Duke University Professor of Writing Dr. Denise Comer shares her experience of advancing writing studies as a discipline in India and creating global exchanges among writing faculty about writing pedagogy, language, power, and culture.
Located outside of Delhi, India, Shiv Nadar University (SNU) has emerged as a leader and innovator in writing pedagogy.
SNU’s efforts are advancing writing studies as a discipline in India and creating global exchanges among writing faculty about writing pedagogy, language, power, and culture. SNU’s top leadership has been integral towards promoting this endeavor, as they have supported the indefatigable Dr. Anannya Dasgupta, Assistant Professor in the Department of English, who runs the writing program through the Department of English as SNU prepares for the official formation and launch of the writing center in the near future.
I had the privilege of visiting SNU towards the beginning of 2016 as part of an ongoing research and teaching collaboration in transnational writing pedagogy. In Spring 2015, Dr. Dasgupta and I received a grant from our institutions to explore writing-based partnerships as a means of promoting cross-cultural exchanges and facilitating interdisciplinary research between faculty and students. Our research aims include deepening our understanding of academic writing and pedagogy across different cultures, and evaluating existing and emerging standards for academic writing globally.
The first year of our two-year collaboration consisted of in-depth site visits to one another’s institutions and the launching of several writing-course partnerships, in which SNU and Duke students and faculty interacted around writing.
I will offer more about this partnership in a future post, opting to focus now on SNU’s leadership with writing pedagogy, writing program administration, and the politics of teaching writing.
While visiting SNU, I participated in two excellent writing-based events:
- Project E-Qual, a Teacher Training Workshop on Critical Thinking in Writing Pedagogy, organized by Dr. Dasgupta.
- “Line-by-Line: Habits and Practices of Writing,” the 2nd annual International Conference of the SNU Department of English, organized by Dr. Dasgupta on behalf of the Department of English.
Together, these events have had a direct impact on my teaching of writing, and on the way I think about academic discourse, writing, language, power, and culture.
Project E-Qual (Enhancing Quality, Access and Governance of Undergraduate Education in India) consisted of a full-day workshop on writing pedagogy. Writing faculty from institutions in and around Delhi collaborated throughout the day on designing writing assignments, selecting and integrating readings, and providing meaningful feedback on writing. Faculty facilitated many of the sessions themselves, having had guidance and support from Dr. Dasgupta, but mostly demonstrating the advantages of self-investment and peer-to-peer collaboration in writing pedagogy. Such a model resists hierarchical approaches to teacher training, in that faculty here were working productively together to pose questions, share challenges, generate insights, and improve practice.
The days after Project E-Qual consisted of the Line-by-Line Conference. Writing faculty, students, professional writers, and writing program administrators from around India and the world came together at this enriching event.
This conference is particularly impressive in the context of India because writing pedagogy and writing studies at the postsecondary level in India are still emerging. In fact, this may have even been one of the very first writing-studies conferences ever held for undergraduate institutions in India.
Those who participated came from across disciplines, countries, and institutions, united by an abiding investment in the teaching and learning of writing. Among those who contributed were faculty in English, Gender Studies, Liberal Education, Writing, and Language. Faculty joined from across India, from Ambedkar University, Delhi, and University of Delhi to Savitribai Phule Pune University and Azim Premji University in Bangalore. Writing faculty and administrators from global joint-venture institutions also participated, including Yale-NUS College, NYU-Shanghai, and NYU-Abu Dhabi. Creative writers, journalists, and editors joined. M.A. students at SNU, who are trained to tutor undergraduate students, helped organize the conference and contributed actively to the many conversations. And, SNU undergraduates were also active throughout the conference as ambassadors for faculty visitors, as conference attendees, and as performers during a special event concert.
What an incredible and humbling experience it was to discuss writing, writing pedagogy, and writing program administration with these engaged scholars, sharing perspectives from across such widely varying contexts.
I learned about eighth-grade writing instruction for Tibetan exiles at the Tibetan Children’s Village School in Gopalpur, India, and about writing center and residential life collaborations at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Scholars spoke about the essay as a form of political activism, about the embodiment of writing, and about interdisciplinarity within writing. Institutional leaders discussed intended learning outcomes and challenges from launching undergraduate writing courses within their curricula.
The collective, even impassioned, commitment to designing and implementing meaningful undergraduate writing instruction was profoundly impressive. The conference itself fueled the enthusiasm and dedication, bringing together faculty and administrators from a range of institutions to talk about writing, all with different approaches to, stages of, and aims for writing programs.
The conference also engendered for me a renewed appreciation for the ways in which writing engages with the world. A concluding panel focused on the role of writing in politics, featuring a facilitated conversation with three prominent Indian writers: theater artist Maya Krishna Rao, journalist Aman Sethi, and writer Githa Hariharan. Their dialogue was set against then recent events involving V Rohith, a Dalit Ph.D. student who had committed suicide in January 2016 and penned a poignant suicide letter decrying institutional and systemic injustices. Such conversations reaffirmed how writing participates in, sustains, and challenges social inequities, and the ways in which writing is inherently and inescapably political.
The final paper presentation, by M.A. student Neel Parmar, from Hansraj College, was particularly powerful as Parmar navigated between English and Hindi. Such bilingualism was not without context: throughout the conference, many conversations had questioned the hegemony of English as the dominant language for academic discourse in India. I learned that English-language journals often bear the most competitive impact factors; that translations of research into English change the epistemologies informing that research; and that access to English-language journals varies, even in cases where faculty have published their own research in such journals but then cannot access their work because their institutions do not subscribe.
Whereas most other parts of the conference had been in English, I was profoundly moved to encounter Parmar’s scholarship through Hindi, hearing it brush up alongside and against English. Most others at the conference were fluent in Hindi, so I was at a distinct disadvantage in not understanding the Hindi parts of the paper. But, the experience was deeply impactful as it illustrated acutely the degree to which academic discourse is instantiated within legacies of colonialism, power, language and privilege. And, above all, it caused me to rethink the role of English within global academic contexts, and the ways in which writing pedagogy can rectify, challenge, and shape power structures and inequities. In many ways, it made me wish I were able to write a post like this in a language other than English.