Interview with Prof. Shormishtha Panja on “How to Study English Literature”

About Prof. Shormishtha Panja

Shormishtha_Panja2Shormishtha Panja is Professor of English, University of Delhi and Joint Director, Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Delhi. She received her PhD from Brown University, where she was awarded the Jean Starr Untermeyer Fellowship, and has taught at Stanford University. At Stanford, she was one of the first Indian nationals to be hired by the English Department. She has published widely in national and international journals and collections such as English Literary Renaissance and Shakespeare International Yearbook in the areas of her specialization: Renaissance studies, Shakespeare in India, gender studies and visual culture. Her books include (co-edited) Shakespeare and Class (Pearson, 2014), (edited) Shakespeare and the Art of Lying (Orient BlackSwan, 2013), (co-edited) Word, Image, Text: Studies in Literary and Visual Culture (Orient BlackSwan, 2009) and (co-edited) Signifying the Self: Women and Literature (Macmillan, 2004, rpt. 2007). She has been invited to lecture at universities in Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA. She has been awarded a Fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library, USA.  At Delhi University, she has served as Head, Dept. of English, and Dean, Faculty of Arts, and has served as Chairperson, UUCC, Arts Faculty (Redressal of Sexual Harassment). She has coordinated the project of producing English Literature e-lessons and video lectures at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Delhi. She is the founder member of PEHEL: Delhi University Women’s Support Group and has been the President of the Shakespeare Society of India from 2008 to 2014. She is the author of a blog, Delhi Musings, on CNN IBN.

The Interview

TTM: Greeting from the Golden Line! Thank you so much for managing time for the magazine out of your very busy academic life. I think both the students and teachers will be enriched by your opinions, advice, suggestions and guidelines.

Prof. Panja: Thank you for inviting me.

TTM: You are an exemplary academician, teacher, and an inspiration for both teachers and students worldwide. Please tell us something about how you became interested in the subject. Why and how were you attracted to studying English as a subject?

Prof. Panja: Thank you for the kind words.  I don’t know that I deserve such lavish praise.  I was an avid reader all through childhood and initially wanted to be a fiction writer.  My years at Presidency College introduced me to the fine art of literary criticism, my years at Brown honed my critical skills, and alas also curbed my creative writing!

TTM: Who were your inspiration as teachers?  We are interested to know  the academic condition of your times as student.

I can never forget Prof. Arun Kumar Das Gupta’s lectures on Shakespeare and Keats in Presidency College.  They were a revelation.  I never felt that he was talking down to us undergraduates or diminishing the complexity of the text in any way.  Prof. Sukanta Chaudhuri too was an inspiring teacher.  At Brown, Prof. Robert Scholes’ graduate seminars and those of Prof. Barbara Lewalski were enlightening for their rigour and depth of scholarship.

The academic conditions of my student days was mostly listening to lectures in class, with very little interaction with the teachers, except for tutorials, long, very pleasant hours in the National Library doing research, and, at Brown, writing and presenting paper after paper (rather than listening to professors) and trying to find entirely original things to say even about Shakespeare’s plays.  It was great professional training.

TTM: Your have vast experience as a teacher both in India and abroad. Do you now see significant change in the academic atmosphere and intellectual climate in India, particularly in teaching and studying English literature?

Prof. Panja: Vast differences.  The students in Delhi are very different from the way we were in Calcutta in our student days, gratefully and silently drinking in information!  The students today are much more competitive, well-versed in theory and not too interested in canonical literature.  They prefer a cultural studies or post-colonial approach and study Indian literature rather than British or American literature, even in the English Dept.

TTM: How do you consider inclusion of various writings of Indian authors in English in the syllabi of English literature? What impact may it have for the subject in future?

Prof. Panja: I think it is a significant and healthy change.  Students in India can relate to these texts in a way that they cannot relate to Chaucer or Wordsworth.  However, I do think it important for them to study canonical texts as well.  After all, they will have to teach these once they enter the teaching profession.

TTM: Now, we would like to learn from how students of undergraduate and postgraduate levels should approach drama, particularly Renaissance English drama in their syllabus in India.

Prof. Panja:  I have always favoured close readings and looking at the annotations. The use of a reliable, authorized edition—eg. the Arden for Shakespeare—is indispensible.  However, this should go hand in hand with looking at plays on stage or filmed versions of the same.  The performance aspect of drama must not be ignored.  Acting out scenes in class is a good idea.

TTM: What are the skills that are expected to be learnt by students while reading drama? And how can they master those?

Prof. Panja: I don’t think there are any skills specific to any particular genre.  Literature teaches us to read closely, to observe the human heart, to be eloquent.

TTM: The plays were written with the purpose of popular performance and not for the purpose of literature being read. Of course, in few institutions, Performance Studies is taught. But still, don’t you think we need to incorporate the principles of Performance Studies in teaching drama in a class of literature?

Prof. Panja:  Certainly.  And there is a great deal of research currently carried out in performance studies.

TTM: How should teachers prepare themselves for teaching drama in effective way? Do you think there needs to be a course on teaching drama for teachers?

Prof. Panja: I think including new media in whatever form is an integral part of teaching drama.  Take your students to see a play and write about their experience.

TTM: You have taught in various institutions abroad. Do you find any difference in intellectual climate and infrastructure between India and foreign countries?

Prof. Panja: There are enormous differences in climate and infrastructure.  I can talk about the USA because I have been both student and teacher there.  There is an abundance of riches available to students and teachers alike in terms of resources.  You name the book, the journal, and they will get it for you.  The library staff is enormously helpful.  The professors impart professional training in every sense of the term.  The emphasis is on original thinking and writing clearly and persuasively for the purpose of publication.  Of course, the publish or perish syndrome is worrying, and, at times, the classroom teaching suffers as a result of the emphasis put on research.  India, on the other hand, has brilliant teachers but not too many of them are publishing quality material on a regular basis.  At times I feel that there is a lack of professionalism in Indian academia.  We have the best minds but not the best conditions for these minds to develop.

TTM: You had been the President of the Shakespeare Society in India for a long time. You must have noted how association with the Society at individual and social levels enrich the learning experience. But how can institutions located in remote rural corners of the country establish a fruitful collaboration with Shakespeare Society? Is there any plan to expand its area of operation by setting up units at district or university level?

Prof. Panja: I completed my second term as President in April 2014.  Anyone can become a member of the Shakespeare Society and in fact we have as members a number of young teachers from small colleges in West Bengal, Haryana and Rajasthan, to mention a few locations. The Society cannot apply for UGC grants and so we collaborate with a college or university each time we have a conference, either national or international.  In this way, we hope to travel the length and breadth of India.  In our conferences, we make it a point to give young academics a chance to share their work.

TTM: What is your message and advice to the students of our college?

Prof. Panja: Enjoy these very precious years of your life!  Read, write, be creative.  Don’t let your own opinion be cowed down.

TTM: On behalf of our students, teachers and college, thank you so much for sharing your invaluable time, experience, knowledge, suggestions and advice

Prof. Panja: I’m not very good at imparting advice.  That’s an evil word!  I’ve enjoyed sharing my experiences.  Thank you for giving me this opportunity.

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