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences)
There was never an integrated thought process behind my decision to write for the popular media. I have always done it because I felt like there was something in the press to which I had a response. Either I felt that whatever aspect I wanted to cover wasn’t being addressed by the public discourse or that I had some kind of expertise that could add to the conversation. I feel that the urge to intervene in the public discourse comes from social media, especially Twitter. Through these mediums you are able to understand the public perception about a certain topic and respond to these notions in light of your own research. Therefore, I want to write something that is accessible for everyone and is immediately available to a much wider audience. Sometimes you get approached as well. For example, Dawn has reached out to me to write for them; however, that was something that came from someone who was following me on Twitter.
I think it’s very important to assert your expertise in public. As a female academic in Pakistan, if I don’t assert my expertise, nobody will know that I exist. That is not the case for men because of their access to networks exclusive to their gender. For women it doesn’t work that way. It has taken a long time for me to realise that I do this work and I have something valuable to contribute. It’s important to put yourself out there in the public discourse, which is dominated by men. The reach of a newspaper article is far more than any thesis. The point of academic work, for me, is to not sit in any journal article but to affect public knowledge and discourse.
“I think it’s very important to assert your expertise in public. As a female academic in Pakistan, if I don’t assert my expertise, nobody will know that I exist.”
As far as writing for a medium that transcends the bound of the academy and perhaps seeps into journalism, the line between the two professions is sometimes blurry. As an academic they teach you to be neutral. However, with journalism it is easy to slip into binaries. They’re not the same thing and they shouldn’t try and be the same thing. Journalism has its own niche that academia shouldn’t encroach upon and vice versa. They each have their own domains. Due to an explosion of media outlets, there is a perception in Pakistan that expertise equates having an opinion. The boundaries between opinion, expertise, and facts are murky.
It is important for me to write these opinion pieces because unless you have a public profile, media organisations will not know how to contact you because of the male dominated media sphere that instinctively approaches male academics. However, at the same time a lot of women are not comfortable putting themselves out there. They are afraid of getting attention, which is fine, but also they have never been allowed the space to assert themselves publicly.
Sometimes you get requests depending on the dominant stories in a news cycle—for instance, an elections season. For me it is a struggle. It takes me a long time to write and it requires effort that I could have put into a journal article. There are a lot of things to say but there is a time and a place for an op-ed. I was thinking about how I’m writing a journal article and once that is finished, I can condense it into an op-ed. I find it hard to switch between the two things.
Dr. Rasul Baksh Rais (Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences)
I have been writing for almost 36 years. My first column was an article I wrote for a magazine in 1975 when I was a lecturer in Punjab University’s department of political science and the name of the magazine was Talwar. Then I started writing for the English press in early 1982 when I came back after my PhD and started writing for the Muslim and since then I have been writing regularly. I contributed to the Muslim for almost five years and then for The News for around six. Then, occasionally I write for Dawn, The Daily Times, and The Express Tribune (the Tribune columns have also been translated to appear in the Urdu daily, Dunya). I think there are two kinds of academics: those who are recluse and focus on their academic work. The books or journal articles they write reach a very limited number of scholars and students. I question that role of a teacher in post-colonial states. I believe that our work because of the language barrier and because of the nature of the work itself is not accessible to the general public. Therefore, we must be intellectually active in shaping public opinion. Since we have the training and the background, I believe that compared to a journalist or a columnist, professors who have a formal training and expertise in a subject can offer more rigorous analyses to policymakers and ordinary readers. It is a kind of activism. Activism is not simply hitting the streets with placards and demonstrating. Activism is that you express your voice on burning social, economic, and political issues. I believe that it is a moral and ethical obligation of intellectuals that they take the controversies out of the classroom and into the public sphere and bring back to the classroom what they learn in the public sphere. Additionally, media appearance, not only in the newspaper but also in the electronic media, is extremely important in order to be counted on the side of the forces of equality, liberty, social justice, and rule of law. I believe that we have a very important role in society against misrule, misgovernance, corruption, and injustices. Simply expressing one’s own concerns and feelings in the classroom is not enough. We have to be there out in the media and in addition to our traditional role of teaching, researching, and publishing, we need to be in the public sphere.
“I believe that it is a moral and ethical obligation of intellectuals that they take the controversies out of the classroom and into the public sphere and bring back to the classroom what they learn in the public sphere.”
Further, I believe that the idea of objectivity, even in the academia, is a misnomer—what you have is a perspective. It is quite possible to write objectively for professional articles and journals; the bias and prejudice is something that should not interfere with your writing. But then objectivity is rooted in some form of subjectivity. I agree with the critical theorists who say that construction or production of knowledge is motivated by political considerations. You cannot take politics out of production of knowledge. You are part of a much larger project. My training in American universities exposed me to various interests of production of knowledge. Similarly, for the newspapers, we write for an opinion page where you are required have and present a point of view.
Dr. Umair Javed (Assistant Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences)
My interest in writing for newspapers precedes my interest in the academia. After graduating from college, I was studying Politics at SOAS where I started a blog which focused on pseudo social scientific analysis of global events and politics. There was a small and fairly active community of people who were writing about South Asian politics. The Sunday reached out to me and wanted to feature a piece that I had written and that is how I got started. They were looking for younger voices. After finishing my graduate studies and returning to Pakistan, I started contributing more regularly to newspapers like Pakistan Today where I wrote for a year before switching to The Friday Times for about three months which presented me with the opportunity to write longer pieces. By then I caught the eye of someone at Dawn and I was offered a regular writing slot.
“I wanted to bring an element of abstraction to the conversation surrounding politics at the time.”
I wanted to bring an element of abstraction to the conversation surrounding politics at the time. We were fixated on personalities and there was not enough focus on how larger institutional factors contribute to what we’re saying on a daily basis. At that time, most people who were writing were journalists and ex-bureaucrats. Later, when I went for my PhD, I observed how people were putting out their research in more digestible forms. At that time there were two graduate students who started a blog called Tanqeed. They wanted to bring in a more critical, rigorous analysis on the things that were happening in Pakistan and that helped me shape my own voice on various issues. The general idea is that firstly, you can contribute towards the general English-language discourse around certain themes and make it slightly more rigorous and grounded in theory. Secondly, there is a public function that such writing serves. As an academic, I have become slightly more aware of that public function largely because I think that a lot of our conversations otherwise don’t seep out of the academy. As stated before, my engagement with the public sphere precedes my transition into academia. What has changed is that I am interested in talking about things that I am researching. There have been a couple of opinion pieces that I have written using my dissertation and fieldwork. It’s probably linked to the ease of doing it that people feel more inclined to share their research. It’s much more difficult to be insulated in academia now because of the Internet. In Pakistan there is a growing pool of academics who can speak on specific issues.