Delhi University has been in the news again, and not for the most glorious of reasons. In a dug-up, dust-choked, rubble-ravaged campus, what lies exposed is not merely poor sanitary infrastructure, but dangerous radioactive substances carelessly strewn around by DU’s prestigious science departments. The university’s most significant voice, its vice-chancellor (who is hell-bent on leaving his profile indelibly stamped on its history as he marks his last days in office), is carelessly dismissive about the terror of cobalt on campus — so what if it killed a man or two? — and far more intent, it appears, in crippling the university with academic structures and programmes that are untenable and unbelievably un-visionary. The Chain of Being is under attack at DU: while the science departments destroy humans who roam its spaces, our scientific-minded VC (proud that he last read a work of fiction in the 7th grade) is out to demolish the humanities.
In the current climate we are compelled to think about English studies anew — as a remarkable connection between bureaucratization of the university and a decided anti-humanities ideology begins to emerge from the various administrative bodies that dictate its present and future. Delhi University is poised to introduce a semester system in a hurried and ad hoc fashion across its 80-plus undergraduate colleges, and the question of the place of English in the curriculum catapults to the forefront: English has a peculiar position in the university because of its paradoxical status — utterly sexy, and yet increasingly devalued — through a desire to separate it from a larger vision of English studies, and to redraw it as a particular kind of language training. Communication skills become its raison d’être then, as if no other intellectual, political and emotional engagement with its literature is necessary.
Our challenge now is not to discount the market needs that may drive a discipline to reconceptualize itself, but to find a way in which that training can be imparted which inspires and elicits a total engagement with the subject, so that the skills acquired are far greater than communicative ones. The present strength of English studies is derived from the enlargement of this humanist ideal to ingest within it the complexities of other related disciplines — comparative literature, translation and culture studies, the conglomeration to be imbibed with a certain rigour that includes a combination of thinking and writing skills: imagination, creativity, emotional investment, analysis, clarity of thought and expression, poise, reflection.
Some of us in DU’s department of English have been thinking seriously about these threats to the sinews of English studies and of ways to refashion ourselves so that, while we do not lose sight of the ground realities and demands upon the discipline, we always offer the student the possibility of getting something far more valuable than base competence out of English studies. He has the final choice of making of that training what he will. The strength of the discipline lies, after all, in its boundaries that are porous — but we need to take its benefits and not allow others to take advantage of this porosity.
Our university administration’s assault on English studies has been carefully calibrated. In 2007, the current vice-chancellor set up the Institute of Life Long Learning in DU, primarily to integrate information and communication technologies with its educational system. Flush with governmental funds, the ILLL has faculty on deputation from various departments and colleges of DU. The initial mandate seemed to be capacity-building of ICT skills in teachers and conducting various faculty-development and student’s-career-oriented programmes. It appeared to be staking a space in continuing education, as in any other university around the world.
What the university administration is doing instead is using this institute to peddle its own versions of dumbed-down and diluted courses in different subjects. There is a career to be made at ILLL, for it is institutes such as this one that are symptomatic of a much larger malaise: that of helping to shrink excellence in higher education by means of providing pragmatic, solution-based information nuggets in various disciplines. In English studies, the application of such crass utilitarian principles means a complete debunking of the literary component and a half-hearted ad hocism in language-learning.
The idea of reforming departments of English is not new; much of it comes from inside the whale, so to speak. As a reaction to new criticism, the foremost casualties were aesthetics, classics and philosophy: but surely one needs to continue to redefine politics, history and societal study in culture in tandem with texts and prints, narrations and motivations, ideas of lucidity and imagination? From our current location, therefore, can we define the idea of the literary from a fresh perspective? As scholars, pedagogues and lovers of art and literature, we owe this to ourselves. We need to conceptually and pragmatically reposition our trade if we are to stand up to this marauding band of mediocrity. Of course, to rethink the idea of the literary is to also invest seriously in the cultural and the interdisciplinary, rather than going back to any pristine and separate realm of literariness per se — and to forge a synthesis of the workable, practical demands of a job-market along with a sustained and engaged interest in the discipline of English studies in its complexity, its enabling and exciting confusions, and its acuity.
The first stop is to rework the whole notion of the aesthetic, keeping in mind our locational space in India — for there is a conservative attempt to revive certain old aesthetic ideals in order to bypass the gains of the last few decades. One way is to work on the idea of a modern aesthetic sensibility that is deeply conscious of expression, representation and the nature of art objects, and yet is severely referential and intellectual. It is by connecting the two that one can work with the materiality of artistic production, reception and dissemination. What is required is a serious engagement with aesthetic interestedness, in the materiality of the aesthetic craft and imagination. Each area of study, then, must be complemented by historical contextualization; a strong notion of transactional, dynamic exchange would be inbuilt in such historicizing. The literary also means a robust comprehension and engagement with the oral, visual and the performative along with an investment in print and textual cultures. The idea of competence in language ought to be seen as a vital part of this larger project of literary incisiveness and sensitivity.
There can be no denying that English studies is a vital component of the humanities. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the VC and his team have been especially gunning for it in their marketable makeover of DU. Larger directives from the ministry of human resource development and the University Grants Commission feed into an ideology that undermines the worth of the Arts in a mindless pursuit of academic training that will yield fat salaries and impressive corporate designations. As a Central university squirming constantly under the beady gaze of the education and culture ministry, subject to its whims as well as its fancies (we do not deny the benefits we derive from our positioning, in terms of pocket and prestige), DU is uniquely poised to lead the higher education system of the country into rapid-fire rise or ruin both in the short and long haul of academic reform. It is indeed unfortunate that the team at our helm is short-sighted enough to believe that a university can be impelled toward success by short-changing its greater humanitarian vision.