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Regional, national, international: graded hierarchies of academic practice

By Savitha Suresh Babu

Roopa[1] and I worked on her paper together, cuddled up on her bed, over cups of Bru coffee heated on a little one-burner stove she kept tucked away under her bed in the hostel room.  We were in a hurry that day. Her paper was due really soon, and there was a lot of work that needed to be done. I think of her now, as I write my PhD thesis, with the pressure to finish at the earliest. I think of the differences of our circumstances and what it means for writing; of the similarities of our predicaments, and the meanings they hold to understand academic communities of practice.

I met Roopa as part of my field research, in Kalaburgi, where I was trying to understand the ways in which young women students, who live in hostels run by the Department of State Welfare, experience higher education in Karnataka. Roopa was one of the first women I befriended in Kalaburgi, a city largely unfamiliar to me. She often asked about my project, my interests, and spoke with great enthusiasm of becoming a professor (‘There are many school teachers in my family, but nobody teaches college,’ she would say). Her father was a retired school teacher, and a staunch Ambedkarite, as was Roopa. She was pursuing a masters in English in the regional state university. She spoke of how classes in her department were irregular, and how, although her masters’ degree was in English, she didn’t feel confident speaking the language. I accompanied her to the spoken English class on campus she attended, where grammatical rules were re-taught, alongside an emphasis on how speaking the language was crucial for ‘success’.

We were huddled together in her hostel room that day because she was applying for a seminar on women’s writing. Her lecturer had given her an essay from the ‘net’, and asked her to substitute several words in the existing paper, with synonyms. I was baffled then about the situation. Roopa was desperate to participate – for the ‘exposure’, she told me; ‘it is a “national” seminar; I am nervous’. I hesitated to help her only with substituting synonyms. I asked if we could read the book together. She said there wasn’t that much time. She needed to show the revised essay, with synonyms, to her lecturer the next day. So, we read summaries of the book, Cry the Peacock by Anita Desai online, and then worked to find synonyms, late into the night. Alongside synonyms, however, we managed to insert a paragraph or two of our own, based on Roopa’s ideas. She was extremely nervous about these, and wondered if it may backfire.

Her lecturer was happy with our efforts. He asked her to send off the paper. The paper was a formality that had to be done. Since the college where the seminar was being held wanted participants, and her lecturer had assured them, Roopa and her friend were to most definitely travel.

Roopa was a writer, with deep analytical insights, particularly about caste, when she wrote in Kannada. She spoke with great gumption about the need to address issues related to caste discrimination, and more broadly, caste annihilation. She was at the forefront of a range of demands students made to improve conditions of the hostel, and she articulated her experiences of life in the social welfare hostel as ‘lessons in bravery’.

It is troubling then to remember that evening, when she constantly spoke about how ‘she does not know much’, ‘she wants to learn’, ‘wants to study in a better university’ and asked me to ‘help’. My only real qualification was a familiarity with the language of dominant academic practice. In ways similar to several urban ‘upper caste’ middle class people, English had gradually become my primary language of comfort. For Roopa, who came from a village in one of Kalburgi’s talukas, and studied in Kannada medium schools, this seemed to be enough to expect me to be knowledgeable enough to offer her help. That evening, and many evenings after, I have thought of our differential access to material and symbolic privileges, and what it means for the forms of academic writing, and communities of practice in academia we are able to be part of.

Institutions across the higher educational landscape of India are governed by some similar state-mandated institutional requirements in terms of academic output, be they conferences or publications, and the mechanisms through which those outputs maybe met, such as conferences and journals. But these mechanisms are themselves organised along deeply stratified lines; unstated but implied understandings of prestige, maybe even glamour, or the lack of it, marks many of these hierarchies.

A friend who had pursued her PhD abroad once told me that she found it hard to understand the ‘research culture’ in India, after attending a conference, with a large number of participants from regional universities and college lecturers in India. For a large number of college lecturers, this space was meant to meet institutionalised requirements – tick the boxes for a conference attended, in the year. For research scholars (PhD scholars), it worked similarly, in meeting UGC requirements. Against this larger community of practice, there are smaller conferences organised by relatively elite Indian institutions – the central universities, humanities and social science departments of the IITs, the new private liberal arts universities, independent research institutions and so on. The nature of projects and writing differ widely in these two realms of practice. The variations are connected to class and caste, as much as they are to forms of writing. While a more ‘correct’ form of English may circulate in one sphere, that is not the only form of difference.

