Q&A: How Shervin Malekzadeh’s World Travels Brought Him to Swarthmore

New Visiting Professor of Political Science Shervin Malekzadeh seems to be enjoying his first few weeks teaching at Swarthmore. When we met, he was watching a YouTube clip on the Haitian revolution. Pausing the video, he immediately engaged with me, initiating a discussion about the potential merits of an online education that easily shifted into a comparison between our respective cultural backgrounds, and what it can look like to grow up bi-culturally.

Gazette: I know you have a special interest in Iranian politics. How much of that arises from your own experiences, and how does being Iranian-American affect the kinds of interests you have within your discipline? Growing up bi-culturally—being forced to compare and contrast constantly, to be the spokesperson, even, between two very different worlds—must be meaningful for you in some way.

Malekzadeh: Well, okay, it’s ’79 and we immigrated in ’75. I didn’t know what Iranian-American even meant until probably ’79, because I was in kindergarten. And ’79, that’s the Iranian Revolution. I distinctly remember explaining in kindergarten class that either Khomeini or the Shah, I can’t remember who I said at the time, was good and the other was bad. That was my five-year-old explanation. This, though, explains the interest in politics, and the interest in Iran.

My entry into the grown-up world, the American world too, was concurrent with this revolution. And you know what? It was humiliating, I’ll be honest with you. I remember reading an article about how they freed the hostages one day, and the newspapers asked “Can you imagine being a hostage, having to eat this strange food?” and I thought “What? My mom makes this ‘strange’ food.”

Really, it just happens that as I’m growing up Iran and America have this conflict. If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have been this interested in politics, specifically in Iranian politics or Iranian-American issues.

So you picked up on these tensions, even when you were just a kid?

Oh yeah, we did this thing, we put up a map of the U.S. and we had to go home and ask our parents where our ancestors were from. Almost everybody was from Germany. This is basically a rural school with hardly any kids and not a single other Iranian. I was only in first grade, and all this other stuff was happening in the world—the revolution and so on—and I just did not finish the assignment, or even do it, because I was too ashamed. There was no reason, I felt this on my own. And my teacher, Miss Ollywold, decided that “Okay, Shervin’s from Germany too.” Which is crazy because she knew that I was not German. So yes, I definitely picked up on these tensions.

You don’t seem to have arrived very intentionally at a career in academia. What did you see yourself as primarily before this, and what do you see yourself as primarily now?

Well, if the way we’re using the term academia means being in archives or being more interested in research than in teaching. And, in general, getting hired means demonstrating a capacity for doing research and getting published. Publish or perish, right?

But yes, nearly everything I got into as a grown-up I found almost by accident, my instincts just led to. I was in Chile, for example, teaching English when I realized that I really loved teaching. So I came back and I taught in schools. I wanted to serve underprivileged kids and I wanted to use my Spanish, which is more or less what I got to do. Yet there was this constant application process, of applying to grad schools, applying to film schools, applying to journalism schools. I was constantly reading every article in Harper’s. I was already acting, basically, like a graduate student. It was almost unthinking the way I ended up in grad school.

So I got into grad school for political science. But I also discovered as I was in grad school that sociology would also have been good for me as well, history would have been good for me, anthropology’s interesting to me. So, again, coming to Swarthmore’s great because I can mix all of those things up. Disciplinary boundaries don’t seem so rigid here.

Really, I just get excited when I can sit around a bunch of smart students who are academics, or budding academics—that high you get from that certain conversation is why I’m in it.

Well, you’ve had a pretty interesting life. You’ve done a lot of things—taught kindergarten, gone to South America—before you found yourself here. Why did you go to South America?

I went to South America because I needed to get over an ex-girlfriend, I’m going to be honest. It’s always these girlfriend issues. I graduated in ’96, I temped for a while and wondered “what am I going to do when I grow up?” I went to live in San Francisco with my friend for a while and then right when Mother Theresa died, I remember, I was coming back to Southern California and really focusing on going overseas. I just needed to go overseas. I wanted to live in another country. I spent a lot of time in Borders trying to figure out how to get a job overseas. I found this job in Chile. They would give me a work visa. They would hook me up, so I applied for that. The contract was for ten months and then we traveled for two, so there were no concrete plans.

After Chile I came back and there was a dead period. There are a lot of gaps like these in my life. I do something really amazing and then I come back and move onto the next thing. I was applying to teaching positions, to teach English again or even public schools, and I got a good job in Pasadena teaching ESL and it was a sweet gig but it wasn’t a future, a career. I did that for a while and then quit that before getting another job in Palo Alto teaching Spanish. From that, I became a first-grade teacher and that’s when I realized I was into teaching.

I think temping ruined me, too. I don’t think I could ever live a life where this is it, where things don’t change. So I’m really lucky, I got to do lots of things.

What about teaching is compelling to you? You’ve taught a very diverse range of students, from college to kindergarten, and you enjoy teaching them all. What’s in common there?

Well, creativity’s huge for me. I enjoy writing. I like doing a lot of visual stuff. People who are into teaching are really performers, and that requirement of performance is definitely an appeal. But it’s great because you can balance it with an intellectual aspect, the stimulation of having a great conversation. You can be serious and frivolous at the same time, and you get to do something useful for society. There’s this self-righteous streak in me maybe—what I do needs to matter. And what I do needs to be creative, and so being a professor definitely fits those interests. And that’s what it really comes down to: the combination of creativity and social participation, and of course the intellectual engagement.

I know you’ve published in Time and The Atlantic. Where do you really see your place in your field, and where does writing articles like these tie into plans you might have for your future?

I just think that being able to write on a broad array of topics creatively or to be active as a public intellectual would be pretty powerful stuff.

You can read Professor Malekzadeh’s latest article, “What ‘The Jeffersons’ Taught Me About Being an American,” here.

Photo courtesy of Shervin Malekzadeh.


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