Dr Bodhisattva Kar, the head of the Department of Historical Studies, is one of two University of Cape Town (UCT) 2020 Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA) winners. The award recognises outstanding contributions to teaching and learning excellence. Dr Kar responded to questions from UCT News.
Helen Swingler (HS): Please sketch your background and where your interest in history began.
Bodhisattva Kar (BK): I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, learning its delights initially from my bookworm father and my activist mother, and soon from the intellectual and political circuits of the vibrant city I grew up in – Calcutta. It was difficult to remain indifferent to history in the India of the 1990s: just as Hindu majoritarianism was muscling its way into a nascent neoliberal economy, the university orthodoxy was being overtaken by the sly adventures of Subaltern Studies. Both the academic and the public lives of history were undergoing tremendous transformations. The angst of our youth coincided with the political crisis of a post-socialist order, the emergent identitarian contestations, and the delayed arrival of poststructuralism in the post-colony.
“What truly shaped and sustained my interest in history was the intellectual, creative and political energy with which these communities pulsated.”
In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, I formally learned the craft of the discipline in Presidency College, Calcutta (undergraduate), and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (postgraduate and doctoral). Both were academically rigorous institutions. But what truly shaped and sustained my interest in history was the intellectual, creative and political energy with which these communities pulsated. It was fecund, interrogative and radiantly irreverent. And like everyone else, I learned as much from the endless debates and activist work with my friends and peers as from classrooms, archives and fieldwork.
In 2007, after finishing a PhD thesis on frontier capitalism and nation-form, I joined the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, an incredible research institute. For the next five years I also got to spend some time in various universities and research institutions in the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States and Mexico. This allowed me to eavesdrop on diverse local conversations, engage unfamiliar historiographies, and be intellectually stretched in different directions.
The luxury of pursuing one’s own research was delightful; dreamlike. But perhaps because my sense of history had been baked in an activist oven, I was also coming to realise that my heart was in teaching. teaching is the best form of learning. I wanted to teach more, teach regularly – and teach beyond the confines of area studies, preferably in a public university in the Global South. At this point of my life, UCT happened.
HS: Your teaching seems to live and breathe as a two-way relationship between you and your students, each learning from the other, and an inversion of the traditional teacher/learner relationship.
BK: I tell myself this: each occasion of teaching or supervision is an opportunity to expand your own horizon, upskill your own abilities and think with a different set of materials, provided you are open to taking risk and not hell-bent on dragooning students into your formal “area of expertise”. Teaching is all about de-familiarising the familiar and familiarising the unfamiliar. Help students realise how they already possess a sense of what they think they know nothing about; on the other hand, stoke doubt over every issue they have grown accustomed to treating as settled.
But this process cannot work unless you subject yourself to the same rules. If you treat questions from the class simply as indications of knowledge deficit, then you are missing out on the invitations that they secretly contain. Every time a hand goes up or someone says, “I don’t follow”, it is an invitation to think from another position, another side.
HS: Given UCT’s transformation work post 2015, it must be a fertile era to be teaching history and tackling curriculum change at a South African university.
BK: For me, the specific intellectual charge of teaching history in this context resides in the capacity of the discipline to incite an insurgent idea of contingency – making students aware that what currently seems most natural and most unimpeachable is historical, and therefore not permanent. I think that our department’s pedagogy is informed by this subversive restlessness. But as trained historians, we are acutely aware that the devil is always in the details – that however attractive a teaching philosophy may seem on paper, it means little without concrete, repeatable, institutionally sustainable practices. Much of our pedagogical work in the past few years, therefore, had to do as much with an intellectual reorientation of curricula as with a material overhaul of institutional practices.
“Teaching history in the age of Google necessitates a different pedagogical approach than what we were trained in.”
Our experiments with take-home exams, multi-modal assignments, correction of narrative bias in grading, customised tasks for each postgraduate student, etc, are a step in this direction. Teaching history in the age of Google necessitates a different pedagogical approach than what we were trained in. We must offer something to aspiring historians that a random search in Wikipedia cannot, and that something, for us, is primarily the ability to think, reason and analyse like historians.
I am deliberately speaking in the plural. It has been an altogether collective work. We have been trying not only to emphatically centre the histories of Africa and the Global South in our courses, but also to foreground lateral, conceptual thinking. All our core courses are framed around debates, dialectics and paradoxes. The two first-year undergraduate cores provide students a broad overview of the last 500 years of world history that is both non-Eurocentric and conceptually focused. Our second-year core, ‘Historical Methods’, engages the European canons of the discipline in dialectical relation to non-European modes of thinking about the past.
In contrast to an essentialised and unitary notion of African thought, our third-year core, ‘Debates in Modern African Intellectual History’, emphasises the plural, dynamic and argumentative worlds of African intellectuality.
All these core courses thematically and methodologically speak to the seven electives that we now offer undergraduates, four being exclusively focused on African and South African history.
Rather than pursuing a simple-minded regionalism, we remain committed to forging a truly democratic dialogue between northern and southern articulations. Our honours core course, aimed at teaching students the very different skills and styles of accessing different archives, reflects on possibilities and limits of historicisation, drawing as much on works from, say, Cameroon, Guatemala and Pakistan as on works from France, Germany and England. My honours elective on histories of sleep operates on the same principle.
But at the same time, there is also no getting away from the fact that the entrenched protocols of Anglo-normativity in our institutions continue to block the collective experience, the structures of cultural memory and the life-worlds embedded in southern African languages. In response, over the last four years, our History Access programme has been trying to equip and encourage students to identify, elaborate and deploy southern African vernacular concepts, necessitating original historical research in institutionally marginalized language sources.
This programme – along with our new, public history-focused coursework master’s – is also focused on making academic research accessible to a wider public in technologically more contemporary and experientially more interesting forms. We attract, support and provide theoretical guidance as well as technical training for alternative projects such as podcasts, digital exhibitions, comic history books, and so on.
As a result, a new crop of very innovative student projects is already on the horizon.
HS: Did you have any memorable teachers? What was it about them that made the learning experience come alive for you?
BK: I can give you at least fifteen names! In both Calcutta and Delhi, I have had the extraordinary privilege of reading history with some of the tallest figures in the South Asian academe. They were all astoundingly erudite, mould-breaking, incisive, and inspiring in their own inimitable ways. But all of them encouraged disagreements. They all tried to equip their students to think rigorously and not to think like their teachers. That is all I strive to do in my limited capacity. The primary job of a history teacher is to teach disagreement in a consensus-ridden climate.
HS: What does the award of a DTA mean to you?
BK: It is very humbling. I sincerely believe that what is being recognised by the university is not so much my individual accomplishments as the collective achievements of a pedagogical style that has been put together, practised and perfected by my wonderful colleagues. I am just a placeholder fortunate to work with them. While much of the higher education sector has become seized by a metrics-driven obsession with privatised research products, this recognition directs our attention back to the pedagogic process, which is collective, quotidian, conversational, volatile and unfinished.
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The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.
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