Rachna Sethi in Conversation With Professor Christel R. Devadawson

Professor Christel R. Devadawson is Head of the Department of English at the University of Delhi. Apart from contemporary British poetry and fiction, she has worked on nineteenth century representations of India, detective fiction and popular culture in India. She runs courses on contemporary popular fiction, detective fiction and visual cultures.

Rachna Sethi (RS): Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I hope you have had the opportunity to have a look at the recent issues of Fortell..

Christel R. Devadawson (CRD): You are welcome. I have very fond memories of Fortell, [I] had been aware of the work it was doing but lost touch for a couple of years. I am happy to see that Fortell has worked very hard over the years to reinvent itself to be where it is today.  

RS: Let’s begin by opening the Pandora’s box of controversy about the Nobel Prize for literature being awarded to Bob Dylan. Is it a reflection of the expanding and dynamic definition(s) of literature?

CRD: I think the Nobel Prize like a great deal of other international awards is meant primarily to raise awareness and build consciousness along lines of thought that appear revolutionary. If we are looking at revolution of the literary space, then one would have problems. At the same time it is a very valuable kind of gesture. By focussing on the 1960s, which is a watershed time in the formation of public opinion, it tells us a lot about individuals, where their thoughts and struggles demolish and alter public institutions including the government institutions that Dylan writes/sings about, and also impacting different sites of institutional authority including universities. So I am very happy that this kind of work is recognized.

And if the Nobel [Prize] is one way of reminding us that these were ideas that we have let go and have tended to forget, then I would say it is justified. We need to think of literature beyond its textual definition. My own sense is that if the arts are to evolve, if they are to remain continually relevant to society, then they must engage with revolution, on the ground and in terms of structure. And when you think of the kind of changes that Dylan’s work seeks to address; they carry a sense of engagement, a need for change, and place the individual as the parameter of the social and the cultural.

RS: While the idea of literature and revolution works on the thematic concerns, let us focus on the formalistic aspects of literature. Considering the interest of the students in genres like blog writing, graffiti art, films, cartoons and graphic novels, are we moving towards genre fluidity? Are the boundaries of the discipline being pushed and expanded towards cultural studies?

CRD: Genre fluidity is an integral part of human activity, we may engage with it in the classroom or not, but it will exist, and it will be foolish of us not to engage with it as it will make changes in the world on its own terms. So the better idea is for us to engage with it in the classroom. Having said that, it will make its own space and win its own battles.

I think cultural studies will always be a hugely exciting phase through which the discipline moves but I would say that the imperative term here is “moving”. We are moving through a much more fluid and a much more open-ended space and we need to engage with a new kind of globalization, not the globalization that was feared as a great public enemy some time ago, but a certain kind of a very broad and complicated cultural space through which we must negotiate. 

RS: What changes does this new kind of globalization bring to university spaces and structures? Does it necessitate new curriculum designs, pedagogical practices and evaluation systems? Ideally this should not be a linear process but a back and forth engagement, the examination pattern requiring new pedagogical approach. However the purpose of a revised syllabus is often defeated if the questions continue to be traditional in nature and non-challenging. Should the fluidity not flow from syllabus to evaluation?

CRD: I agree, but I think that the critical component that we need to look at in the march that we have taken is the student, even though syllabi and exams have vital roles to play as you have pointed out. The keystone in the academic arch will be and always has been the student in the classroom. We have to admit that with the passage of time, there have been many valuable and altering shifts in the definition of who constitutes the student in the classroom. We need to address who is the student, what would the student benefit from or take away by engaging say with English Studies rather than another discipline, and what would be the role of the syllabus for the student, will it provide a floor or a ceiling. All of us need to think and talk about this, and people will think differently about these variables, but I would repeat that in these critical variables, the student is the most important keystone. We need to look at definitions of the discipline, the role of syllabus and examination, and we need to look at them in terms of an evolving discipline and an evolving student or evolving ways of student life.

RS: To be more specific about the disjunction at times between syllabus and evaluation, a lot of my colleagues felt that if the question paper skirts around the queer aspect of Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, it in some ways defeats the purpose of including it in a revised syllabus. Why should examinations ignore that vital aspect?

CRD: When we included Selavdurai’s Funny Boy in the syllabus, the other text we had in mind was Mahesh Dattani’s Dance like a Man, and we chose the former. We ultimately went with Funny Boy because we felt that in it Selvadurai captures a particular moment of performative change in the self, the national self and also the sexualized self, or rather the self that is in the process of sexualizing and socializing. When this was discussed, some of our colleagues expressed concern about how many of these performative, socializing, nationalizing, sexualizing changes could be taken on board by students from very different backgrounds. It is possible that the exam paper seeks to address what I would call the common denominator; not so much the specialized notions but generalized notions, of say society, national change and the self. I would be sorry to think of an examination system that wipes out completely the question of performative sexuality. If an examiner thinks of that question but does not include it I would be sorry, but I would be sympathetic. I would be much more critical of an M.Phil. course if it wiped out this question, and we have had Funny Boy as part of a course earlier. But with a first year undergrad kid, if the examiner tells me the limitations of how much an exam paper can address, I would be sorry but I will understand. If it comes to push or shove, I would say, better that the text is taught and examined partially rather than an area of literary concern not dealt with.  

