Friday, March 29, 2024

Doing BA with English Major in India: A Beginners’ Guide

In India, one of the most sought-after degrees in Arts is Bachelor of Arts with English literature major. However, its popularity is largely due to mistaken preconceptions about it rather than understanding what the program actually is. Hence, it is a good idea to look at what is NOT in order to understand what it IS and think about why one should or should not do it.  This blog attempts to lay out the widely prevalent misconceptions about BA with English major in the Indian context and provide greater clarity to the students who want to enter the field or find themselves stuck in it.

Misconception 1: It is ‘a Spoken English’ coaching class.

BA with English major will NOT directly provide you the basic conversational English or basic comprehension skills, grammar or compositional skills, in fact, it actually DEMANDS that you ALREADY HAVE these foundational language skills. This gives a distinctive advantage to the students from the English-medium background over those not from the English-medium, though some students from non-English backgrounds are also known to do well in this program. Nonetheless, they have to put in plenty of extra efforts working on their English.

You are unlikely to be a good speaker by reading a Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen novel prescribed in your syllabus. Hence, if you want to do BA with English to do better in IELTS/TOEFL type exams, or impress your crush with your fluent English, this program is unlikely to be of any great help. We need to keep this in mind because as Indians many of us take bachelor’s degree programs to ensure that we don’t remain bachelors for the rest of our lives (which is also not as bad as it is made out to be).

Misconception 2: It is ‘a Written English’ coaching class.

In case you happen to be from an English-medium background, and know that you suck at writing, it would be an error to take up a BA with English major program to fix your writing skills. You are unlikely to be a good content writer or be an expert in writing emails, memos or office presentations by reading that Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen novel (nowadays ChatGPT can do these things for you).

The need for English for the sake of conversation, comprehension and composition is usually addressed in the foundational, vocational, ability enhancement courses and papers that you can take up even WITHOUT doing the BA with English major program. You can take these courses in your college even if you are doing Bachelors of commerce or science or majoring in subjects like sociology, economics, psychology etc.

In case you think you are a poet or novelist, even then, BA with English can hardly be of any great help to you because it is NOT a creative writing program and you can be a good poet or a writer even without doing BA with English (on that note let me point out that neither Shakespeare nor Jane Austen- arguably some of the greatest writers – held college degrees in English literature as these degrees did not exist in those days!). Consequently, due to these mistaken preconceptions of the students, the Shakespeare play, or the Jane Austen novel prescribed in the BA English syllabus in India remains largely unread, and the exams still cleared.

If you are not discouraged enough, here is a third misconception. But this misconception would actually lead us to greater understanding of what it really is.

Misconception 3: It teaches English Literature.

It does NOT teach us English literature (which in very narrow and restricted sense means poems, plays, novels, criticism etc). Some thinkers like Northrop Frye would point out that literature cannot be taught     What it actually teaches instead is HOW to STUDY literature in ENGLISH.

By HOW to STUDY, I mean the study-skills, critical thinking skills, and research skills necessary to study literature. We don’t study poems or novels in our class, but learn HOW to analyze them, study them, critically reflect upon them, research them. We pay special attention to language of literature - literature being a linguistic art, we ask questions about distinctive features of literary language, we ask questions about interpretation and classification of literary texts, we ask questions about the historical, ideological and cultural contexts of production and interpretation of these texts. And as any human activity makes sense only in its context, we lay a great emphasis on historical contexts of literature and culture. In short, papers on genres like poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction, literary history, and literary criticism.

These activities, traditionally belong to the field of literary and cultural criticism and scholarship, and therefore, what you actually sign up for when you sign up for a BA with English program is the introductory course in the field of literary criticism and scholarship in English language.

It should be noted here that what once carried the label of ‘English literature’ has gone beyond the older definitions of the field over the past thirty years: it is no longer merely ‘English’ (it may include substantial amount of cultural material translated into English) and no longer merely ‘literature’ (it may include wider range of cultural narratives: films, graphic novels, or webseries). ‘English Literature’ thus is a field of questions, debates and problems and not a set of texts.