In research on the sociology of education (a field I am somewhat familiar with), for instance, there remains a domination of quantitatively-oriented approaches, written out in tabular formats, within the regional contexts. As against that, in the ‘national’ space, where a large number of scholars, seek to pitch their research to a global (understood in reference, largely, to the global north) audience, ethnographic, qualitative research seems to have greater currency.

I lay out these differences not to posit that one is superior to the other. But to analyse how the terms of academic ‘rigour’ and ‘success’ are part of a hegemonic discourse, that come to be set by those who occupy the higher realm of these academic hierarchies. The ways in which these hegemonies operate influence what can be written, by whom, and how.

The dominance of English language, in the ‘national’ mainstream of social science academia speaks volumes about the ways in which these hegemonies operate. What does this imply for the student? It means, writing in a language you don’t think in. It means fostering a culture of diffidence amongst students, who come to believe they will never quite measure up to the writing they read and so, it is okay to quote extensively from different sets of books and articles, substituting words, and phrases. In Gulbarga University, I met social science professors who told me how even though there was an option of writing the thesis in Kannada, they encouraged students to write in English. ‘It holds greater prospects for their future,’ they believed. I urge the reader to locate Roopa’s predicaments, within her context.

Moving away from the struggles of Roopa and her friends in the university, I now think of my own predicaments of writing, as a PhD student. Much after my field research, an abstract I sent to an international conference was accepted and I travelled on a ‘third world country PhD student grant’. I had not travelled that far before. I was intimidated at the prospect of presenting academic work ‘internationally’. Most graduate students there were based in countries of the global north, predominantly the United States of America. I was nervous. Despite my attempts to recognise the politics of academic practice, I wondered if I must present differently. I thought about how I could make my contexts known, in ways that could make sense to an audience that may not understand social relations structured by caste (a theme that emerges significantly in my doctoral research).

At the dissertation mentoring workshop in the conference, I met graduate scholars from many universities (largely from the US). All of them spoke of anxieties about writing, but I constantly sensed the anxiety was to publish, as much as possible. The focus on productivity was strangely unsettling for me, as was a constant emphasis on post-colonial theorising. The emphasis on post-colonialism was familiar to me, in a broader sense, but the ways in which it was articulated – as the ultimate panacea, was deeply troubling. I couldn’t help but notice that most references to post-colonial theorists were to scholars located institutionally in the global north.

Graduate students at that conference discussed how often they had been to an edition of the particular conference – it is my 3rd time, 4th time, 8th time, nth time, I heard others say. I felt a strange sense of discomfort, when I had to talk about it being my ‘first time’ (and in my head, I thought, probably the last – it felt like too much work; not only was I concerned about writing right, I was constantly aware of how the academic sources I use in writing maybe largely unfamiliar to those in the audience). Although the actual experience was good, and it allayed a lot of my fears, the discomfort I felt reminded me of Roopa.

I don’t mean to talk of our experiences as similar or parallel at all. A gulf of privilege separates us – from caste-class based capital, to institutional locations. What I mean, however, is that it made me reflect upon the graded hierarchies of academic practice. Global north-south; urban-rural; English-Kannada – a range of attributes and differences in material-symbolic privileges separated us all, and yet so many of us are part of the mammoth unevenly institutionalised academia.

Perhaps, there is more than hierarchy at work here. Each community of academic practice, rather than being distinct, is connected to another, and benefits from the layer beneath it. While Roopa and other students in Gulbarga are encouraged to write in English for ‘prospects’, the fact remains that their possibilities remain circumscribed by the nature of English they are able to write, as well as the type of spaces that make publications possible for them. For me, located in a much more privileged context, understanding the regional university space (to some extent) and writing about it, means often that I am just articulating experiences and views of Roopa and others to a wider audience. The way I write, in the language of English, maybe understood as rigorous (or not!), but is certainly influenced by the nature of writing-capital I have.

