Interview with Prof. Pramod K. Nayar on “How to Study English Literature”

Pramod K Nayar teaches at the Dept. of English, The University of Hyderabad. His recent books includes Posthumanism (Polity 2013), the edited 5-volume , Women in Colonial India: Historical Documents and Sources (Routledge 2014), Frantz Fanon (Routledge 2013), Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and Writing Wrongs: The Cultural Construction of Human Rights in India (Routledge 2012). He is currently working at a book on Human Rights and Literary Studies for Plagrave-Macmillan, a book on ‘the culture of extremes’, and a book on the Indian graphic narrative. Due in January 2015 is his Citizenship and Identity in the Age of Surveillance from Cambridge.

TTM: Prof. Nayar, sometimes the question—“Why Study Literature” is raised instead of “How to Study Literature”. Do you think such paradigm shift in our approach to literature can be more appropriate in guiding students rather than confusing them with the burden of evaluating something beyond their proper understanding?

PKN: I don’t see the two questions as separate – how we study Literature is why we study Literature. Our modes of making meaning, about, say, suffering or humanity in great pieces of Literature defines the reasons why we have come to the field at all. I doubt if the evaluation is beyond their proper understanding as you put it, simply because, if (a big IF!) we teachers do our job well, it isn’t too difficult to get them to ask the right questions about literary texts and by extension life itself.

TTM: What should be the first step of a student studying an undergraduate course of literature in general? What is your advice?

PKN: To enjoy reading and have a voyeuristic tendency! If you are a person who prefers the short-term pleasure of a tweet or an internet banner ad then perhaps this is not the field for you. If you enjoy being immersed in another world, made entirely by words, and if you have an interest in the lives of other people (we call them characters in books for convenience, but they are people!), then Literature is something you could do.

TTM: Generally the syllabi are divided in terms of poetry, fiction, non-fictional prose and certain applied aspects. How should students approach the structure of the syllabus? How should they prepare themselves for various genres?

PKN: First read adequate samples of each genre, to get a feel of the genres. Then read one text on approaching the genre – a textbook on reading fiction, another on poetry, etc. This will give them basic approaches, techniques of reading. The trick is to get them to understand the elements of every genre: characterization, plot, atmosphere etc in fiction, for example. Once this basic skill set in reading the genres is available to them they can read for the courses.

TTM: Would you suggest some general guidelines for reading and appreciating poetry critically?

PKN:  I have in fact answered these two questions on fiction and poetry in the preceding one. There are plenty of wonderful beginners’ books on the genres, which explain the constituent elements of the genres. I shall be happy to supply a list later, but I don’t think it would be necessary. Once the basics of reading the genres have been mastered the students can be taught to examine larger dimensions, such as discourses, politics, ideologies, in the poem or novel. What has happened is with the increasing politicization of interpretation (by which I mean the increased interest in the politics of a text) we have stopped paying attention to foundational matters like the language and form of a text. Politics comes from the language of a text, and we have to first teach them to read a text closely, its language and form, its aesthetic principles, and then help them see that all of these (language, form, aesthetic principles) as also political. To jump straight at making sweeping generalizations about the ‘politics of representation’ or the ‘politics of a text’ without examining the mechanics of a text is, in my view, a very bad way of dealing with Literature. No critic anywhere in the world looking at politics ignores the language of a text – even the Marxists like Eagleton or Jameson are committed to the modes of a textual operation.

TTM: Why is the study of prescribed non-fictional prose works important for the students of literature? Are there some applied aspects to learn from their works?

PKN: Non-fictional prose is a highly respected genre. Some of the world’s greatest polemics have been first articulated in the non-fictional prose of Paine, Marx, Freud, Gandhi, Ambedkar and others. The modes of presenting a case, an argument, that non-fictional prose reveals can help students read news analysis, serious political essays and other such forms of daily textualities. Autobiographies and biographies show us how people construct their pasts, organize their memories.

TTM: For the last three decades or so attempts have been made slowly but steadily to incorporate Indian Writing in English into the syllabi of English literature in India? How do you look upon this development?

PKN: A very necessary and socially relevant development that enables us to understand ourselves in certain ways, but also see how Western representations of us have worked, our role in the world, the world’s connections with India, etc. It brings us to an awareness of our immediate social realities in a different register of writing and, if we read them well, discern social commentaries, links to the world, etc

TTM: How should students prepare for Indian Writings in English?

PKN: Same as with any piece of writing – first an awareness of the language of texts, the contexts of their production and consumption and then their politics. I am against ghettoisation – that we should read IWE because we are Indians. That way we can extend the argument to say Malayalis will read Malayalam and Nagas will read Naga texts. The purpose of Literature is always, in my view, to read about the distant Other, the racially-culturally distant Other, to learn about difference, and not to go on reading about the familiar. It gives us the chance to not treat what we do not understand as monstrous. As Geoffrey Harpham puts it, ‘to hold the thought of the Other in our heads’. Literature is the last bastion of reading the Other and of respecting and understanding difference. If we start saying we should only read cultural familiar texts then we are one step away from demonizing the Other – which is what politicians do.  So I would say we read IWE as Indian but also worldly, situating it within other postcolonial and world writings.

