Thinking about the Last Hindu Emperor

Gentle Readers: A small discussion of Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book The Last Hindu Emperor (2015) that I gave on March 5, 2016

Thank you to Professors Akbar Haider Ali for the invitation to come today. To Professor Kamran Asdar Ali and Rita Soheila Omrani at the South Asia Institute for their hospitality. I am very pleased to be here today, and honored to speak about Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book- which is great, and you should purchase it, and read it immediately.

Let me start with a joke and an observation.

The joke was told to me by my advisor sometime ago in his class on Hindu Kingship.

I was in a rickshaw in India and I saw an ancient monument that I did not recognize, so I asked the rickshaw walay “How old is that building?” and he answered it is “five thousand and ten years old” and I said, “wow, that is very specific” and he said, “ji, I was told it was five thousand years old about ten years ago”.

Ronald Inden’s point in that telling was to mark the way in which totemic past (five thousand years) and material past (the monument) intersect with the re-telling of that past.
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XQs VI: A Conversation with Nayanika Mathur

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Tariq Rahman for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIV, V.]

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unnamedNayanika Mathur is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She has studied at the Universities of Delhi and Cambridge and has held research fellowships awarded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge. Her book, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.

Tariq Rahman is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests broadly include real estate, financialization, development, the state, genealogy, and Pakistan.

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  1. Please explain the significance of your book’s title, Paper Tiger.

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The Work of Humanities

Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski
Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski

A few weeks ago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations celebrated its 50th anniversary, alongside 60 years for The Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and more generally a record of excellence in research on South Asia dating back to the foundation of University of Chicago in 1892.

These are good times for the study of India at the University of Chicago. Just two years ago, with much fanfare, the University opened a Center at Delhi (to go along with other global centers in Paris, Beijing etc.). A few years before that the Indian Cultural Ministry put in $1.5 million to install the Vivekananda Visiting Chair. Earlier this year, was another major gift– The Anupama and Guru Ramakrishnan Professorship in Sanskrit Studies– a Chair that will be held by Gary Tubb.

These are bad times for the University of Chicago. In Feb 2016, the S&Ps rating agency cut its credit rating to AA- citing “persistent and expected continued operation deficits, high debt burden and adequate financial resources for the rating with additional debt expected in fiscal 2017”.

This was all pre-dicted. In 2014, Bloomberg reported:

… inherited an ambitious program to improve campus life while bolstering highly regarded academic programs. The institution stuck to the plan even as it suffered a 21.5 percent loss on endowment investments in 2009. Its debt has grown in the past four years to $3.6 billion from $2.4 billion. “We well understand that borrowing for some of these investments entails risk,” Zimmer, whose $3.36 million compensation made him the highest-paid private college president in 2011, said in a statement in August after local reporters obtained a copy of the proposed financing plan. “We cannot, however, scale back our academic and programmatic ambitions in a way that risks our future excellence as a university.”

As a result in 2015, the University claimed to look towards re-couping their losses by focusing on non-academic staff:

… it is signaling a bureaucratic revamp covering some 8,000 nonteaching staff members whose compensation has been growing faster than faculty pay and university revenue. “This means a change in how we think about administrative costs, not just a temporary adjustment of expenses,” Provost Eric Isaacs warned in an April memo to faculty and staff. At a faculty meeting the next day, President Robert Zimmer said support functions that had grown in an ad hoc fashion could be organized more efficiently, according to an attendee who asks not to be identified. Another faculty member, who also requests anonymity, says Zimmer, when pressed, “clearly acknowledged that people were going to be losing their jobs.”

It came then as no surprise that two weeks ago, a number of departmental administrators in the Humanities Division were given a month’s notice for the termination of their jobs– with the stipulation that small departments would now share administrative staff as part of this re-structuring.

One of those given notice is Alicia Czaplewski– center stage in that photograph above, taken at that gala dinner celebrating SALC few weeks ago. In her 23 years of service to the University, she worked for nearly all of those departmental Chairs. In 2011, Alicia was celebrated by her students and awarded the Marlene F. Richman Award for Excellence and Dedication in Service to Students. Alongside Alicia, Tracy L. Davis, administrator for Slavic Languages & Civilizations, was also given notice.

The students, and faculty, have a petition in her support that I urge you to read, if only to see how big an impact Alicia has had over the last fifteen years.

I want to, however, tell what it means to be an “Alicia” in a top private University at the Southside of Chicago. I have little to add about the so-called ‘corporatization’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ of the University. Such paeans are deeply ahistorical and ignore the very foundation of such private enterprises.

From 1998 to 2008, I worked in the administrative offices of University of Chicago– first five years for the Social Sciences Division and the last five for the Humanities Division. I worked at least 40 hours even before I became a benefits-eligible full-time employee in 2005. As a graduate student, I was hired at an hourly rate to build the computing administrative structure for the Divisions– payroll, accruals, reimbursements, procurement, accounts payable. This work introduced me to the administrative structures which remain invisible to students or faculty as part of everyday academic life. The systems was organized and run by people like myself, departmental administrators, finance managers, grant managers, secretarial staff, and facilities staff. For ten years, I worked almost exclusively with women of color and working-class women from Chicago’s suburbs. The average service time for these tremendous workers was never below a decade– with services rendered in 20, 30 and even 40 year cycles.