I often begin my first year BA English major classes by asking students why the current class is called a first year BA class and not standard 13 (13 being an unlucky number after all). I try to establish the fact that a bachelor’s degree program in any field provides basic knowledge in a field, a masters program updates our study skills by introducing us to advance knowledge in the field and finally a research degree involves contributing to more specific field by producing knowledge within our broad area of study. In our case, BA with English program, thus would provide us with the basic and introductory knowledge in the field of literary and cultural studies in English, hence it is the beginning of one’s specialization rather than an extension of one’s school education.

In my class, I also point out the woeful colonial history of university English studies in India, how it started first in the colony (India) and only later it was accepted in the UK. I also refer to the infamous Macaulay’s 1835 project of attempting to “form a class” in his words of “who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, -a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. The consequence of such a project was the deep-seated belief in inherent cultural and economic superiority of English and ‘backwardness’ of rest of Indian languages. Hence, the so-called choice made by the students when they chose English majors was already determined to a large extent by history (And well, English major is THE class where we can discuss these things!). 

Besides, this is the reason why 'Spoken English' classes are so often advertised together with ' Personality Development Classes': we think that only those who can speak in English ' have personality' and those who can't , have no personality at all! While the craze for English in India, thanks to colonialism and globalization, comes close to the craze for sex and social media, it so happens that BA with English major program hardly has any true vocational value in the job market today. This, of course, doesn’t mean it is useless.

Some of my nice teachers would say that studying English literature makes us a good human being, or a good citizen or provides us with critical thinking skills. As far as I know, these are things that schools are supposed to do, just as they are supposed to provide us with the basic communication skills. The condition of the world today reveals that schools have not really succeeded in these matters.  A college degree cannot remedy what schools have failed to cure-it is too late.  A college is not a rehabilitation center for badly educated people (and that means most of us). 

This brings us then to the fundamental question: why study it at all.

You may say you opt for it because you love literature, but then you may love literature (as many people do) even if you are studying commerce or science, you can continue reading novels, stories and poems (mostly the ones you like instead of the ones that are forced upon you) as you keep doing other things for livelihood.

A cynical politician may say that we study it because of our colonial hangover (personally I feel that there are other things that give us better hangovers).

A good answer would be more intellectually complicated.  We can say that as modern Indians we are trying to understand ourselves in this rapidly globalizing world. Culturally and historically Indian modernity is deeply influenced by western modernity through colonialism and globalization from past two hundred years and English language and literature have played an extremely crucial role in the process. Therefore, critically studying English language and literature (understood broadly) in India helps us in understanding our ‘own modernity’ and how it is historically different or similar from ‘their modernity’, in short, an act of comparative cultural inquiry.

Hence, using a comparative cultural framework, studying English literature can yield us valuable insights.

And there is a less intellectual, but more interesting reason as well: as Sir Edmund Hillary explained why he climbed Mt. Everest, “because it is there”.

He is also have supposed have told Tenzin Norgay, “We've knocked the bastard off”.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Possible Areas for Doctoral Research in English Studies

After the recent announcement by the HRD that a PhD will be made mandatory after the year 2021 as minimum eligibility for applying for the post of assistant professor, the number of interested students inquiring with me about possible areas and topics for doing PhD has gone up. I have been regularly blogging about doing research in English studies, the questions of methodology and coming up with a research proposal and many people have found it useful. Please also check out my following blogs: 

i) A Beginners Guide to Doing PhD in English Literature
ii) Choosing a Topic for the Research Project in English Literature
iii) Writing a Research Proposal in English studies
iv) Possible Areas of Research on Translation Studies
v) On Theorizing Indian Literatures and Cultures
vi) Application of Dionyz Durisin's notion of interliterariness to Indian literatures