TTM: Generally the syllabi of literature in India are found to be lacking in applied and practical fields of study. More or less the pattern follows the one set by the colonizers here. Of course, changes are being made. Do you think there should be more applied aspects for the students? [If yes, what applied areas do you suggest for inclusion]

PKN: Digital humanities, Human Rights and Literature, Literature and Popular Culture (in Cultural Studies) are domains that need to come in, I would say. These enable the development of associated skills, of understanding other registers of language use, of politics in a new key.

TTM: Even if there are not applied aspects are not there in the syllabus, what should the students do to develop the applied skills which would be ultimately helpful for understanding literature better?

PKN: For me applied skills are not simply job driven – it is about critical thinking. This is about reflecting on how we arrive at meanings, how we contextualize interpretations of literary AND cultural texts, of the consequences of our readings.

TTM: The syllabi of literature are also found lacking in professional proficiency. A student may want to follow the career of journalism or script-writing, but little is included on such professional areas. Do you think new areas like Performance Studies or Media Studies or Digital Humanities should be included in the syllabi? Or any other area. Your views?

PKN: Digital Humanities is an addition yes, considering much of it is drawn from literary texts. Cultural Studies would include media and film and popular culture. I would definitely advocate a Cultural Studies addition to the programme. Am uncertain as to how we could do journalism and performance as well. Also, it cannot be the task of English/Literature depts. to do all of these, right?

 TTM: If a student wants to follow such career, how should s/he start preparing from undergraduate level?

PKN: Developing specialized interests from year 2 of the BA would help, especially if we are in a position to offer a wider variety of courses beyond the Literature ones. Two papers or courses in the same field would help acquire considerable specialized knowledge they can build on.

TTM: Prof. Nayar, a new phenomenon occurred with the expansion of the internet and the web in India from 2000 or so. Studying literature is not confined to a physical library and conventional classroom. The web contains massive amount of study materials and resources. But again, the web can become a terrible distraction from study as it also unfolds a dark world of entertainment for the young eyes. How would you advise students in utilizing the web for the purpose of studying literature more effectively? And what should be the role of a teacher in helping students to utilize resources from both the offline and online worlds?

PKN:  The online resources for studying Literature are simply enormous. Like all technological advancements, the Internet creates its own monsters if we let it. Discovering the treasures of the Shakespearean stage or the horrors of slavery online helps us contextualize texts better. Reading tools help us read them better. Teachers instead of complaining about the ‘bad influence’ of the digital (surely they complained about the arrival of print in the same way in the 14th and 15th centuries!), should demystify the Internet, use it for online discussions, resource sharing, etc.

TTM: In our time emphasis is being given on the use of ICT in classroom. But that is more connected with streaming out more information and with opening doors to many forms of other texts associated with a specific one. What should be the function of the teacher as the human source?

PKN: The teacher’s job is not the supply of information but about imparting skills that enable the student to convert information into knowledge. We teach them, in Literature, how to read the word and the world.

TTM: In higher education much importance given on ‘research’ after finishing postgraduation in India and little on teaching. M.Phil and PhD are considered almost a kind of professional degrees for teaching. No formal training is arranged regarding teaching literature and performing academic duties like invigilation and assessment of answer-scripts.  What do you think about this?

PKN: These are different skills. I do not see how training in evaluation is connected to research abilities or writing skills.

TTM: Do you think there is a need to reassess and create new set of teaching methodology for literature in our time of multimedia experience and networked conditions? Should there be compulsory professional training courses for teachers?

PKN: Absolutely. Forms of writing and forms of reading have changed, and we have to account for this shift. Nothing compulsory works, as we both know (like Refresher Courses in India, from which very few  really get ‘refreshed’!)

TTM: Finally an apparently absurd question. What if, instead of teaching a particular discipline of literature, say for instance English or Tamil or Bengali, an interdisciplinary course  is prepared, like B.A in Literature, in which students will learn three languages—a foreign language (e.g. English), an Indian language other than the mother-tongue (e.g. Tamil) and a mother-tongue (e.g. Bengali) are taught? Would not such students be professionally more efficient? Would not the study of literature be more exciting for them with their access to varied forms of literature?

PKN: It would be wonderful of course provided the students have acquired the languages needed to read the literatures. Our students also come from very different backgrounds for whom one language itself can be sometimes a burden, so this has to be accounted for.

TTM: Thank you so much for your views. It is quite an enlightening experience for me. Thanks again.

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