I use the phrase writing capital to allude not only to caste, class and other forms of structural advantage, but also, some forms of training and support in understanding the grammar of academic writing. I refer here to processes that help understand how best to lay out succinctly what others in the field have written, what is most helpful for you from that writing, and how to articulate one’s own work in conversation with that scholarship. Structural inequalities definitely impact the nature of writing capital one possesses, but it is not the only factor that counts. A friend, with nearly a decade’s experience as a teacher in an elite school often laments how her writing feels ‘high school-ish’, and academic writing feels like an alien language. Some may argue that academic writing is to be learnt ‘on the job’, but such a presumption does not account for differential levels of exposure – to reading, writing, academic cultures, and sometimes, the language of knowledge production itself.

This essay has been an attempt to recognise the many different communities of practice within academia, and ways in which we could re-think the terms of recognition. I have tried to do this by bringing Roopa’s predicaments together with my own, even as I recognise that the predicaments, in substantial terms, are incomparable.

Roopa did not want to substitute synonyms in that essay, any more than I did. She wanted to be able to read Anita Desai’s words (which she did after the paper was sent off), make sense of it for herself, and write. But nothing, within the structures she found herself in, could enable it. The regional university space, with rich insights into local particularities, can be as productive a research site as any other. If, however, there is a singular notion of excellence, which then defines what good academic practice ought to look like – from the conduct of ‘national’ seminars, to the need to present in English, situations such as substituting synonyms are bound to arise. As critical scholars devoted to questioning the politics of academia, we may understand and expound on the hierarchies that structure academia. But when one encounters them – whether in being a participant in an international conference on a ‘grant’, or as a researcher in a regional university constantly aware of her privileges, these hierarchies take on an affective resonance.

When we ‘wrote’ about Cry the Peacock, for Roopa’s essay, we wrote this paragraph about the mental collapse of the protagonist Maya:

It is important, perhaps, to link this mental collapse to a larger society, where emotional lives are under-valued. It is in the ways in which the author brings out the emotional journey of the protagonist, that the feminist sub-text of the novel comes to the fore. By setting up the binary of “emotional” and “rational” in the characters of Maya and Gautama, the author urges us to pay attention to the gender-ing of our emotional selves, and offers a moving feminist critique of contemporary relationships.

When I re-look at the essay we wrote today, and read this paragraph, I think there are connections to what I want to say here. The hierarchies that structure academic practice are known. I am just drawing attention to the consequence of these hierarchies, for students located across a range of different sites that constitute this mammoth uneven structure. I suggest that we consider these consequences, through a ‘moving feminist critique of contemporary academia’. What could be the possibilities of such a critique? The answer seems to lie in an attempt to think outside the established binaries, not only of international-national, national-regional, but also objective-subjective[2], and equity and excellence.[3] And in re-imagining our notions of ‘rigour’ and ‘excellence’ in reference to writing, to account for differential access to language, resources and writing capital. I am urging for us to recognise academic communities of practice, and the writing that emerges from these spaces, without subsuming them into notions of ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’. We have all experienced, I suppose, a sense of invalidation when our written words are thought to be ‘below par’, no matter where we are located within the graded hierarchies of academic practice. I am pushing for us to recognise that sense of invalidation, with empathy and respect for different forms of thinking and writing.

[1] Name changed to protect confidentiality

[2] This point was made powerfully by Madhura Lohokare, at the Comparative Education Society of India conference in 2018, where she spoke of how a binary understanding of objective and subjective stance in writing needs questioning.

[3] In literature around the expansion and ‘massification’ of higher education in India, several scholars have written about how ‘social inclusion’ needs to be placed alongside the need for academic excellence.  The understanding, at least in some accounts, seems to be that equity and inclusion ought not to be at the cost of quality and excellence. There are others who have challenged this binary discourse, arguing for a rethinking of the basic ideals of excellence.

Image credit: Here

Savitha Suresh Babu
is a doctoral candidate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (registered with the Manipal Academy of Higher Education), Bengaluru. Her interests are broadly within the sociology of education, and gender. She is keen to understand ways in which research and academia can be made relatively more egalitarian. This keenness emerges from many conversations with students in colleges of Karnataka; first as a teacher, and then a researcher. She has worked as a research associate with Azim Premji University, and journalist with The Hindu earlier. Her current investments in education were shaped substantially by her experience of teaching sociology in St. Joseph’s Evening College, Bengaluru.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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