October, 2016

One Year, Many Stories

By Ayesha Pattnaik

A reflection on one year of the undergraduate programme at Ashoka

‘Look if you like, but you will have to leap’. W.H. Auden aptly puts it in 10 words, how I took a leap of faith into a new place for higher learning that promised a stellar faculty, interdisciplinary studies, critical thinking, and an insight into bridging theory and practice. It’s been a year since, and I have been asked if that leap was worth it. In a way, this essay is my answer.

The first step was overwhelming as it was a colossal change from school. Gone was the need to follow an age-old syllabus culminating in yearly exams, rote learning, the wild chase for marks and the blind belief in the single correct answer. Instead it required selection of contemporary courses to match individual interests, independent research, original responses, and learning to question it all, no matter how established the fact.

My first year has been an exercise in blending multiple narratives. Each of the eight courses flowed into the other, seamlessly highlighting the need for an interdisciplinary discourse. On the very first day of the first semester, the Critical Thinking seminar on Storytelling and Social Change , set the ball rolling with a focus on analysing the power of the written word – that you could tell a story to change the world. We took a cue from Adichie about the danger of a single story, and this idea flowed intoLiterature and the World where we explored how stories emerge from stories. How Shakespeare reimagined stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Thousand and One Nights, and how his own have been reimagined by writers around the world.

Social and Political Formations delved into the story of the nation as envisioned by Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Ambedkar and the relevance of multiple ideas in understanding nationalism. Reading Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz in the Critical Thinking seminar on Political Economy, transformed sugar from an ordinary condiment to a commodity with its own story of how it emerged as a product of multiple social, political and economic narratives.

Ashoka University strives to teach that writing is not an isolated effort coerced into pages, and Literature, Sociology, and Economics are not compartmentalised subjects. True learning is an amalgamation of interdisciplinary ideas and research. It is not surprising to hear an Economics student being helped with game theory by a Philosophy student using Flood and Dresher’s prisoner’s dilemma example. The interconnectedness of disciplines is highly stressed.

Classes in Ashoka are intense and require hard work, but not intimidating. Lectures are engaging not just in content, but also in the teaching methods of professors who may threaten you with spoilers of a TV show or reinforce points with Bollywood thumkas. For professors, grades take a backseat making way for interaction and debate. They are willing to guide students whenever help is needed; no questions are seen as silly.

Ashoka adds to classroom learning with frequent talks by eminent scholars such as P.Sainath, C S Lakshmi, Ramchandra Guha, Robert Sullivan, Nayantara Sehgal and more. A session with Sir Ronald Cohen touched upon the future of philanthropy as social entrepreneurship geared towards profit. I questioned such a possibility. This was answered by my summer internship with Villgro Innovations Foundation whereas a Marketing and Communications intern I gained an insight into the alleviation of poverty – not through charity, but as a positive venture for profit that ensures innovation in sectors like education and health, which can have a lasting impact for the underprivileged.

The interdisciplinary liberal arts model has rendered the study of humanities as more relevant and applicable. Ashoka University debunks the idea of each discipline as exclusive, and no one discipline has ascendancy over the other. The idea is to arrive at a clear, reasoned and holistic understanding of the varied world we live in, where people cannot be confined to one narrow way of thinking. The seamless integration of subjects in my first year, culminating into an internship highlighting how one can make a difference in the world, has made my year at Ashoka fruitful. Most importantly, it made me realise my potential.

During Orientation week, I attended a workshop by Pramath Raj Sinha, which he concluded with Drew Dudley’s Everyday Leadership. Dudley talks about ‘lollipop moments’ where you take initiative towards bringing in a positive change in someone’s life. It could be sponsoring a child’s education with your internship stipend or giving respect to security staff, hostel caretakers, construction workers by putting names to faces rather than leaving them as invisible entities. We all talk about wanting to change the world and putting emphasis on the bigger picture. Ashoka teaches us the power of the smaller picture, and how, within us, is the potential perhaps not to change the entire world, but at least somebody’s world. Dudley says if you can change a person’s ‘understanding of how powerful an agent for change they can be in this world, you’ve changed the whole thing.’

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