South Asian specialist sees everything through a global lens

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What was your path to developing this diverse career?

I’ve been a scholar-teacher all my adult life, so I don’t know how diverse that career is! What might be distinctive is that I have tried to relate historically specific questions of social existence to the general concerns of critical theory, thereby bridging the domain/theory gap. I also remained attentive to how people enter into critical thinking, through what forms of self-reflection and practices of expression. Most important, perhaps, is that I challenge Eurocentric assumptions about the geohistorical provenance of critical thought.

I approach the world in terms of how best to fully explore the consequences of a problem I have set myself, if not to find adequate answers. It opens up lateral thinking – working with detected connection, possible correlation, and solid explanations for why things are the way they appear. I rely on this kind of associative thinking and have become more comfortable engaging in acts of academic denial, challenging assumptions and how people are trained to approach them.

I tried to think about the problem of personality, of social boundaries, wondering why inequitable structures turn out to be so resilient and flexible. In the process, I try to think across disciplinary realms, while simultaneously addressing questions of the archive, its relationship to time and temporality, and the ideas of change and transformation that historians typically preoccupy.

What are you working on now?

I am increasingly interested in the history of the United States and a deeper exploration of the traditions of African American political thought. I say this with some trepidation, being in an institution with incredible academics, whose work I admire, from whom I learn. It’s sort of a throwback to my own intellectual training as a teenager on the south side of Chicago, but it’s also an effort to think from my own intellectual training as a South Asian educated in American institutions in a particular historical moment. A focus on South Asia and the world, in particular the links between Imperial Britain, the United States and India, will frame my next project on 20th Century Assertive Action Regimes and historical repair ideas.

Any advice for anyone entering academia?

Enter at your own risk. It’s not because I think academia is unimportant or worthless. The opposite is happening, and there has never been a more urgent need for critical reflection and fearless response. We live in catastrophic times. The example of young people taking to the streets, engaging in thoughtful practices of change, and teaching us how to inhabit new worlds through their actions is instructive and exciting. Many of them are or have been in the academy, and have experienced its many contradictions.

The identity of the academy, America’s Cold War research university, is itself changing: the university as we know it is being redesigned from within and from outside. (The recent student strike at Columbia is a powerful and close example of this.) access and opportunity.

My way of thinking about our present has been to see the university as a social form, to ask what democratic education means and how we have come to separate the orders of intellectual and manual work. I think those interested in becoming professional scholars should reflect on the transformative work that can occur in the classroom and the privilege of pursuing an intellectual passion, while remaining mindful of the difficulties of finding a permanent position and the forced precariousness that the intellectuals the workers are increasingly confronted with.

Exciting summer plans?

I revise my book, Ambedkar in Americawhich models a form of close reading centered on Ambedkar’s first publication, The castes in India: their mechanism, their genesis and their development. It was a short essay he wrote in 1916 for a seminar, Modern and Primitive Societies. It is an extraordinary essay, to which Ambedkar has returned throughout his life as a thinker and writer who has addressed the persistent problem of (caste) stigma, inherited privilege and caste power. Here he paved the way for understanding caste as a historically determined form of general processes of inequality and subordination, rather than as a mysterious and inaccessible Indian problem.

I engage in a careful reading of this text, but I also propose approaches to reading it and engaging with it, through critical annotation.

What is the best part of teaching at Barnard and Columbia?

Our students can think backwards, forwards and everywhere in between! It is a collection of institutions bound together by complex histories of gender and racial exclusion, but also shaped by inspiring stories of struggle and insurgency.

I approach the classroom as a space to ask tough questions. Something magical happens when you are able to let go and think of the texts and their animated contexts as cherished travel companions. My own approach to teaching and scholarship has changed profoundly since I have been here, and this is entirely due to the institutional environment, the connections inside and outside the classroom and, above all, students who set the bar very high. .

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