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Student Spotlight: Kyle Anderson

Kyle Anderson, Near Eastern Studies 

What is your area of research?

My research is on the social history of workers and peasants in the Middle East. Specifically, my dissertation investigates the untold story of migrant laborers who worked in auxiliary labor corps on British and allied lines of supply and communication during the First World War. By investigating archival, cultural, press, and secondary sources in three languages from four different countries, I have been able to assemble an archive that follows these workers from their homes in the Egyptian countryside, to the theaters of battle in Europe and the Middle East, and back through their return home during the nationalist revolution of 1919-1921.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

As an undergraduate, I spent 5 months in Egypt as a study abroad student in 2008. One day, as I took a long train ride south of Cairo to Luxor and Aswan, I was struck by how much of the land along the Nile river valley was devoted to agriculture, and how many people were engaged in small-scale farming. After this experience, I became interested in the lives of rural Egyptians, and how they have participated in Egypt's long march towards global Capitalist modernity.

Why is this research important?

Most research on the Modern Middle East oscillates between the political and diplomatic history of colonial administrators and their indigenous collaborators on the one hand, and the intellectual and cultural history of nationalist elites on the other. When researchers have deemed fit to turn their attention to the illiterate workers and peasants who produce goods and services rather than written texts, they have typically used approaches influenced by a vulgar Marxism that explains peasant political consciousness in reference to specific rural Modes of Production, or a coarse Foucaultian study of discourses and technologies forcibly incorporating workers and peasants into national modernity against their will. The study of migrant labor breaks apart these spatial dichotomies, and provides an opportunity to develop new concepts capable of understanding the lives of workers and peasants in the context of integrated, transnational social fields.

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

My background as a Catholic and my mother's consistent engagement in charity work instilled in me from an early age a sense of ethical responsibility towards those who are least capable of representing their personal interests in the entrenched hegemonic structures of their time. Coming of age in the U.S. during the George W. Bush administration, 9/11, and the Second Gulf War, it became clear to me that Muslims in general and Arabs in particular occupied just such a space among my contemporaries. From that time on, I have been interested in bridging the cultural barrier between the Arab Middle East and the United States through education and writing.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

I think maintaining an active social life has been very important in allowing me to form connections on a human level with people from all different walks of life in the Middle East and the United States. I was also deeply affected by the Arab Spring revolutions, and the Egyptian revolution of 2011 in particular. The trajectory of events in Egypt happened to line up with my own life, such that during the early, idealistic phase of the revolution I was a fresh, new grad student with a romanticized outlook, while the counter-revolution happened in the lead-up to my "A" exams, as academic life became less of a "calling" or a "passion" and more of a job that entails its own petty obligations and the necessity of coming to terms with the realities of the university as a capitalist enterprise.

What other hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your spare time?

I try to stay fit through running, lifting weights, and playing pick-up basketball and rugby on the Cornell Johnson School of Management Rugby team. I am a rabid fan of the University of Michigan men's basketball and football teams. I also play guitar and drums to get my mind off work.

Why did you choose Cornell?

The faculty and students in the Department of Near Eastern are top-notch scholars and, more importantly, top-notch human beings. There is a family environment in the Department where everyone is supportive, encouraging, and invested in your intellectual and personal development. Ithaca is also an idyllic and affordable place in which to live. Finally, being part of the Cornell tradition--with access to some of the best libraries, museums, houses of worship, and personal health and fitness facilities in the country--is a big plus.

What’s next for you?

After I finish my dissertation I intend to apply widely in both the academic and private sector job market. My top priority would be to get a job at a research or teaching-centered University, but I am also open to working in a think-tank centered on the Middle East, or in the business/security intelligence or consulting spaces.

Any advice for incoming graduate students?

Take advantage of the great events and speakers who come to campus. Not only will you learn something and hopefully be inspired in your own work, but it is a great opportunity to get to know other graduate students and faculty outside of the classroom. Also, be sure to take some time and have fun: grab some drinks with your friends and colleagues, and go to the homecoming football game and slope day.