Harvard Plans To Pay Attention to South Asia, Arts

Earlier this month, I opened my inbox to discover that my alma mater had announced major initiatives regarding two things I care about: South Asia and the arts. I believe the example that Harvard sets matters to higher education, and to education at large, so I was really excited to read what they had to say.

First, the announcement about the arts. The new president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, said: ” “The arts abound across Harvard — in nearly 150 undergraduate student organizations, in countless instrumental and choral groups, in the collections of Harvard’s museums, in studios in the Carpenter Center and the Department of VES [Visual and Environmental Studies], in the Harvard Film Archive, at the A.R.T., in the Office for the Arts, in the New College Theatre, in the fellowship program at Radcliffe, in poetry and creative writing classes in the Department of English, in the teaching and scholarship of the Graduate School of Design, in the lives of faculty, students, and staff. We confront ever-increasing demand for opportunities for artistic expression both within and beyond the curriculum. We anticipate a significant place for the arts as a central component of our growth in Allston.

“Yet Harvard has not, in many years, thought comprehensively about its relationship to the arts. Our extraordinary strengths in the arts remain fragmented, less well-understood, less well-supported, and less integrated than their importance warrants. … The arts play a central role in the lives of so many students and faculty at Harvard, yet their role in the life of the University remains uncertain and undefined. I hope that this task force will attempt such a definition.”

Admirably, the task force includes students, one of whom is a creative writer—a playwright. As an alum of the English department, I cheered to see that it was noted as a part of this initiative. My novel, Love Marriage, started as my senior thesis in that department, and I’ve always wished that Harvard treated creative writing as seriously as it does some other artistic paths. (I envied, for example, my classmates who concentrated in Visual and Environmental Studies—I could not major in creative writing.) As a freshman at Harvard College, I even wrote an opinion piece for the school newspaper about Harvard’s lack of response to student interest in writing. I thought there should be more classes, more teachers, more funding, more permanent faculty positions. I still do.

Still, since I wrote the piece, things have gotten slightly better for the Harvard College undergraduate interested in writing a creative thesis. While you still have to apply to do it, or to take a creative writing class, the department has sought adjustments to help a few more students pursue creative work.

Now I wonder if the task force will recommend that Harvard appoint more creative writers to tenure-track or endowed professorships, in addition to Briggs-Copeland lectureships. The Briggs-Copeland lectureship, while a coveted position for a creative writer, lasts only five years. While some creative writers may not want permanent professorships, others almost certainly do, and under the present system, it’s a little harder for a student to build and maintain a relationship with a mentor. Meet a great writer when you’re a freshman and she’s in her third year as a Briggs-Copeland, and by the end of your junior year, she’s gone. While it’s great to have some rotation among the faculty, to bring in different styles of teaching, both the writers and the teachers deserve more stability. (My first writing teacher at Harvard, Patricia Powell, was a Briggs-Copeland lecturer.) What’s more, more permanent status would show that Harvard respects writers and that they are on a par with the other members of the faculty. (There are a few non-Briggs-Copeland writers who teach at Harvard, but I’d love to see their numbers increase.)

Perhaps somewhere down the line, Harvard will even match its Ivy League peers Columbia and Cornell and offer an MFA in creative writing? I don’t know that I should hold my breath, but all the same, I’ll probably drop the task force a line. Always better to say something.

Now, the South Asian announcement. I had far less optimism here, considering my interests and how frustrated I was when I was there. Looks like I was right. The Harvard write-up of the announcement mentions only one South Asian country by name—India. This has always been the problem—or at least, my problem—with Harvard’s South Asian offerings. There are other countries in South Asia! It’s a whole region!

Trying to see if my pique was justified, I Googled around for the South Asia Initiative website to read more. “The study of South Asia, particularly modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, is an increasingly important area of academic inquiry,” it reads at the top of the page.

While that was slightly better, my other alma mater, Columbia, makes Harvard look an amateur in this instance. Check out the South Asia Institute at Columbia, and the comparatively abundant language offerings. If the study of South Asia is important to Harvard, why have students had to fight so hard for even major Indian languages to be offered on campus? And why do the events listed at Harvard’s SAI include very few non-Indian countries/elements?

Of course I am grinding my own ax here, but I had one of the best academic experiences of my life last year in D. Samuel Sudanandha’s Tamil class at Columbia. For the first time in my life (at least that I remember) I could read and write in my parents’ language. It’s a language spoken by millions of people. The professor even accommodated my requests to learn the particularities of Sri Lankan dialects. I also took a South Asian anthropology class with E. Valentine Daniel, a Sri Lankan scholar, and met several graduate students who also study Sri Lanka (and were helpful with my research and fact-checking for the book). To me this looks like Harvard playing catch-up—and not very well. That said, I hope I’m proven wrong in the months to come. Who knows, maybe Harvard will start to pay attention to a country whose approach to the Tamil Tigers thirty years ago could have predicted some of our own problems today… But again, a university that’s 371 years old takes it own time to do things. They’re not in a rush for anybody.

3 thoughts on “Harvard Plans To Pay Attention to South Asia, Arts

  1. spd

    Harvard doesn’t seem to have any urgent desire to add a creative writing department, and even if it did, the inertia of the Harvard English department is not easily overcome. In their mind, the collective mind that resides in a storage closet of the Barker Center and is named Ted, if TS Eliot or VV Ganeshananthan didn’t need a creative writing major, then neither does anyone else.

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