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Colonial Hangover To Nationalist Propaganda: The Many Issues With DU’s English Lit. Course

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Bachelor’s degree in English literature at Delhi University can be an enriching experience of learning and unlearning. With its evolving syllabus that exposes the students to popular and unpopular perspectives alike, it also enables them to see things in a context and form informed opinions likewise. However, to realize these set goals it is imperative that the curriculum is protected from the patronization of established systems and structures as it prevents the questioning of the same which constricts the meaningful reworking of the syllabus.

From the fall of the annual system, the adoption of the FYUP and its replacement with the CBCS; students have become the lab rats for Delhi University’s constant experiments with its curriculum. The teaching faculty and the students both have mixed responses against and in defense of these changes. While these changes have created instability in the curriculum, they have also provided room for reforms to be implemented by breaking away from the traditional methods of university education.

This departure of the curriculum from traditional to a system more suited for the job market shifts the focus of education from learning to skill building. Let’s take the example of the introduction of Ability Enhancement Courses like EVS and English/MIL Communication: even though these don’t dissolve the purpose of an honours paper but the poor implementation of the course weakens its importance.

“What’s the point of choosing an honours paper when they don’t allow you to go deep into it? I don’t understand why an English honours student is forced to take up EVS or AECC. These add to the burden of the students. The whole purpose of an honours paper has shifted to celebrating mediocrity within the academia,” comments Jhelum Mukherjee, a student of English Honours from Miranda House.

While poor execution fails the purpose of AECC, the core course of English Literature is haunted by the politics that penetrates its syllabus. The image of literature as a liberal and inclusive course is jeopardized by the knowledge and power equation that is exercised in the designing of the syllabus. What we read is controlled by what the system wants us to read which renders this whole idea of challenging and questioning problematic because the freedom to question and analyze is circumscribed by what’s prescribed and deemed as ‘acceptable’ for the students.

The changes in the syllabus are reflective of and influenced by the political environment that prevails in the country. Taking a close look at the English Literature syllabus that is currently being followed by Delhi University it seems as if it is trying to implement a hegemonic nationalist narrative by keeping out certain authors and texts from the syllabus. This undeclared censorship is evident in the making optional of Amitav Ghosh’s “Shadow Lines”, the removal of “The Home and the World” by Rabindranath Tagore to give way to more or less neutral texts that are not politically charged or facilitate intellectual discussions on important issues like nationalism within the four walls of a classroom.

“The personal is political, so I’m all up for a politically motivated syllabus but not one that is tailored to fit into the ruling majoritarian narrative,” says Aswathy, a student of English Literature from Ramjas College. She further states that “such politically vested interests impoverishes the syllabus and negatively impacts the quality of discussions in the classroom.” However, this moulding of education according to the preference of those in power is not a relatively new phenomenon and has been practised by many governments in India and the world throughout history to sell their propaganda and prevent resistance.

The English literature syllabus that DU follows remains largely colonial and its relevance in a post-colonial country should be challenged. The introduction of the students to Chaucer in the first year and Milton in the second year along with a whole semester devoted entirely to British Literature shows the adherence of DU to the idea of canonical literature which affirms that it hasn’t yet gotten over its colonial hangover. The literary canon has largely remained an exclusive space for Caucasian men or men from the privileged class which makes canons unrepresentative of the wide spectrum of women authors, authors from marginalized race, class, sexuality, and caste in the Indian context.

In recent years realizing the importance of inclusivity, DU has introduced texts like Funny Boy or Bhimayana which provide a counter-narrative against the dominant one. They initiate healthy discussions on issues of contemporary relevance like homosexuality and caste atrocities from the point of view of the marginalized.

The introduction to translated texts like “Abhigyan Shakuntalam”, sections of “Mahabharat” and “Iliad” In the first semester has remained problematic; first, because students find it too hectic for the first semester, and second because of the choice of these texts. These are ‘classics’ because of their prevalence in powerful cultures. In other words, they fit into the parameters set by those who are responsible for imposing the dominant culture upon everybody. However, to not list “Cilappatikaram” amongst these would be taking a recourse to sophistry and hence, one cannot say that the classics paper remains exclusive but there is a rich tradition of regional literature which is largely neglected.

“Very few regional language books make it to academia, that too in English. If these are introduced then they will facilitate a questioning of the colonial (and for that matter the existing post-colonial) canon while making the field of literary studies more inclusive. Although, for that to happen there needs to be adequate investment in the translation of regional texts and not just from regional to English but rather from one regional language to another regional language,” comments Jeevan, a student of English Literature from JNU.

The enormity of English Literature can be intimidating as its boundaries overlap with other disciplines of humanities making it comprehensive and equally hectic. While few detest these changes, there are many who find the challenge exciting.

“English is an all-inclusive subject, its nature is such that you end up studying a bit of psychology, history, political theory, philosophy and what not!” says Devyani, a second-year student from Ramjas College. This inclusion of other disciplines like Film Studies or introduction of papers like Business Communication helps English literature restore its contemporary relevance in a job oriented capitalist world that runs on proverbs like “time is money”.

It is rather unfortunate that the syllabus has a direct bearing upon the students and yet they have no say its formation. While to allow ‘first years’ to decide what they want to take up would not be quite wise a choice but to allow the ‘third years’ to give an opinion if not have a stake in syllabus making will only pave way for better and informed changes.

When asked about reforming the syllabus, students came up with some interesting ideas. “Introduce women’s literature in the canon literature instead of having a separate optional paper for it and clubbing together literature of different ages and spaces,” suggests Chingkheinganbi, a student of English Literature from Miranda House. She further states that “instead of AECC, a paper on Academic Writing should be introduced.”

It is in fact disappointing to find students struggling with writing academic papers in their second or third year because they were never taught how to do it in the first place.

Baphira Shylla, a student of Delhi University says, “Our syllabus remains largely Eurocentric and I would rather prefer to have more of minority literature in our syllabus.” This is an interesting point to dwell upon because our course states BA in English Literature and not specifically British Literature. English as a language has been picked up by different once colonized countries and has been appropriated into their own culture yet our syllabus remains predominantly British.

The DU English literature syllabus has witnessed changes: some for better and others for the worse all with an intention to ‘reform.’ It is still evolving and needs evaluation because it has a long way to cover to meet up to the expectations of the students which largely vary.

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Image credit: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty
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