Saturday, September 29, 2018

Permission and Consent

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent times about the idea of consent, mostly in the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and the slew of revelations around unwanted or forced sexual relations, even when physical aggression is not involved. The discussions have been complex and have thrown up difficult and messy questions about the gendered ways in which power is assumed, expressed and exercised. In some ways these conversations have made it more possible—not necessarily easier--to deal with or call out when it is overt and its effects visible. But it’s also brought up the stealthy, invisible manner in which gendered power relations operate, seeding and nurturing expectations that seep through relationships of all kinds, working like a subclinical virus that buries itself deep inside one’s body and occasionally erupts into a rash that can’t be seen, only felt, invisible to all available diagnostic tests. We know it’s there, but struggle for a vocabulary with which to define it. 

This is why the story Cat Person struck a chord with so many, but also why its broad resonance needed explanation (see here and here for some of the stories that explore the reasons). And then came Raya Sarkar’s list, giving rise to a series of #MeToo moments in Indian academia that bubbled into an angry back-and-forth over due process and the lack, or insufficiency, thereof; followed by denials on some campuses and dialogue on others. Literary studies scholar Avital Ronen’s denouement took the discussion to a different and even more complex level, raising questions about the curious and confusing ways in which individuals with a radical sheen can wield power—and more debates, some even veering toward the productive uses of what some have related to the “libidinal economy” and the “micropolitics of desire”. And most recently, the spectacle in Washington, of a Supreme Court nominee denying allegations of a sexual assault that, according to the accuser, happened when they were both teenagers (the subtext being that this is an age when boys will be boys and honestly, how can one hold someone to something that happened 36 years ago?). This one, particularly, brought home the fact that so little has changed. The corridors of power—in academia, in the entertainment business, in the courts, and in life-- are still largely peopled and policed by an old boys’ club that sees the world through masculinist frames, where women are to be tolerated and maybe indulged, and always, always, viewed with an undercurrent of suspicion, particularly when they decide to challenge the way things are, the way they have always been.

But I digress. My interest at this point is not in the manner in which gendered power (better known as patriarchy) plays out in sexual politics but in the more insidious way in which it underlies all aspects of life. The deep socialization that often causes women, even those from overtly progressive backgrounds, to carry an invisible burden of guilt if they step out of the boundaries of articulated or unarticulated expectations. The need to be given permission to act, to speak, to desire, to feel pleasure, to step out and away from it all. It took the MeToo moment for many women to feel like they had been granted permission to speak, that their anger and hurt was warranted. There was a social and cultural opening of minds, liberating women from some chains of definition and perception. Men did not have the right to do with our bodies what they will; we are not objects to play with, poke fun at, make demands of. With sexual violence there is an object that sparks outrage, it represents a pain that can be named and felt, and now, finally, it has exposed the nature of the beast in a way that we can begin to tackle it. But what about these heavy, invisible blankets that smother us under such labels as protection, security, duty, modesty, safety…even love? That hold us firmly in place not with structures we can see and push away but unspoken strictures that we do not even recognize until we act in a way that contravenes them. To misquote Rosa Luxembourg, those who do not move cannot perceive their chains.

Source: Getty images

And that’s where permission comes in. A close cousin of consent. Women until today did not have broad social permission to talk about consent. Or about any number of other matters that had fixed them in their socially and culturally approved places. Inside the ivory towers of academia, and in spaces of activism, of course, these strictures and fixtures had been questioned, the movement serves as a battering ram that continues to push, ever so slowly, against the fortifications of a male-defined world. It is the visibility of this struggle that has created the context for—that has permitted--consent most notably in sexual relations, to become a matter of discussion. But in the everyday spaces of our lives, where we set our alarms to a beat most often not set by ourselves, one more often than not needs permission to miss a step, or to ignore the rhythm, or to think and talk about what the rhythm is doing to you. The system of socialization is so efficient that even when we do have the freedom (in Hannah Arendt’s terms—freedom to both think and act) we may never exercise it, because our habits of thought are so set, so… normal, even comfortable.