RS: Approach to texts varies as you have just pointed out, from B.A. to say M.Phil., and would bring about a corollary difference in the quality of writing expected. Students write assignments tests right from school to college, and yet writing is never taught as a skill. At what grade do you think its formal aspects should be addressed, of course they would vary with the grade/level one is addressing?

CRD: I think the moment one begins to shape letters, some component of writing has to be introduced, and generally are [sic] introduced in school. I think at the undergrad level, it will be a good idea to look at the basics of academic writing, the use of work of other scholars, quarrelling with works of other scholars, quarrelling with one’s own work, placing texts in contexts, placing texts in history; I think these basics can be and should be discussed.

Can we ever talk in terms of a separate component [of writing] within the syllabus, I am not sure about that. And the reason I am not sure is because the size of the class varies widely in our university. It would be more feasible in a relatively smaller college/university, which has a good student-teacher ratio. While we are aware of the UGC guidelines of student-teacher ratio, we know that in the reality of bargaining of posts, these ratios are not followed. While I realize the need for these [writing skills] to be taught and to be examined separately, I bow to the good sense of my colleagues in college who tell me that these are unrealistic requirements; and that is how the notion of not just the internal assessment but continuous assessment is excellent in terms of concept and theory, but it very difficult to manage on the ground. 

RS: Now we have an independent paper on Academic Writing at the undergraduate level in University of Delhi, and you have just pointed the practical difficulties of executing it. In an ideal scenario, editing and revising are integral to the process of writing. Do you think only a workshop format will make it more feasible rather than a classroom?

CRD: Or a tutorial format, where the student teacher ratio is favourable, but I am aware it can be viewed as elitist. That kind of arithmetic does not always translate into either a pedagogical proficiency or social responsibility.

RS: So revising, which is central to writing, is an issue that is not addressed probably till the time one comes to a research programme like M.Phil., as the huge size of the M.A. classroom is daunting.

CRD: With the Masters, internal assessment attempts to take care of this difficulty, of course it does not deal with it satisfactorily, nothing ever does. In fact, even when we come to M.Phil., we do have the pressure not just of numbers but of timelines, and research continues to be affected by it. Most M.Phil. students go on to teach, and of course they want to be independent, and that makes it difficult. If the timelines are rigid and have to be kept, then perhaps one needs to wipe out other concerns like taking care of funding.

RS: Moving from academic writing to Creative Writing that has recently been introduced, how do you respond to the idea that creativity is inherent, or is it a craft that can be taught? In fact, that view is expressed about all art forms, that one is born a dancer and can’t be taught how to dance.

CRD: True, but you can be taught about the discipline of dance and that is where the teaching component comes in. You can be taught to write, say fiction. We might have courses where at the end we have more rather than less competent writers of fiction. Most of the creative writing programmes, say in United States, rely on guest and visiting faculty, and that makes it possible to offer these courses, and these are generally offered as non-credit courses, and I imagine it would be very difficult to manage that within Delhi University. We had an experience once at South Campus where we had a poet in residence, Keki Daruwalla. He was very generous, very forthcoming, read students’ poetry but it was not something that can be done on a broader scale.

RS: It is often argued whether translators make good theorists or not. Do you think one needs creative writers to conduct creative writing courses?

CRD: I find it difficult to say, since I haven’t tried it. I think my attitude would be somewhat old-fashioned and somewhat sceptical. I recall Narayan’s idea in The Vendor of Sweets where Mali goes to United States to undertake a creative writing course. Mine is not a position of opposition but of concern about these courses.

RS: Stylistically one can discuss and teach different aspects of writing, but what about the language aspect. The language of young people today is heavily influenced by social media, and while we keep it outside the formal exam-writing with great difficulty, the lingo is bound to infiltrate creative writing. Can we or should we even hold onto purist notions of language?

CRD: Language change will come about, no matter what. It will storm into exams halls, into media, our personal space, whether or not we approve of it. I think it is not so much whether we allow it to or not, but how we decide to negotiate it, how we decide to mediate it, to talk about it, and let’s face it to enjoy it. One needs to be much more open-ended in terms of ideas of what constitutes intellectual enjoyment. And I would return to your earlier question about Dylan and one of his critics Christopher Ricks, who has made a name by writing about Milton, but his enjoyment and critical appreciation of Milton does not dent his enjoyment and critical appreciation of Dylan. We need to have fun and be a little more tolerant about what constitutes literature within universities.

RS: Dylan brings us back to stretchable boundaries and fluidity. Not just officially as part of syllabi, but as forms that are increasingly popular and forms that the young associate with. Where does one locate blog writing and photo essays, both in our academic and creative writing?

CRD: With creative writing, it will storm in, no matter what. With academic writing, it is about how much time the student has and there are conferences being held on kinds of writing. The question is not whether we will allow it, the question is how much time the young have where we have expectations of them, and depending on what is culturally and commercially valuable, and this is the direction in which this argument should be pushed.

RS: Thank you Ma’am. We have covered much ground regarding various aspects of writing, among other concerns. I am sure our readers will find the ideas of stretched and stretchable syllabus and genre fluidity interesting, which make the field of literature and language an exciting space to negotiate within the classroom and outside. 


Rachna Sethi is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. Her areas of interest and research are urban cultures, Indian writing, ELT, oral cultures and translation studies.