From my Preface to Strategies and Methods (2019)


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Relocating Textual Meaning

The time has come when I choose to step out of the University that I loved so much. Not that I do not love my chosen profession any the less, nor do I bear any ill feeling toward my beloved office room, the class rooms, the corridors, the coffee shops, the large open campus with lots of greenery within full view of the sea, and the thousands of students who have sat and listened to my lectures and discussed and debated over various issues of culture and literature.  I cherish the memories of each minute well spent amidst all those, and yet I have made up my mind to leave in almost mid-career. The reasons are many: personal and otherwise. I still recall fondly my very first class more than three decades down the line.  It is not unusual to think of thirty years as comprising a whole generation. I have taught many now. But in my heart of hearts I bear some deep regrets and misgivings. For one, the university system is not the same now as I have been used to, and the world outside (as it most naturally, should) has changed considerably and is now on the verge of transforming itself into something I can hardly recognise, or perhaps, better to say, it has already metamorphosed itself into something unrecognizable. I am a product of the last century with its deep commitment toward intellectuality and academics. Our world in general was reflected in books and periodicals and not through google maps and the cyberspace as it is now. But of course that’s something inevitable in our fast changing world defined by technology and electronics. Nevertheless what is certainly most difficult to comprehend is the ubiquitous presence of market economics.

My idea of the university had always been as a selective space where the student and teacher sat together in a spirit of inquiry, and where knowledge itself was produced. That was more of a counter-culture where the young at heart could vibe with each other, talk, debate, disagree and fight and when the time came to step out into the world be ready and alert armed with a loving heart and a sharper brain. Research meant a way of life and one felt that the dictum publish or perish was yet meaningful in a healthy competitive manner.  Professional jealousy notwithstanding, life with in the university walls meant a noble pursuit of knowledge that mattered. The system of administration was only there to ensure its safety, maintain its integrity facilitate its functioning, and never ever to impair the stream or lay a spanner on the wheels. When all is said thus, I should consider my-self extremely lucky to have enjoyed the unbridled freedom of intellectual exploration wherever I had taught be it in a college in Kerala, in south India or in a University or elsewhere in the country. My brief spell in BITS Pilani, and later as a Fellow in Teen Murti, New Delhi, and as an Associate in IIAS, Shimla, and even overseas, as a Fulbright visiting Professor in the University of Nevada at Reno– all had favoured me with the requisite atmosphere of liberal thinking and work. There was no time to regret and yearn for lost opportunities. But now, I more than empathise with William Wordsworth:

Turn wheresoe’er I may,

            By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

 

 

 

 

Research, the very idea of Education, the present day classroom practices, systems of administration and curriculum, all have undergone veritable changes. Nowadays, education and employability have become synonymous! The serious study of language and literature has petered into mere acquisition of soft skills.

Primarily, research in the present day is not committed pursuit of knowledge any more as it used to be. In terms of the administrative measures, the autonomy of the supervisor and the freedom of the researcher are not there anymore. Of course, as with all fields of study in the academies, the pursuit of a PhD degree has also become a sort of societal ritual. If in those days a BA or an MA meant that the student armed with the degree is expected to know so much; now a days, any casual conversation with a Ph.D holder is bound to leave you disappointed and totally disgusted with life! He or she knows apparently next to nothing, least of all his or her field.  One wonders how these people are endowed with such higher degree diplomas of education! There is a tremendous amount of dilution these days; everything is diluted. This could be a sort of democratic effect too. When education has lost its dearness it peters down to mere purposeless exercise, intellectual or whatever! Let us dole it out to all in equal measure! Democratic spirit is certainly most welcome! That joy in the widest commonality spread! But when it is accompanied with mere washing down that is another matter altogether! Now, higher educational centres of excellence like Universities are vying with each other to endow Doctorate degrees on film stars, slogan writers and politicians! They call it “Honorary” degrees! In fact it is a sort of self-promotional strategy where the person in the market limelight would in turn shower some grace on the educational centre!

That such a situation happens could be on account of several reasons. But prime among them is the commercialisation of all values. The market has come into rule us and we are asked to cater to the public at large. Educational machinery is nothing but a tool to cater to the society’s needs of employability. The present day catch phrase of education as a skill acquisition says it all. When higher education peters down to mere equipping of a student with employability skills just to get along in the world of everyday affairs, the entire purpose of schools colleges and universities is misplaced alike. From the womb to the tomb the individual is thus monitored to remain confined to the professed purposes of a society. Adaptability rather than the ability for critical thinking and interrogation is thus the order of the day. Vocation is not the end of it all! For the aspiring graduate there appear but two choices: either become a medical practitioner or an engineer!  The situation of the teacher of English in our Universities is also something quite complex. Indeed the fate of the entire segment of humanities in the Universities is equally complex.

Fairly recently Terry Eagleton wrote in the Guardian:

Are the humanities about to disappear from our universities? The question is absurd. It would be like asking whether alcohol is about to disappear from pubs, or egoism from Hollywood. Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.

Such a feeling of intense anguish and agony might not be unknown to any self-accountable teacher of English in our midst. Are we forced to listen to the death knell of the humanities?   Are we compelled to be trapped in a technical training facility or corporate research institute?

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

In a more awakened and self-reflexive state we can realise that the critical ability or that spirit of sustained resistance to dehumanising forces of the market capitalism that a University system is supposed to foster has started tottering.  Things fall apart…

What can the teacher of English and more generally the academic in the humanities do to stop this faltering? Do we have a map of our territories to begin with? What methodologies can we resort to in order to get our bearings? These are fundamental questions. And once we have come to realise that what we are currently witnessing in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique, as pointed out by insightful thinkers, we can break new wood. Of course the road we have taken thus far has led us here and what lies ahead is accessible to us once we take stock of our supplies and get our bearings right. The primary question is: can the humanities contribute in a positive manner to our changing societies? I am not promising to provide an answer to any of these questions, but for the inquisitive reader the following pages could proffer possibilities for detailed interrogation and sometimes he or she could stumble onto possible keys to unlock these conundrums.

Strategies and Methods: Relocating Textual Meaning, is thus a strategic map of reading for the beginner as well as those interested in the fate of the present day humanities. After all, this is but a primer, a basic book.

Strategies and Methods: Relocating Textual Meaning

 

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