This state of siege that our minds have become accustomed to becomes apparent in the most mundane of ways—when we begin to have this vague discomfort, an awareness that some invisible burden has been lifted off our shoulders and we are suddenly able to shrug without feeling the weight. And then we do not know what to do, or how to feel. Sometimes, as one might with a phantom limb, we rush to find a substitute burden, something else to take on and pay allegiance to.

The first time I realized the degree to which my allegiance to that structure had been soldered into me was when I had the opportunity to be in a place where I—for the first time in a long time—owned my time and had sole occupancy of my space. There were no institutional or familial time tables to live by, no expectations, and no sense that my actions would inconvenience or contravene someone else’s schedule. For many days, I floundered, not having the anchor of weighted expectations and the anticipation of judgment. I honestly did not know what to do with that openness, with the possibility of deciding for myself what to do, how and when to do it. And then came the rush of pleasure, but also a sneaking sense of guilt. I was not oppressed in any of the ways we have come to recognize. I was not disadvantaged—in fact the fact that I was in this situation was a result of extreme privilege (now that’s a whole other discussion). I had only been a part of regular middle class life, with the regular domestic and work routines, being available to loved ones and those to whom I owed a familial duty.

I realized that I needed permission to legitimize this pleasure that came from the absence of imposed structure, from not being needed (or answerable to) anyone other than myself. It was a pleasure that derived not from a role or a relationship but in the fact that I was, in the best sense of the term, my own person. Yes, there were phone calls to be made and emails to be read and responded to, but those were minor demands that I was happy to fulfill. This pleasure was not about rejecting my relational roles, but about a sense of ownership of my day(s). I’ve written about this differently in relation to the societal expectation of productivity and a need to “show” one’s use of time. Underlying all of that is this idea of permission.

During my time at MIT I ran into a bunch of young women carrying purple tote bags emblazoned with the words, “No permission, no apology”. They were mostly undergraduate students in STEAM programmes in elite colleges across the New England region, participating in a workshop designed to critique the patriarchal structures that they would encounter across academia, and give them the tools to become comfortable in their own skins, and “navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind”. They did not need permission to be as good as they could be, and they did not need to apologise for doing things differently—from men. I was able to sit in on a couple of sessions, which dealt with such topics as imposter syndrome, microagressions, and unconscious bias.

It’s the need to seek and be granted permission that continues to give power to the structures that we are caught within. When we do not receive permission, we may feel that our actions and thoughts are not legitimate, and we end up apologizing. Even when we do know, somewhere in that unchained part of our selves, that we are not wrong, we say our sorrys and we retreat. It’s this underlying sense of transgressing boundaries laid that keep us from speaking out, until—like now—we have permission, by way of numbers, to say the things we want to say without apology. It’s this sense that keeps the young woman in Cat Person from withdrawing, making it so hard to even acknowledge violation. It’s the sure knowledge of a permission-(un)granting patriarchy that keeps women from speaking out when their bodies are abused.

And it’s this sense that keeps us caught inside webs of expectations defined by others, with more power, and the means to use it.

Seeing it is a start. Speaking out is a beginning. It means the chains in our minds are beginning to disintegrate. It means we can feel pleasure without have to be told we can. It means we can define our own parameters for thinking, for seeing, and for knowing. We give ourselves permission. And it is up to us to define consent. Without apology.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


One of the greatest joys and simultaneously greatest sources of confusion (and sometimes, frustration) is that mysterious pact that gets made between a PhD candidate and their guide. Okay, it’s not a pact, it’s never quite worded as that, but it is an agreement of sorts. It’s a relationship. But like parenting, it’s slippery and shape-shifting twin, it is something we rarely learn through instruction and more often by experience and emulation. That’s what makes it tricky. If we’ve been parented well (or, more correctly, in healthy ways—my, what loaded words!) we may ourselves parent well. But there are an infinite number of variables that might intervene and moderate our translation of being parented into the act of parenting. Supervision is something like that, but on a much smaller scale and much more limited in temporal and spatial terms—even though some might say that it can be as life-transforming a phase for the supervisee.

