The tumultuous weeks preceding the return of the student body for the Monsoon ‘23 semester seemed to come to a jarring halt after the Economics Department’s abatement of their proposed boycott of classes. The faculty and Student Government, however, insisted that conversations still needed to be had, albeit with an emphasis on a lack of their documentation.
The Teach-in Series on Academic Freedom is an attempt to navigate the slippages of the faculty’s desire to continue teaching their students alongside their determination to keep asking questions in light of the demand for docility. It was formally announced in an email sent to the student body on September 1st by Aparna Chaudhuri, Assistant Professor of English, and Madhavi Menon, Professor of English.
The first session, led by Menon, introduced the series’ endeavour to be “an intellectual, political exchange of ideas.” The meaning-making enabled by virtue of gathering in a public space as centred as the mess lawns to voice otherwise-censored ideas, thoughts and opinions “in the open” was emphasized. However, there was a peculiar veiling of the events which prompted this series. The textures of ‘Conversations in Open Spaces’ require navigation through the obligations and delimitations of professorial employment, and a student government’s balance of its relationships with (and often a demanded acquiescence to) the administration on one hand and the student body on the other.
It is through illustrations of the agendas implicit in syllabi and the politics of teaching poetry that we infer these intricacies. There has been an acknowledgement that this series is talking about, and to, recent events without making use of their situational vocabulary. Regardless, the conversations have determinedly and unavoidably moved towards various formulations of what it means to resist, and what a docile student body can look like in Ashoka - unquestioning, humdrum, isolated.
To not go back to business as usual, however, is a rather contradictory ask, for we continue to attend these sessions as planned to accommodate our ‘regular’ academic schedules. There remains unvoiced the possibility of what it might have meant for the faculty and students of a private university such as Ashoka, often colloquially represented (both inside and outside of campus grounds) as a space ‘far away’ from tangible political action, to boycott its classes. To tread the tightrope between fearlessness and fearfulness becomes a task of academic and political decisions, arguably not always made actively or wilfully.
The narratives of the teach-in sessions, perhaps similar to the social relationalities they are negotiating, have thus far traversed Shakespeare lessons in 19th-century Bengal, an Islamophobic government’s reign of terror (very recently a mere shuttle ride away from Ashoka University), the commemoration of 9/11 in American (and consequently ‘global’) calendars, and what it means to be a teacher. If intimacy between the student body and faculty is to be located near the administration building and in front of a loud mess, it is through agreement to free speech contingent on its transient visual existence (in that we do not record or photograph it), in order to presumably safeguard against the actions of those that demand docility.
The specificities of what we are able to scrutinize and how we then frame and pose our questions become sites of political action through the language of an academic discussion. This is possible because the academic evokes (or feels entitled to) an insularity that the protestor may not — yet it is a breach of this insularity that caused our unrest and distress in the first instance. The series enunciates an aspiration to continue the ‘Ashokan way’ of having open and critical conversations. Despite this, the conversation about what the Ashokan way signifies — its contingencies of privilege and power, the political/academic trade-offs that allow for it to be fathomed and claimed — often continues to be evaded or shadowed in humour and dismissal.
It is imperative to consider the contestations between the academic and the political, the public and the private, the docile and the resisting. However, these are not discrete dualities — such facile categorization does not do justice to the meaning invested in and created by the Teach-in Series. The teach-in is a sit-in that allows us to persevere in our resistance by situating itself in the negotiated margins of various regimes of power.
The next Teach-in Session, “What is Tyranny?” will be taken by Maya Mirchandani, Associate Professor of Practice, Media Studies, today (September 14th) at 6 PM, in the mess lawns. Please continue showing up, asking questions, and thinking about the conversations we have and those we don’t.