English studies in India, after the late nineteen eighties, has undergone a paradigm shift by moving away from centrality of the Anglophone literatures (‘English’ literature, ‘American’ Literature and ‘Indian Writing in English’) to a more comparative Indian literatures framework. It moved away from the study of ‘English literature’ to ‘literatures in English’. This shift was propelled by multiple factors like the rise of postcolonial studies, ‘ the crisis in English studies’ debates in India, growth in Indian literatures in English translation,  development of translation studies and the Dalit studies,  as well as substantial incorporation of non-Anglophone critical theory (largely continental) and cultural studies into the English studies curriculum.  It is the same cultural need to contextualize English studies in India and make it relevant to the Indian studies that has given rise to growing emphasis on ‘English Language Teaching’.

 I have been working within this reoriented discipline from the past two decades, and hence my suggestions for the topics and areas for an M. Phil or PhD research comes from comparative Indian literatures framework. These topics and areas also reflect my own understanding of ‘the knowledge gaps’ in research in English studies today, as well as my own personal research interests. Hence, obviously these are not the only areas. I will be blogging more on other areas as well in future.
 A distinction between ‘an area’ and ‘a topic’ needs to be kept in mind. I have offered broad outline of an area, obviously one needs to relate it to specific authors/texts/ languages/ periods to delimit the project. This specific delimitation would be ‘the topic’. I have given examples from my own research and one can come up with any number of parallel ‘topics’ for their own research projects.

1) Hypertextuality and the questions of Digital Archiving of Indian literatures (Bhakti, 19th century etc), the post-print condition

While digital humanities has made substantial inroads into the western humanities academia, it is yet to make its place in India. However, after the explosion of the internet and massive proliferation of post-print digital data (‘big data’), the nature of knowledge, its production , circulation has undergone a profound change, and it is often compared to the print technology revolution in the early middle period of the previous millennium. Digital humanities as a discipline engages with methodological, epistemological and ontological issues of literary research in the context of this post-print digital universe of discourse. In the west, digital humanities  has often been thought of in terms of ‘ waves’ where the first wave focussed on large-scale digitization projects and the establishment of technological infrastructure facilitating the shift from ‘ print’ to ‘ digital’ space, the later developments and waves moved towards creating tools for dealing with ‘ born digital texts. Digital humanities in India is still in its nascent stage and will require transferring of massive pre-print, and print era documents into the digital space , hence dealing with the basic issues of OCR, funding and lack of interdisciplinary expertise. One can look up books like Digital_Humanities. eds. Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, et al. MIT, 2012 and Understanding Digital Humanities , ed. David Berry , 2012 for more information about digital humanities.

2) Globalization and Literary languages in India

The processes of globalization unleashed during the nineteen nineties have profoundly altered the cultural landscape of India. How literatures in Indian languages engages with the disturbing questions of virtual reality, new corporate capitalism, hybridization of languages, ‘post-truth’ and politics of media manipulation, rise of social media and the questions of digital identity, privacy, freedom of expression, pornography, and new forms of religious fanaticism is a critical domain of research. One can study how literatures produced in Indian languages (bhashas) in the nineteen nineties and the twenty first century comparatively. My own research on contemporary Marathi poetry deals with such questions. How do literatures from other Indian languages engage with, and embody these developments?

Read my write up on 21st century Marathi literature by clicking here

3)  Dalit literatures of the twenty first century

Caste and gender-based discrimination is deeply rooted in Indian society, and finds its expression in literatures. Dalit literatures emerged during the nineteen sixties, primarily in the form of autobiographies and poetry, and are receiving significant attention in the English studies academia. However, most of the texts that are being studied deal with the lives of Dalit writers during the sixties and the eighties. There is a need to focus on the writers who grew up in the nineties and the twenty first centuries (like Meena Kandasamy and S.Chandramohan  in English and Des Raj Kali in Punjabi) in order to understand the nature of their protest and their negotiation of caste-gender discrimination. We need to ask the questions regarding the role of class, corporate capitalism and technology in this negotiation. We need to compare their writings with the Dalit writers of the earlier generations.

