Prof. GJV Prasad, discusses life and literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he is Professor of English. His major research interests are Contemporary Theatre, Indian English Literature, Dalit Writings, Australian Literature, and Translation Theory and he has published extensively in these areas. He is also a poet, novelist and translator. His novel A Clean Breast was short listed for the Commonwealth Prize for best first book from the Eurasia region in 1994. He is the current editor of JSL, the Journal of the School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, JNU, and Vice Chairperson of the Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. In this interview he shares his thoughts about interdisciplinary approaches in higher education with focus on English studies.
Rachna Sethi(RS): Interdisciplinarity seems to be among one of the new directions that academia is moving towards in India. Yet there seems to be lack of clarity in defining the term itself. It is often confused with multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. How does one differentiate between these terms?
GJV Prasad(GJV): I agree there is lot of confusion about the term interdisciplinarity. JNU was conceptualised as a university that would foster interdisciplinarity. When we began, technology was not that advanced and physical proximity of departments helped. One should of course have the orientation to want to converse with other disciplines for interdisciplinarity to work and physical nearness aids dialogue between disciplines. I would often run into other literary scholars, historians and sociologists like Namwar Singh, Anil Bhatti, Kalgare and Kedar Nath Singh. Meetings and discussions with social scientists and scholars from other languages over tea fostered interdisciplinarity at JNU.
And I am talking of ‘inter’ and not ‘trans’, that is disciplines talking to each other and working with each other. That is how I have co-guided Ph.D. scholars with historians; in interdisciplinary research projects one felt that the student needed inputs and methodologies of other disciplines. In transdisciplinarity you do not feel the need to learn the discipline of each field. Multidisciplinary depends on your training, if you are actually trained or inclined to train in two or more disciplines. A colleague of mine studied English with me, followed it by study of history and now teaches in the Political Science department, I would call him a truly multidisciplinary person. Otherwise we have people from different fields coming together in collaborations, providing opportunities for different disciplines to converse and create a new discursive space.
RS: The physical proximity between departments seems to be a thing of the past with the growth of JNU. Perhaps for your younger colleagues informal discussions over tea have been replaced by formal networks of exchanges. How do you see the change in dynamics reflect on interdisciplinarity?
GJV: The change in atmosphere means that today we need networks to encourage interdisciplinarity. Apart from research projects, certain programmes on campus like the North East India Studies programme and sector for education require expertise from different departments.
Also one notices an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary push not just in JNU but across the country by policy makers. The ministry has picked up these terms and there may be more funding and opportunities for younger colleagues in interdisciplinary areas. Today there is no funding in universities for humanities but some for social sciences and that is also the reason for more collaborative seminars and research projects.
RS: Interdisciplinarity is often viewed as being central to reading and understanding of literature. What is the direction that English Studies has taken in India in view of changing academic needs of crossing disciplinary boundaries?
GJV: English departments, along with perhaps history and sociology to some extent, are unique in understanding the fuzziness of boundaries. English departments in India could have gone in two possible directions. One way would have been to specialise in language teaching, to teach English as a language that will be useful to participate in the wider affairs of the world and as a link language across India. However this has not been very successful as language teaching is often looked down upon in universities. A hierarchy prioritising literature over language exists in university spaces.
The second direction that English departments could have taken was to explore the ‘Englishnes’, to see our departments as simply literary studies departments but again this did not happen. For a very long time we remained very ‘English’ and never became literature departments, and then we moved away from being English departments to becoming cultural studies departments. This is the manner in which most literature departments have reinvented themselves. We seem to have skipped the literary studies phase and fast forwarded to cultural studies phase and boundaries automatically became fuzzy.
In cultural studies you are dealing with everything from history, political science, linguistics, translation studies to films. Interestingly Indian languages, which had been neglected in English departments, were co-opted in this cultural studies phase. Study of popular and cultural forms brought in study of Indian languages and literature and you could now study Hindi or Tamil literature in an English department without raising eyebrows being raised. Indian literature has gained entry into English departments because of the need to re-present Indian culture, to analyse India and to create a critical discourse on India.