I worked with these women as they gave support, catering to the demands, whims, desires, and complaints of faculty who were paid hundreds times more and without participating in either the prestige economy or the benefits economy of the University on equal terms. Alicia, and her daughters, would pick up Speakers and Visiting Professors coming from India, at the Airport to save the department costs of taxi services. They would house them, assist them in cultural and legal translations; work late into the night, and over the weekend to help critical departmental business go forward. All of this was labor unpaid, and required, for the mere functioning of the department. All of this labor was done by Alicia, and Tricia, and Anne and every other departmental administrator for the sake of their Chairs and their tenured faculty. I bear direct witness to this labor and I know that it was done without any ‘cost-sharing’ with the University.

That was not all. Any Ph.D. program is necessarily structured to debilitate one’s sense of self-hood and sanity. Whatever sadism is intended by this ‘rite of passage’ the fact is that mental health services were not a part of Graduate Student benefits during my time at Chicago. Life– marriage, birth, death, divorce, trauma– had to happen off-screen and far away; there was no institutional ways outside of the tried and failed “leave of absence”. That task of mental health wellness for Graduate students, and faculty, was also the task of the women sitting in the departmental offices. They were the confidants, the shoulders-to-cry-on, the help, the surety of purpose for the hundreds of students and faculty. This too was uncompensated labor. In the petition, Alicia is called “the Foster Mother” (the building in which SALC is housed is Foster Hall). She was not anyone’s mother that attended or worked in Foster Hall. That she was asked to play that role is itself a condemnation of the way in which Humanities operated at Chicago. Her love and grace saved many a dissertation, and that work clearly won her devotion from the hundreds of students. That love, however, was not what she was being paid to do.

In my ten years at University of Chicago, there were many, many like Alicia who belonged to the South Side community and who served the University. When the University made a decision on how to face financially uncertain times, it relied a priori on an understanding of waste within its operation– redundancies, expired utilities, inefficiencies. To clear that waste, the most disposable people were these lower administrative staff. The access of such denizens of the South Side to a lower-middle class life, via employment at the University, has now ended at the University and the stories of retirements, lay-offs are all too common.1 In my ten years, I also witnessed the hiring and setting up of countless new “Deputy Deans” and “Associate Deans” in the Humanities– all charged with managing what was deemed unmanageable without centralization. I can assume that no cost-sharing is happening at the Divisional level.

The faculty at University of Chicago have been abdicating their governance over such matters for a long while now– and I do not know if the rally to save the SALC position will be successful. I hope that it is– but what about the Slavic position? what about the other redundancies? The financial crisis remains as do the newly built very tall, all glass structures erected by the University to house art centers or alumni relations. The time for tightening the belt is only for small departments, and those who run it, not for the grand funding campaigns and the constructions of the new New. The University is a university only if it can keep growing, keep expanding.

All that said, for the faculty and the students of SALC, there is no greater articulation of their engagements with the University than Alicia Czaplewski. They have all rallied to save her and I hope we succeed. I predict, however, that in not too distant a future they will be asked to save that department itself. It is already too late. Until then, I wanted to document the immense contributions of Alicia to the intellectual, social, and legal life at Foster Hall. We all owe her.

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  1. University of Chicago is no friend to the community in which it has lived. It’s ethos “life of the mind” cherishes the fact that the mind is not attached to a body, and that body is not colored. The horror stories of its “largest University Police Force” are countlessly documented but less documented, or understood, is its neo-colonial restructuring of urban landscape in Hyde Park. The Urban Planning and Sociology departments worked closely with foundations to make the University part of the national conversation. See LaDale Winling, “Students and the Second Ghetto: Federal Legislation, Urban Politics, and Campus Planning at the University of Chicago,” Journal of Planning History (2011) http://jph.sagepub.com/content/10/1/59.refs. The history of its refusal to allow a Trauma Center on the South Side is, in itself, a brutal history to behold. []

3+4=7

Here is a game we used to play in Berlin. The idea began with trying to combat the righteousness with which we each organize our thoughts on our intellectual projects. When asked to narrate this to someone else, and when someone else says, ‘have you thought about…?’, we either compartmentalize that feedback (‘I will look this up later’) or dismiss it for not being serious enough. How do we teach ourselves, and others, the art of empathetic listening?

So the game goes this way. We know that 7 is a magical number: the average time to completion of dissertation, the number of years on the tenure clock, the average number of chapters in a monograph. Among other things. So, 7 minutes.

We started with a pair AB. A would begin and speak for exactly 3 minutes– they can speak about the main questions animating their research or a particular chapter or whatever they wish. They are asked to speak at a normal pace (not rush) and speak to a peer audience. As the buzzer sounded, they stopped, and immediately B picks up. B picks up the narrative, and continue speaking about the project, adding questions, themes, concerns to As ideas but drawing upon B’s own expertise, ideas, concerns and delights. However, critically, B is asked to add, augment, grow, consider, elaborate and NOT deconstruct, destroy, deteriorate. B speaks for exactly 4 minutes. At the end, there is a 3 minute period when those listening (not A not B) indicate what they liked, and help elaborate and illuminate.

The exercise was built as an antidote to the generic workshop where a colleague’s paper etc is ‘critiqued’– that is, its gaps, elisions are pointed out for the scholar to address and what the listener feels is a lacunae is attended to. We wanted to have a place for anticipatory thinking where both as a speaker and as a listener, one tries to think alongside and in tandem to.

It was a fun game and some cool things happened and then we stopped. There was another game where we downloaded weird powerpoints (usually from .mil) and did karaoke with them.

Use as you will.