4)   World Literature and Modernisms in Indian languages

Though the concept of ‘world literature’ is fairly old, going back to Goethe at least, it was during the nineteen nineties, after globalization, that the concept started being critically rethought by scholars such as Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti and David Damrosch. These scholars went beyond the traditional notion of world literature as body of texts or a canon to underscore the transnational, trans-regional contexts of literary production, consumption and circulation. David Damrosch edited World Literature in Theory (2014) is the key anthology that would serve as an introduction to various deliberations around World Literature.

Indian students may draw upon these critical re-conceptualizations, and look at the phenomenon like modernisms (as distinct from modern or modernity) in Indian literatures other than English. For instance, one can look at the writings of the immensely influential writers-scholars such as Suresh Joshi, Dilip Chitre, Agyeya, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Vilas Sarang  (Read my paper on Vilas Sarang by clicking here) , G.A. Kulkarni , Namdeo Dhasal ( Read my paper on Namdeo Dhasal by clicking here)  and Nirmal Verma ( many of their creative writings are available in English translation)  using the notion of world literature. It will help us to go beyond the stereotypical readings of these works in terms of ‘influences’ or ‘derivativeness’ and ‘inauthenticity’ that is associated with conventional understanding of modernism in India. One can even approach important literary movements of experimentation such as the Theatre of Absurd in various Indian languages using this theoretical approach. 

More specifically, this approach is also helpful in looking at specific seminal authors like Anton Chekhov,  T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Rabindranath Tagore as world literature and their reception in various Indian languages.
Read my paper on Gujarati modernism by clicking here 
My paper on Marathi modernism by clicking here 

5) Reception and the Impact of Poststructuralist, Postmodern Critical Theories on literary criticism in Indian languages (including performative gender studies)

Though English studies have incorporated the continental theories like poststructuralism, postmodernism, cultural studies in its methodology, how have non-English literary studies ‘received’ these theories need to be examined in their cultural and historical contexts.   For instance, critics like Suresh Joshi, Suman Shah, Babu Suthar, Chandrakant Topiwala in Gujarati, Milind Malshe, Gangadhar Patil, Vilas Sarang , M.S. Patil and Harishchandra Thorat in Marathi draw upon these theories  extensively. What is their impact on the bhasha criticism? What does this reception tell us about the historical context and cultural politics underlying literary criticism in the bhashas?

6) Interliterary processes in the post-Independence Indian literatures

Like the notion of ‘world literature’, the notion of ‘interliterariness’ developed by Dionyz Durisin is extremely useful to understand formation of multiple Indian literatures, as it helps us to overcome the notions of ‘ influences’ that perpetuates the influencer-influenced hierarchies and also helps us to understand literatures as processes rather than products. I am grateful to noted Marathi critic late Prof Kimbahune for drawing my attention to this theoretical framework and its use in multilingual Indian context. Dionyz Durisin’s Theory of Literary Comparativistics (1984) is a useful book. One can also look up Amiya Dev and Sisir Kumar Das edited anthology on Comparative Indian Literature for its application in some places. Marian Gallik’s essays on interliterariness and Durisin are helpful.
Check out my own essay on application of the notion of interliterariness to Indian literatures  by clicking here.