RS: So cultural studies has not only dismantled the study of British literary canon but also blurred disciplinary boundaries in English departments.
GJV: The fuzziness of borders between disciplines is now part of the turf of English departments. Interdisciplinarity earlier meant that you should be totally conversant with methodologies of other disciplines but that is no longer demanded. It has its own pros and cons. It is good in the sense that it has made English departments exciting places to be in and bad because humility and admittance of lack of knowledge about other disciplines has been replaced by brashness. One needs to question the training of students in other disciplines when we don’t even train people any longer in close reading of texts.
RS: Teaching of literature has always involved drawing from disciplines of history, philosophy, sociology and psychology even before we widely started using the term interdisciplinarity. Do you think there is a shift in thrust from traditional pedagogy to the current scenario?
GJV: The difference between then and now is being able to speak of other disciplines with a sense of ease, sometimes even contemptuously. We were actually trained by historians and history just didn’t come into the literature class. When we attended history and philosophy classes we had a sense that these were aligned disciplines but different disciplines nonetheless. Literary studies always had interdisciplinarity, now I think there is a feeling that you don’t need to learn history from historians, psychology from psychologists, philosophy from philosophers, as if the literary scholar is all in one.
RS: So instead of improving on skills one is drawing from multiple disciplines without being trained in them. Don’t you feel that the biggest drawback of interdisciplinarity is lack of grounding in any discipline while trying to be ‘a jack of all trades’?
GJV: Yes, that is a problem. When you hear and read people with firm grounding in the discipline, a literary scholar who knows his text well, you value his merit as an intellectual and critic. I don’t want to sound old fashioned because I love this excitement and enjoy the kind of research young scholars can today undertake. However we need to be conscious and cautious of learning from other disciplines and not pick up ideas without being aware of where they come from.
RS: Interdisciplinarity then shouldn’t lead to a superficial research that lacks substance and depth.
GJV: Absolutely, also since our work is part of literature department, our reading of literature should be central to what we do, otherwise it is just a peg to hang other things. Otherwise the same kind of work can possibly be done in a history or a sociology department.
RS: So we make literature central to our project in English department and then use tools of other disciplines. But how do we ensure that these tools are used for synthesis of ideas, for advancement of knowledge? What methodology should the teacher employ to equip students in interdisciplinary work?
GJV: Let me push it further, today I have a tool kit rather than methodologies that I provide my students with. The tools may come from different disciplines, drawing from what I have learnt from these streams over the years. I fail in my responsibility as a teacher if I don’t train my students in understanding the functions and impacts of tools and how they are to be used for analysis of texts. They should be able to decide the appropriate tool for the unpacking or decoding of a text. Research methodology is about putting together of a tool kit. As I said earlier, it doesn’t mean you lose humility and pretend or think that you know all, but instead you learn and evolve and have respect for different tools that you have gained. In that sense it doesn’t matter if you are not trained in different disciplines so long as you are familiar with different tools, know their origins and various uses.
RS: Has JNU administration been supportive of partnership among different departments for research proposals based on interdisciplinary approach? Please give examples of such joint ventures undertaken at the Centre for English Studies.
GJV: JNU has always been supportive in having co-supervisors not only from other departments but also from other universities in India or even abroad. We are open to being in the liminal space between disciplines and encourage crossing of boundaries.
I can give you examples of PhD research of Ramya Sreenivasan and Nilanjana Mukherjee. Both had projects that were heavily history oriented, had co-supervisors from history departments and their theses have been appreciated by people from both history and literature departments. I have also supervised work where students have worked on other Indian languages like Tamil and Bengali and that work has been admired by people from the respective language departments, and that has been a test for me. Interdisciplinarity provides opportunities to young scholars to undertake exciting research.
RS: Thank you Sir for sharing your views on the area of interdisciplinarity. I am sure your insights will be thought provoking for our readers.
* Interview first published in FORTELL, January, 2014
* email@example.com | Rachna Sethi is Assistant Professor of English at Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.