New Message (Hindi in Karnataka and all that)

Frank Conlon conlon at
Sat Nov 30 22:27:08 UTC 1996


Peter Claus sounds a welcome alarm regarding how far North American study
of South Asia (well, at least of India) has not proceeded rationally on an
all South Asian (well, all Indian basis).  Some parts are studied far more
than others.  His suggestion that this is due in significant measure to
the availability of language instruction in what the Department of
Education calls "less commonly taught" languages, is intriguing, and may,
in part, be true.

However, although I sympathize with the inability of new graduate students
to easily prepare for research in, say, Karnataka or Maharashtra, much
less in the Konkan or Tulunad, I am obliged to slightly dissent from my
friend's analysis of the problem.

I do so, not out of a desire to contradict, but to reflect upon the not
inconsiderable obstacles that have existed to the "rational planning" of
South Asian studies in North America.

For example, there is the matter of how language instruction is viewed.
On the one hand there is a sense that professors of language and
literature are colleagues in the exploration and interpretation of the
social and cultural complex known as South Asia or India.  On the other
hand there is what I might call an "instrumental" view of language

Peter appears to agree with the instrumental "language-instruction-as-
service view of why we offer various Indian or other languages when he
states that "language teaching at universities is primarily meant to
enable budding scholars to carry out research..."  

He goes on to note, correctly I think,  that these new budding researchers
in various disciplines rely on their institutions to provide them with
"language skills necessary to carry out their work."   He further observes
that they usually choose their institution because of the quality of the
disciplinary faculty of their chosen field, and language is at best a
secondary consideration.  Speaking as a historian who moved into South
Asian history AFTER deciding to go on to graduate study, I know this was
the case for me.  However, once in graduate school, I discovered that it
would be no small feat to get transferred to an institution that regularly
taught (or claimed at least to regularly teach) Marathi.  So I commenced
with Hindi and, as luck would have it, found informal instruction in
Marathi which was possible because my Hindi instructor was also fluent in
Marathi, his mother tongue.  Not everyone could get such a deal.  

Since I commenced observing the course of South Asian studies a number of
years ago, my sense has been that many, perhaps most, graduate students
AND faculty who are in disciplines such as Anthropology, History and
Political Science, have regarded language instruction as merely an
instrumental means toward an end.  Not surprisingly, given the general
treatment of the humanities in American academe, most language instruction
was compensated at a lower scale than most social science instruction.
Furthermore, within centers of South Asian studies, language activities
tended to be regarded as instrumental, and by extension, secondary, to the
"real work" of mastering the discipline, preparing for the exams, and
ultimately conducting field research for a dissertation.  

The treatment of language (and by extension, literature) in this mode
created a contradictory situation.  Most language instruction was
conducted be departments of "languages and literature" and as such, the
tenure track faculty were expected to develop distinguished records of
publication and recognition that went far beyond their qualities as
language instructors.  Note, however, that most faculty who taught
language (whether French or Hindi) who aspired to tenure had, to meet the
usual thresholds of publication, recognition etc.  Yet, since in the case
of Indic languages, frequently they were the only person available to
teach the subject, there were no "research quarters" which were routinely
available to faculty in the social sciences.  At the University of
Washington, I might, once upon a time, be granted a winter quarter without
responsibility for formal classroom instruction, but Michael Shapiro could
not tell his Hindi students to think hard about Hindi for three
months while he did research--the language courses ran the full academic

Some university administrators these days are contemplating language
instruction as a problem which can be solved by a sort of "Berlitz"
approach, and by extension, eroding support for research on literatures.
(Please note, this is not limited to South Asian studies, but is a
phenomenon being encountered generally.)   This may, in fact, be the only
means by which formal instruction in the "less commonly taught" languages
will be available in North American higher education, but most provosts
and deans find themselves called upon to allocate resources on some
rational basis, and so far the "rational" basis has been enrollments.

Thus, Peter Claus's very important question about why only a few languages
are taught and his observation of the impact this has on further training
of scholars, runs directly into the unintended consequences of academic
adminsitrative priorities.  Small language courses represent TROUBLE, and
over-specialization.  Such concern rarely appears when highly specialized
science courses are under-enrolled, but then the concerned faculty in
those cases, will be only doing a little teaching on top of their research
grant.  Well, you may say, life is not fair...   (and you'd be right!)

Peter Claus's suggestion that South Asia departments "assess the needs of
the faculty of other disciplines who specialize in India before they make
their choices in hiring language teachers" is an understandable request
that reflects the instrumental view of language instruction.  But in my
experience, departments make choices only after deans and provosts have
approved the search--a process in which enrollments or "demand for
product" seems to matter very much.   Since Peter knows that I am
sympathetic with his goal of preserving scholarly development in
North America on areas like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka, he will
not take umbrage if I ask him how far his own department faculty as a
whole would give priority to the needs or desires of faculty and students
in other disciplinary fields?    My own experience at one university in
particular suggests that there is a built in resistence to such
potentially constructive gestures.

Peter's point about the need "to understand India as a whole" is a vital
one, and, conceived in terms of regions and language traditions, it
obviously speaks to his concern about diversity.  However, I think there
is also an additional need for whole understanding, and that is a
continued exploration of literature and other cultural expressions, which
may well be researched by faculty who are appointed to teach languages.
My sense is that in the context of declining resources, many decisions
about appointments will have less to do with multi-lingual capacities, but
the capacity of candidates to "teach something else" in, for
example, literature or religion.

I absolutely agree with Peter's concern about the inadequacy of vision
that arises from limiting the linguistic horizons of North America's next
generation of South Asian specialists.  I just am not sure that America's
research universities are prepared to interpret "rational planning" in a
way that would produce the results which Peter and I would applaud.  Nor
am I convinced that we can argue our case best by casting our
language-specialist colleagues into a once-born status of service



Frank F. Conlon
Professor of History
Director, South Asia Center
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195
Co-editor of H-ASIA
<conlon at>

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