Watch my lecture on translation studies and world literature 

7) Rethinking Bhakti literatures and English studies (beyond colonial paradigms of reading bhakti)

Most of the reading precolonial Indian religious literature tend to see it as ‘pan- Indian’ ‘bhakti movement’ and read ‘universal mysticism’ and ‘democratization’ into it. This anachronistic reading of ‘bhakti’ itself was a result of the nineteenth century colonialism and colonial nationalist modernity that projected such modern or quasi-Christian notions derived from the Reformation onto this body of literature. 
My own research on Narsinh Mehta is deeply coloured by this conventional reading of bhakti. However, when I rethink bhakti critically today, I find it more of a sectarian (or rather panthiya or sampradayik) propaganda rather than being a product of any universal mystical community . It will be a good idea to see how these 'bhakti movements’ in various Indian languages are constructed during the colonial period, especially in English. For instance, R.D. Ranade’s book Mysticism in Maharashtra is an influential book of this kind. There is a need to ‘de-romanticize’ bhakti and rethink the relation between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in Indian contexts. One also needs to take a second look at the dialogic/conflictual relation between ‘bhakti’ traditions and ‘ Indian Islamic traditions’.

8) Literary Historiography, Pedagogy and the History of literary canonization in Indian languages

Literary historiography in Indian languages began with pedagogical concerns during the late nineteenth century. How did such projects influence creation of literary canons in those languages? How does looking at historical contexts of historiographical writings reflect the changing poetics and politics of literary cultures? For instance, how do historiographical writings during the nineteen seventies and the eighties differ from the colonial projects? How does the historiographical writings of the nineteen nineties differ from those in the seventies or at the turn of the century? What does this difference tell us about literary culture of its times? How are pedagogical and canonizing concerns articulated in literary historiographies?

Watch my lecture on Literary Historiography in Indian vernaculars, Marathi Bhakti and  World literature

9) Anxiety of Influence and the Politics of Canonization in Modern Indian Literatures

Anxiety of Influence is a powerful theory developed by the American critic Harold Bloom that seeks to de-romanticize relationship between creative writers, and hence a very insightful ( non-Eliotian) take on the question of tradition and modernism. How does this quasi-Oedipal conflict between the authors and predecessors play out in literary arenas in India? My own writings of contemporary Marathi poetry highlight this love-hate tension between the influential modernist poets like Arun Kolatkar, Namdeo Dhasal, Dilip Chitre and Vasant Dahake ,and the new generation poets who emerged during the nineteen nineties like Manya Joshi, Hemant Divate, Mangesh N. Kale, Sanjeev Khandekar and Sachin Ketkar. How does this conflict play out in other Indian literatures?

10) Little Magazine movements and the Literary Avant-gardes in Indian literatures

As demonstrated by Benedict Anderson, print capitalism facilitated the imagination of ‘imagined community’ called nation in the context of colonial modernity. The little magazine movements in Indian languages were ‘non-periodical’ very often ephemeral ventures that were non-capitalistic in their orientation and outcomes of deep discontent with the cultural conservatism of the mainstream periodicals. The dissenting, non-conservative, sexually explicit and radical experimentation with cultural forms (including the visual) was articulated on such fringe, ephemeral platforms during the nineteen fifties and the sixties. In fact, important Dalit writing in Indian languages had to find space in the little magazines.   

( Read my paper on i) Marathi literary Avant-garde )

Great amount of such avant-garde modernist writings later on became ‘mainstream’ and even ‘established’ over a period of time. Little magazines in Marathi included magazines of the sixties and the seventies such as ‘a-ba-ka-da-ee’, ‘ aso’, vaacha’ and so on. My own research work in Marathi is on and through the little magazines of the nineteen nineties like Shabdavedh, Saushthav and Abhidhanantar ( Read my article on Abhidhanantar by clicking here)  that defined themselves as continuing the avant-garde tendencies of their precursors as well as expressing the need to reinvent the idiom of poetry and the need to deal with the altered life and cultural landscape transformed by the forces of globalization. They also expressed their discontent with the idiom of the modernist sixties by pointing out what was once anti-establishment had already become established and clich├ęd. How did the poetics and politics of the little magazines play out in other Indian languages? How do they compare with the little magazine movements in other parts of the world?

One can also examine ' post-print' (non) periodicals ( e.g. Hakara in Marathi) and blogs in other Indian languages and their cultural agendas when the digital promises to shape our imaginations as ' virtual-global communities'.