A conversation with Nathalie Peutz, associate professor of Arab crossroads studies, who joined NYU Abu Dhabi in 2010.
My husband and I both had tenure track positions in the United States, but were working quite far away from one another. A friend told us about the establishment of NYU Abu Dhabi, and we were interested because NYU Abu Dhabi was hiring faculty in our respective fields and because we both work in the Middle East. My husband is an intellectual historian of the pre-modern Middle East, and I was working on environmental conservation and development in Yemen. But we soon became even more interested in the NYU Abu Dhabi project itself.
What excited us was the active nature of the academic startup, and what it was trying to achieve in terms of developing a global, liberal arts education for the 21st century. I also love the challenge that comes with teaching such diverse and motivated students. I often teach 15-person seminars in which each student is from a different country. This means that we can’t always rely on shared points of reference and that I learn from my students’ various backgrounds and points of view.
I work in the Middle East — my current research focuses on forced migration and displacement in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, with most of my fieldwork being conducted in Djibouti. So, it’s helpful for me to be based in the region. But I’ve seen that even faculty who work elsewhere benefit. That’s because being in Abu Dhabi brings plenty of opportunities, not just for research in the Middle East, but also in Asia and East Africa, because they’re so close. It facilitates research and collaboration, particularly collaboration with scholars and universities located outside of the Global North. So we’re not just focused on what’s happening in North America and Europe, and this enhances our research.
Twice now, I’ve taken students in my course called Migration and Displacement across the Red Sea to a Yemeni refugee camp in Djibouti. This regional seminar enabled students to experience the architecture and governance of this particular camp while reading literature on refugees and forced migration. For example, my students read about the development of the UNHCR’s three “durable solutions” for refugees while, in the same day, hearing Yemeni refugees criticize these very pathways. Another afternoon, it was one of the Yemeni men who led the seminar discussion on the organization of camp life.
In these moments, it was the refugees, not me, who were educating the students. And it was the refugees who encouraged them to rethink their conceptions of economic and political migrants. These visits also deepened my own connection with my interlocutors, because instead of just seeing me as a visiting researcher who asks them questions, they saw me as a teacher, and that helped give them a perspective on where I was coming from.
It helps that we have generous research funding. In the past year alone, I’ve been able to travel three times to my fieldsite in Djibouti and twice on a research trip to Korea, and this has been while I’ve been teaching. Anthropologists are always trying to get into the field but usually have to wait for summers or sabbaticals to have the time and funding to carry out fieldwork. We also have a relatively light teaching load here, which has allowed me to do quite a bit of research during the academic year as well.
When working at a growing institution, you’re able to think about how to develop programs and the curriculum without simply continuing with the pre-existing approach. What has surprised me is just how dynamic these conversations continue to be. The faculty is committed to institution building, and to thinking about new ways of teaching, new forms of collaboration, and new ways of trying to structure programs. NYU Abu Dhabi isn’t just the place I work; it’s a place I’ve been able to help build.
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