But then is that even the appropriate analogy? There are millions of books on parenting, and everyone and their grandparent is ready with tons of advice. Google “Parenting tips” and you get over 18 million results, while “How to be a parent” fetches a staggering 69 million. In contrast, “academic supervision tips” gets you 5.78 million and “how to guide a PhD student” racks up 16.3 million. No surprises, there are many more parents in the world than doctoral supervisors (thank goodness for that), and many more qualified to give advice on parenting than doctoral supervision.

Still, I think there is something to the comparison. Just as a new parent is nervous and tense, always worried about doing the right thing, the right way, and hoping that some minor lapse will not lead to trauma of some kind (“oh no, I slept through my child’s non-stop bawling and now he is going to have this memory of being abandoned and neglected!”), a new supervisor may be anxious and uncertain, unsure of exactly what to do and wondering about the right measure of authority and confidence with which to do it. Some of us have the good fortune to have had excellent mentors, from whom we have learned not only about the subject, but also about how to get others to learn. And there are autodidacts among us, those who are able to watch themselves go through life, reflect upon and learn from their own actions, and apply this learning to their teaching and mentoring. But what if we are not particularly reflexive and have not had good models to learn from, how do we prepare for the responsibilities of supervision? Research is hard enough to do and having to guide another person through it can be quite daunting. There’s so much expectation, and so much responsibility!

But then, also, there’s also challenge, excitement and the promise of learning in an entirely different way.

By and large, the Indian academy does very little to prepare new teachers to be research guides (in fact, it does little to prepare research scholars to be teachers). Apart from the UGC-mandated orientation and refresher courses that are a requirement if one is to move up from the entry-level assistant professor position but their focus is more on teaching and developing one’s own research profile. And while the quality of these programmes varies across the country, the fact that they exist offers some hope for improvement under inspired—or even efficient—managements. But these courses give little or no attention to developing research mentorship skills. Young faculty therefore learn willy-nilly about how to handle this delicate act of leading someone else into a research career. It can be a tall ask, especially when most teachers have emerged from the same flawed system that they are now charged with stewarding to the “next level” of quality (if we are to take seriously the vision expressed by the Ministry of Human Resources Development). 

This is complicated by the fact that our standards for admitting research scholars are uneven; people enter with different degrees of preparedness or awareness of research aptitude; there is little flexibility in terms of ensuring some level of correspondence between the interests of faculty and the incoming student. Admissions are based on narrow eligibility criteria rather than what one might call “academic resonances” or affiliations—although, admittedly, this might be considered a luxury in a country where access to higher education is still a privilege and criteria veer toward inclusion rather than selectivity. Once admitted, few institutions have clearly laid out programmes of study that give students enough grounding to become independent researchers. This journey toward independence becomes then primarily the responsibility of the supervisor. In many developed countries, the doctoral journey is supported by a variety of mechanisms—a robust structure of coursework, comprehensive or qualifying examinations, teaching apprenticeship, and a culture of regular writing and presentation. Even if the candidate is expected to be self-directed, there are many routes to learning how to do research and getting a sense of where one is within a peer network. 

The UGC now mandates course work for PhD students but this too tends to be patchy, particularly in the social sciences. The science streams, particularly disciplines that are built around laboratory work or driven by grants, are better organized at least in terms of having a set of expectations of what a student is supposed to do from day to day. While the politics around this also can be exploitative and extremely hierarchical, the longer history of research programmes in science leads to some level of transparency. 

So this is the context within which research supervision happens. The advisor becomes a one-stop shop for all things academic, but then not all students are equally positioned to come shop. They don’t all necessarily have the currency—the social, cultural and academic capital that could give them the means to make full use of all the academic resources in a university. This could extend even to the means (language, confidence, savvy) to developing a good working relationship with their supervisor. A master’s student once told me that he didn’t take seriously my invitation to “drop in and chat about issues, both academic and other” because he had the sense that this was “just the sort of thing people say but don’t mean”. Sometimes the cultural or social distance between faculty and students makes it difficult to establish an easy relationship that is built on trust and understanding—both of which are necessary to have stimulating academic discussions. We’re not even talking right now of the complexities of gender or caste (or disability) politics.

