More Training via Coursework

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Pratyoush Onta

(Continued from last week’s column, ‘Training via coursework’)

After being a student in the Department of South Asia Regional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania for a year, I joined the Department of History at the same university in fall 1990. During that semester, I started taking a year-long seminar in history that was required for all graduate students in my cohort. Its focus was on the connections between history and law and was taught by professor Edward Peters who was a specialist of medieval Europe. At that time he was interested in the histories of crime and punishment and the assigned readings reflected that interest. At the end of this year-long seminar, I wrote a paper on the 1854 Muluki Ain of Nepal titled “’Passing gas’ and other crimes: The caste hierarchy and the state in Nepal in the Ain of 1854.” In it I argued that the ways in which the Ain tried to regulate the minutiae of everyday relationships between various caste communities produced a caste-hierarchy infused state that was unique in South Asia in terms of not only its ambitious overreach into people’s lives but also how social power relations were routinised, reproduced and experienced.

All students in this seminar were also required to comment on the papers written by ten of their colleagues. Since this was before email became ubiquitous in American universities (yes, I am that old!), each student had to make enough physical copies of their papers to distribute to all the other students. I took almost a week to read and write my comments on those ten papers.

During that semester I also took an independent study with Professor David Ludden on modern history of Nepal. I came up with a long list of books to read in English and Nepali and proceeded to read them in great earnest. Given that the excellent collection of books on Nepal held at the libraries of UPenn also included books written in Nepal Bhasa, I started reading those as well. Since anthropologist Mark Liechty (now famous for his three books including Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal published in 2017) and I were the only students at that time with direct research interests on Nepal, we had the whole Nepal-related collection at our disposal.

The third course I took that term was an anthropology course on the “Caste System of South Asia” with Peter van der Veer. We read Louis Dumont’s famous book Homo Hierarchicus and its criticisms by a varied group of scholars of South Asia. One set of critics were inspired by the work of historians regarding the operation of power and patronage around temples in pre-colonial India. They argued that Dumont’s rendition of the caste system as a single all-encompassing hierarchy with the Brahmans at the top missed power relations in South Asia where the king sat at the top of another simultaneous political-economic hierarchical system.

Another group of critics were inspired by their anthropological fieldwork among ascetics in India and Nepal. This group included van der Veer himself whose first book Gods on Earth (1988) was based on fieldwork he had done among the Ramanandi sadhus in Ayodhya. It also included the late Richard Burghart whose doctoral research was done among the sadhus of the same order in Janakpur. Burghart’s doctoral dissertation, completed at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1978, was only published in 2016 as The History of Janakpurdham: A Study of Asceticism and the Hindu Polity (edited by Martin Gaenszle). However, by the late 1980s, he had already published several articles criticising Dumont and some of his critics for having missed the three sets of hierarchies in simultaneous operation in South Asia. As Burghart put it in a 1978 article, “in the traditional Hindu social system the Brahmans, ascetics, and the king each claimed their superiority in the particular world in which they lived and that each person based his claim in terms of a particular hierarchy which was the exclusive and exhaustive order of social relations in Hindu society.”

In spring 1991, apart from the history and law seminar, I took two independent studies: one in which I read anthropological works on Nepal and another on modern Nepali history. These courses were designed to help me prepare for my PhD qualifying exams. During the summer of 1991, I took a class on oral history with Lee Cassenelli, a historian of East Africa. That summer, I also wrote the first full draft of my doctoral research proposal. The version I submitted to a funding institute in July 1991 was titled “British Raj and the Gurkhas: The shaping of ethnicity and nationalism in Nepal, 1886-1960.” Influenced by the work done by historical anthropologists, I proposed to study the colonial construction of the Gurkhas—a subject well covered by Mary Des Chene in her 1991 PhD dissertation submitted to Stanford University—and, more originally, its implications for the politics of ethnicity and nationalism in Nepal.

PhD qualifying exams

During the same summer, I also prepared for my doctoral qualifying exams. Those exams involved the writing of four papers based on long reading lists approved by the concerned member of my four-person PhD committee. The first was on the modern history of South Asia. For this, I chose to focus on the 18th century transition to colonial rule. The second paper was a review of the history of relationships between the state, military and society in the long durée of Indian history. This topic was determined because of the focus of my proposed dissertation.

The third paper was on some aspects of the history of anthropology of Nepal. The work I did for this paper came of use later when I wrote about the research highway linking the UK to Nepal in my 2004 book Nepal Studies in the UK. The final paper was about the use of oral history and traditions in historical and anthropological research on Nepal. The members of my PhD committee read my papers and jointly interviewed me for two hours in October 1991. I was later told that I had passed because they were sure that I would not embarrass them after I graduate from UPenn! After studying and writing non-stop for many months, I was finally glad to be, as they say in American academia, an ABD (“all but dissertation”). The mother of all requirements for the PhD, the doctoral dissertation, remained to be researched and written but that is a story for another time.

Looking back

What is my current reading of the two years of coursework I did as part of my PhD training? First, it was much better than my limited liberal arts college education (about which I wrote in these pages on 4 Aug 2018). The readings I did in the courses offered from history, sociology, anthropology, and South Asian Studies departments covered a wide range of themes. They and the class discussions along with other lectures and informal conversations introduced me to many debates in theory, history and South Asian/Nepal Studies. Those readings have given me the confidence to function as a knowledge producer in the following two decades plus.

Second, it seems like I forgot to a take a separate course on methods. However, I was being trained in methods of historical research in virtually each of the courses I was taking then. That training came in the form of engaging with and learning from how others had done their original research as embodied in the hundreds of articles and books I read during those two years.

Third, four of the thirteen courses I took between August 1989 and July 1991 were independent studies. This means I did about one third of my coursework training as a PhD student in history in the form of independent studies. That was both good and bad: good because I got the freedom to read what I wanted in consultation with my teachers; bad because I did not benefit from peer feedback on these readings as happens in a class which meets in a seminar mode.

Finally, I might ask, what does my experience offer to the present discussions about doing PhD via coursework in Nepal’s universities? For one thing, it suggests that students should be allowed to take courses not only from their “mother” departments but also from other relevant departments. This should be quite possible if our universities get their administrative act together and open up the course enrolment possibilities beyond single disciplinary silos. Such an opening will expose the students to multi-disciplinary learning. Such coursework should last for at least two years. In addition, my experience suggests that continuous research-based writing of term papers for various courses is a good way to train doctoral students on research methods and the techniques of academic writing. If such papers cannot be written for each course, they can at least be tied up with one or more independent studies. Without such writing practice, the task of generating an original PhD dissertation looks insurmountable.

The author tweets @pratyoushonta


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