An expert on contemporary Sufism in North America and South Asia, Merin Shobhana Xavier is an accomplished writer, researcher and academic with a passion for teaching. Xavier has several published works, including two books on Sufism. She is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Queen’s University.
No matter how many looming deadlines await or the perennial pressures to publish, be sure to go to the gym, meet friends for a drink, tend to your garden, read a novel, binge that show on Netflix…. be whole.
What do you love about what you do now?
I love teaching. It is hard work and usually there are more failures and dead ends, than successes in the classroom. Yet once in a blue moon, there is that “aha moment” in class, where a student gets it, and to witness that precise moment is one of the most beautiful things about teaching. I still keep in touch with students who I taught years ago. I also do fieldwork. This is where I get to complete research and be a student, perpetually. I regularly travel, I explore new spaces, practices and meet new people, people who are often marginalized and not granted a voice. To be able to learn from people and share their stories is also a great honor.
Your advice for people starting out in the field of academia:
Academia is a hard space institutionally and broadly, universities and colleges are more and more corporatized, as evidenced in the exploitation of the labour of contingent and contract faculty. Unfortunately, post-secondary institutions are becoming less supportive of the humanities and the arts. Academia is also not structured to support the needs of first generation, immigrants, WOC, POC, LGBTQI+, disabled, and indigenous students, faculty, and staff.
So, my humble advice to those who are reflecting on treading this path, is to find your community. There are amazing academics doing wonderful work around activism, teaching, and research; so, surround yourself with your community and allies, it may take a while to find, but you will find it.
Research what you love and are passionate about, but always be strategic with everything you do. But most importantly, make sure you take time away from academic work. An academic should not be the sole marker of your identity rather just one piece of who you are. So, no matter how many looming deadlines await or the perennial pressures to publish, be sure to go to the gym, meet friends for a drink, tend to your garden, read a novel, binge that show on Netflix…. be whole.
Your secret sauce for getting stuff done:
You know, I don’t think there is a secret at all. Academia, especially now, is very bleak, especially for women of color. Everyone survives academic spaces in various ways, and I use survives here purposefully. I have been very lucky because I have amazing mentors, especially my PhD supervisor, who prepared and trained me. Some of the practices that have helped have been self-discipline and building meaningful relationships with scholars. I have chosen to do work that is significant to me and makes me happy, and that seems to have resonated with those around me. Of course, having looming deadlines also helps get things done!
What do you find the most challenging about what you do now?
There is the usual job precarity and general instability. In the last three years, I have moved three times, both across borders and across states, which creates a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. I’ve learned a lot from all these experiences and encountered diverse students, socio-economically, racially, ethnically, and with various orientations of gender and sexuality. In all these contexts, it is often the emotional labor that I find challenging.
As a woman of colour, students, sometimes students that don’t even know you, come and find you, because you are visibly familiar or relate to you because you are also visibly on the margins as they are. The labour that many women of colour do outside of class time is heavy work.
Truthfully, I was not equipped for this, but I also realize that my own personal life experiences have primed me in an informal manner. Trying to figure out how to advocate for students at an institutional level, while also taking care of myself and creating important boundaries is an ongoing challenge, I have much to learn. Balance is always a challenge, but I am grateful to serve within my means.
You are considered an expert on contemporary Sufism, what would you describe as your turning point that got you to where you are today?
When I was an undergraduate student at York University, I took a course of Sufism that got me hooked, especially to the poetic traditions. I also enrolled in a course on South Asian religions that introduced me to lived experiences of religions. I was so fascinated by the intersection of ideas in both of these courses.
The best career development or leadership book you’ve read:
This is a non-traditional response, but in many ways, I do find the poems and stories of Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Muslim poet, to have been immensely impactful in how I perceive the world and I how I relate with people, even in a professional context.
Editor’s Note: Xavier is working on two new projects. exploring Sufism in Canada and Sufi shrines and movements in Sri Lanka, in the wake of growing anti-Sufism across the island.Her published works, include Contemporary Shrine Cultures and Contemporary Sufism: Piety, Politics and Popular Culture and Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks in American Sufism: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Contemporary Shrine Cultures.
Photo Credit: Dilani Bala Photography