But let’s set aside those complexities for the moment and get back to the complex task of building that academic relationship, even as we acknowledge that this happens within the larger context of higher academics in India, fraught as it is with multiple issues. To my mind, academic supervision comprises (at least) four aspects: guiding the student through the appropriate literature in the field, honing the student’s critical and analytical faculties, and providing a cushion of intellectual, serving as a time-keeper and standard setter, and providing emotional and psychological support through what is often a lonely and hazy path to completion. The first two are drawn from our own academic experience, while the second two are derived from our life experience, and the insights we have gained through the multiple interactions that make up our professional and social lives. And alongside this, a supervisor should have the ability to contextualize the life of each individual student—where they come from, their academic history, their life stage (dealing with mature students returning to academics after a long professional stint is very different from handling those who have been on a direct unbroken academic track), their aspirations and their specific strengths and weaknesses. 

Clearly, no two doctoral journeys are alike, and no two relationships are comparable. A PhD dissertation, almost by definition, explores new questions or problems, and even where it might be couched in familiar literature, takes off in uncharted directions. So no supervisor is—or is expected to be--an expert in a candidate’s specific area; that’s something the supervisor helps the candidate become. This is where the mysterious core of the academic pact lies: how does one coach one to become an expert in an area in which no one else has established expertise? How do you push someone to find answers to questions on their own, when at best you can only gauge the process, not the product? And this is what often confounds new supervisors—how does one do this?  That is why we have the second set of supervisory duties—to offer support, to be a touchstone of sorts, to offer the encouraging word, that firm but gentle guiding hand on the elbow when needed.

Almost every day, we hear of PhD students dropping out or disappearing from their supervisor’s radar, for a variety of often unfathomable reasons. Even more tragically, we hear of PhD scholars committing suicide, sometimes attributed (fairly or unfairly) to institutional factors, among which the quality of supervision is one. It’s hard to pinpoint any single cause for dropping out of a PhD programme or giving up on life; it’s a combination of so many things, personal, environmental and a variety of social issues and mental health states that could precipitate an event. But often the supervisor is left feeling helpless and wondering what she could have done differently.

Even when the circumstances are not so extreme, supervision is a challenge. 

What’s the right combination of pressure to apply and space to give? How involved should/can you be without limiting the scholar’s ability to think independently? How do you guage which students need you more and which, less? How do you make yourself available to those who are not used to receiving or expecting help, having floundered alone in an unfriendly, often hostile, social and academic environment? In the Indian context, there is the added complication of having to write a complex academic treatise in an unfamiliar language—English. Even the brightest students from non-English academic backgrounds struggle to produce clear, persuasive papers in this language. Should supervision involve editorial assistance as well? What are the limits of academic guidance? At what point can a supervisor say: “I can only take you thus far and no further?”

Then there is the converse problem. How does one develop the detachment to watch a scholar emerge from under your metaphorical wings (or so you might think) and fly away, with no backward look? Should one even expect anything from the relationship other than a line or number on one’s academic CV or progress report? Here I turn to the parental analogy again. We’re often told as parents that our children are not our own, that we are only caregivers for a brief period, that we should have no expectations from them. Perhaps the attitude to cultivate with research scholars is similar. Research supervision is a job, and when it is done well, a scholar emerges, independent, confident, and with the ability to hold their own in the academic world. That should be the reward in itself.

The other perks are a bonus: when you develop a truly collaborative academic relationship, one that is productive and rewarding both professionally and personally. Or when you’ve made a friend out of those years, days, and hours of mind-bending discussions and after those hundreds of mandatory signatures on forms.

Personally, research supervision has been my favourite aspect of a relatively short academic career.  Each of the dissertations I’ve guided has been an exciting journey into new intellectual terrain. I have always learned more than I have known before, been exposed to new ways of thinking, of seeing the world. Sometimes it’s an introduction to a whole new vocabulary, even sensibility. 

