January, 2016

Dynamic courses bring out alternate perspectives in students

A look at how the emphasis on interdisciplinary education at Ashoka can make learning richer

By Swasti Acharya and Shiv D Sharma

With the new semester beginning mid-January this year, stimulating courses that offer different perspectives on history have been introduced at Ashoka University. These thought-provoking courses range from topics such as feminism, gender and desire, to cinema and novels. They are being offered to undergraduates and the postgraduate Young India Fellows as well.

A Critical Thinking Seminar titled “A History of Desire in India” is being led by Professor Madhavi Menon while another remarkable course “History, Novel and Cinema” is being taught by Professor Aparna Vaidik to undergraduates. These courses take a view of the past that isn’t the most conventional, and perhaps this uniqueness was the reason why they were amongst the quickest courses to get opted for during course registration.

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Professor Menon’s course revolves around desire in the Indian subcontinent. It includes questions that deal with aspects of what comprises desire, how one can recognise it, what part of it is applicable in the nation, and how one is to go about writing a history, not of a political event, but of something as abstract and subjective as desire. This course encourages students to think about desire rigorously and critically in this day and age when we are being told more than ever to be secretive about ourselves and judgmental about others.

“The students are usually shocked when they encounter documents from India’s past that are at odds with the version of India they are given by politicians and courts. Equally, these documents allow us to unearth alternative desires also in the present,” says Menon. According to her, students respond very well to this intellectual-archaeological dig to find multiple sites of desire.

Niharika Gotety, a student, talks of why she enjoys the class so much as she says, “Professor Menon makes you rethink everything you know and feel about desire in the world around you.”

Meanwhile, literature and cinema through a historical perspective are the central theme of Professor Vaidik’s class. Her course explores the intersections, dissimilarities and shared aspects of different narrative genres that seek to convey the past to the present. Professor Vaidik considers historical, literary and cinematic narratives as twins— “conjoined by their creative imagination but differing in their manner of knowing and what they seek to know”. In an attempt to convey a ‘truth effect’, readings for the course are focused on works by Flaubert, Austen, Bankim, Tolstoy, Conrad, Achebe or Vonnegut, and are steeped in historical detail.

Optimized-Aparna Vaidik copyVaidik points out that for writers, the moral universe within the novel—the literary truth, which supersedes even as it builds upon historical truth—is paramount. Historians, by contrast combine the skills of investigators, scavengers, judges and ventriloquists, and weave narratives that aspire to truth via facticity. Ironically, they remain largely resistant to the literary demands that shape their craft, to say nothing of the historiographical opportunities this affords. This course brings the three different genres into conversation at a pedagogical level. It can be seen as an attempt by a historian to accord legitimacy to cinema and literature as genres to represent the past. It acknowledges that they have an equal and a legitimate right to speak for and about the past.

Upon being asked why she chose the course, student Avantika Kolluru replied, “I opted for this because the course material sounded really different and interesting compared to the other technical math/economics related courses I have.” Avantika added that Professor Vaidik is open to ideas and understandings that students have to share. Such feedback from her students within just a week of commencement of the semester reflects the keen interest of students toward these courses.

On the other hand, Urvashi Butalia, who is Visiting Faculty at Ashoka University, is offering a course on “Women, Society and Changing India” to the Young India Fellows. In her discussions, she elaborates on the intriguing process of unearthing people’s stories of partition. Butalia asks why, when Ramchandra Guha writes of the Makers of Modern India, there are only two women out of the 19 personalities discussed. There is a way in which women’s voices have been made invisible in our history. She challenges this understanding of history that ignores half of the nation’s population.

While one of the lectures is purposefully titled “Makers of Modern India: Where are the Women?”, the course aims to throw light on the position of women in the history of modern India and the role that they played in the shaping of contemporary society. One major point of focus in this course has been on personal histories – that of trauma, violence and silence, from the point of view of people’s lives instead of national politics. She believes that it is only when we start looking at these histories, understanding the complexity of caste, class, gender, etc. in relation to larger politics, that we get a complete picture of any historical event, especially an event as important and complicated as the Partition of India.

While dealing with the plOptimized-Urvashiurality of histories in her class, Butalia also emphasises the importance of using newer and different tools of research into historical evidence such as visual history, oral histories, autobiographies and letters among several others, and how they have played a crucial role in understanding women’s histories and the methods of feminist historiography.

The three courses have made students think of ‘history’ in a way they had never imagined. It will be interesting to see what new and dynamic courses they opt for next semester.

(The writers are First Year Undergraduate Student – Swasti and Deputy Manager, Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality – Shiv)

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