Reading List and Its Discontents
By Diya Sood, UG '23
Reading lists are an essential academic function of the study of disciplines in an institutional framework like a university. Canon formation can be deliberate and methodical. When a centralized body dictates the exclusion and inclusion of texts, it dictates what ideas it wants challenged and established. Delhi University’s Oversight Committee recently intervened in the undergraduate English syllabus, dictating the removal of the Dalit feminist authors of Tamil Literature, Bama and Sukirtharini, and Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. A hundred teachers of Delhi University became signatories to a statement criticizing the move as “undemocratic” and “non-inclusive.” The proposed canon then becomes a list of texts that do not challenge, and thereby establish the conventions of gender and caste, avoiding an intersectional discourse.
Canon formation, in turn, can also be organic, where it becomes a by-product of an essential academic process, similar to the Ashokan model. When enquired about the reading lists at Ashoka, Professor Gil Harris, HoD, English, says, “There is no such thing as a finalized curriculum here, unlike at public universities. As a liberal arts university, we give our faculty the right to devise — and revise — their own syllabi. If you look at the department of English and Creative Writing course catalogue, you will see that what we teach mixes the canonical and the non-canonical. Students who have taken our courses also know that the department doesn’t just teach the English language; students work with bhasha languages in our translation courses taught by Professors Kothari and Sinha, and even in my Literature and the World foundation course, students’ final projects are often written in a mixture of English and desi languages.”
Responding to the students’ anxiety regarding the recent development in Delhi University he maintains that , “We have at no point adapted our syllabi to ‘please’ powers anywhere, whether in government, UGC, or at the university itself. We teach many of the authors that the DU Oversight Committee has excised from their curriculum, by the way.”
In response to the question about decolonising the reading lists of the mandatory courses, Harris clarifies that, “If we are being taught in English, as all students at Ashoka are, it is important to understand the history of the power struggles and ideological contestations, in Britain and then globally, that have produced that language. One cannot think of the histories of modern India without thinking of the histories of Britain and the British Empire.” Early British Literature is one of the five mandatory courses of the English Department, in addition to Forms of Literature, Introduction to Literary Theory, Post-Colonial Literature and Literature in the Age of Empire.
In order to graduate with an English major a student must take the five compulsory courses with seven electives. Many elective courses offered in Monsoon 2021 have subcontinental subjects of study such as ‘Tarzan and Mowgli: Colonialism and Culture’, ‘My Goa: Music, Identity and Sexuality’, ‘Studies in Film: Bollywood and Gender’, ‘The Embodiment of Caste in Literature’, ‘Indian Novel of the 19th century’, ‘Violence and South Asian Literature’, ‘Staging the Orient in Early Modern England’, ‘Critical Thinking Seminar: Caste Creativity’, ‘Body Poetic – The Human Form in Sanskrit Kavya Literature’, ‘Critical Thinking Seminar: The Rasas and Studies in Indian Literature’. “We do not centrally monitor what an instructor chooses to include in a course,” Harris answers, when asked about a version of a compulsory course taught with no Indian author as part of the required reading list, “what we might think of as ‘indigenous’ forms are often implicated in larger webs of power and knowledge, which allow us to forge connections across borders.”
Mandakini Dubey, Assistant Professor of English and Critical Thinking, draws a comparison between the compulsory courses of the English department with pre-requisite courses of mathematics or biology, “It could be chaotic and confusing to teach a course without certain texts around which the syllabus is built.” She also points out that the merit of the department is not only gauged from the course offerings, but also the research interests and publications of the faculty members, “Perhaps it would help to think back to a couple of conferences we hosted in the last year–one on global medievalism, another on Vernacular Victoria (which looked at representations of Queen Victoria in a range of mostly South Asian languages in the 19th century).” Positing an elective, called ‘Global Literatures of the Antiquity’, as an example of what best encapsulates the department’s work and curriculum, Dubey adds, “Its texts ranged from the world’s first recorded poems by a Sumerian priestess in the 3rd millennium BCE to Tamil love poetry, the Chinese Book of Songs, the Popal Vuh from the Mayans, and works representing Greek and Roman drama and epic, among many others.”
The conversation around canon formation in Indian universities is one that requires a keen balance between the desire to decolonise the ‘canon’ and an awareness of the nebulous nature of a national identity. “Given that we live in a climate which seeks to define ‘India’ and ‘Indian’ in increasingly rigid, narrow, and purist terms, I would be very hesitant to view any sort of intellectual work as ‘anti-national’ or to mandate nationalism or nativism in the academic work we do, the classes we teach, the books we read”, says Professor Dubey. The statement against DU’s Oversight Committee also distinguishes the department as that of “literary studies” and “not a language teaching course” specifying that the department exists in tandem with other disciplines.
But the fluidity in the function of reading lists is evident in times of public discord, both national and university-related. There are instances where instructors sanction a subversion of text-related discussion with interludes of protest poetry of Audre Lorde and Faiz. During the CAA/NRC protests in the Spring of 2020 and, most recently, in context of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation, the impromptu suspension of discussion of pre-decided texts from the list to revolutionary texts, highlights the tendency of required lists to become a strange paradox to the liberal space that Ashoka promises.