There’s no play book for research supervision, although the skeletal “rules of engagement” (number of meetings, required sign-offs, meeting of milestones) are spelt out fairly clearly. The other, softer stuff, we need to figure out along the way. It could help for academic institutions to offer a little more guidance on what the supervisory relationship is all about and how one goes about building it, rather than letting it become something that one learns by trial-and-error  

I’ve realized that one of the keys to enjoying supervision rather than getting anxious about it, is to see it as a shared journey, to focus on the interpersonal relationship (we are just two people, after all, studying something that we enjoy), and to lighten up a little bit. Yes, it’s also about tough love, about pushing and drawing boundaries, but inside that space, there is opportunity for laughter and, above all, for discovery.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Water Stories and More

This was written originally for my column in The HIndu's Sunday Magazine, Peace in a Pod, to be carried on July 22, 2018. However, the publication declined to carry this saying that it highlighted the work of a rival newspaper. While I can understand (though still disagree) with this policy, I do want to talk about podcasts that I think the Indian audience might find interesting, so decided to place it here instead...for those who might be interested.

There’s no longer any doubt, this is the moment for digital audio on demand. Over the past couple of years, the mainstream media industry in India has begun looking seriously at audio content that both complements and extends its offering, whether in news, features or all the genres in between. Several legacy media outlets have had the weekly, fortnightly or occasional podcast available on their web site, but there has been little systematic investment in the audio component, with distinct resources or planning. But that seems to be changing, and one of the signals of that change is a new suite of podcasts from the Indian Express.

Express Audio is available on the Indian Express mobile app as well as on their web site, and the group is very cautiously also making some of the podcasts available on other platforms, including iTunes. The suite includes eight regular podcasts, including the weekday news roundup 3 Things, five weekly shows, and two fortnightly shows. They represent a fairly wide range in terms of focus and style, ranging from the popular sit-down conversation to slice-of-life with ambience, to documentary. 

In February this year, the group quietly launched 3 Things, initially hosted by the audio team’s Ameya Nagarajan and currently by Neha Matthews. The 15 to18-minute show, which drops at 6:30 every weekday morning, has Matthews bringing in Express journalists to talk about three big stories of the day. It’s a good way to keep up with the news and get a bit of background in the process. While one might argue over the choice of stories, what’s refreshing about the program is the way in which it balances explanation with analysis, downplaying opinion except in the odd segment dealing with sports or culture. For instance, we have Shruti Dhapola explaining the significance of the Net Neutrality decision (Episode 76) or Kaunain Sheriff on the complications of simultaneous elections (Episode 75), helping those of us who may sort-of-know but not-really-know what the story is. Matthews does a good job of asking the kinds of questions that ferret out just enough but not too much detail, the balance that’s so important when listening while battling noisy traffic! According to the show’s producers, the attempt is also to help news consumers “connect the dots” in today’s extremely complex news landscape, picking stories that allow us to zoom out and understand the broader political, social and economic context.

After gaining a level of comfort with the podcast format for a good four months, the group then launched seven shows that all rolled out between mid-June and the first week of July. “Water Stories”, hosted by one of the core members of the team, Ameya Nagarajan, is a show for this season, with three episodes available at the time of writing and six more in the pipeline.  New episodes launch every Tuesday and the podcast is now available for download on iTunes. The lead-in to the curtain raiser describes the series as an attempt to “understand the different ways India relates to water, from myth and legend to economics and agriculture”. The first full episode (which the site actually counts as the second), titled “Singing in the rain”, trains a cultural lens on the topic, and has some delightful interviews with an anthropologist, a historian and a water scientist. Nagarajan continues in episode two to explore the science and art of weather forecasting, unearthing for the listener the story of a hobbyist, Pradeep John, whose rain record keeping has made him a cult figure in Tamil Nadu. And of course, no discussion of water in India can ignore the monsoon, a phenomenon that structures cultural practice, agricultural planning and economic activity. So naturally, this episode and likely others in the series chase the monsoon (with apologies to Alexander Frater, whose book is part inspiration) across India and its intimate connections with the lives and livelihoods of people of the subcontinent. The podcast draws on a variety of sonic inputs, from voice to music to ambient sound, its opening a very evocative mix of echoing raindrops and steady rain. Nagarajan is an enthusiastic and lively narrator, but on occasion she tends to rush through explanations that merit a little more time. 

As with 3 Things, the audio quality on Water Stories too is a tad patchy, with call-in interviews tending to sound a bit unclear at times. But despite the technical imperfections, the narrative keeps one interested and looking forward to the next episode. And if water is not your thing, you can check out the other podcasts in the IE bouquet—on food, literature, politics, and more.