Last month, I completed my first year of graduate school in America. Given how the semester was ruptured by the pandemic and truncated to accommodate our changing realities and shifting circumstances, it felt like a rumbling ride having come to a sputtering stop. But there’s a lot to gather as I look back upon the past two semesters through my eyes, so what follows ahead is an archive of my experience.
Going from LUMS to Columbia had prepared me tremendously when it came to expectations and management of academic rigor, but I was left unprepared in many other ways.
The first realization which struck me like a bolt of lightning was just how elite the university was. I know that a fundamental fact such as this about the nature of a historically white and elite institution should not come as a surprise, but to witness it first hand is just something else.
Columbia impelled me to consider the institution of the academy itself, which has been historically white. But the academy isn’t just white in the predominant composition of its students, faculty and administrators, it is white in the location of its origins, in its evolution, how it works epistemologically and ontologically, its vocabulary, its terms of legibility, and its practices. I have lost count of the instances when my fellow Pakistani batch-mates and I would find ourselves disconnected from the conversations in class, conversations focused on and located in a world between Europe and the United States; conversations we did not relate to, conversations we were not invested in. And that is just the natural turn of conversation when the academy’s tongue is bent towards the West, leaving an afterword to be uttered for the East.
But this disconnect was not only existent in courses and conversations which weren’t centered on South Asia in the first place, it was a disconnect I continued to grapple and wrestle with in courses on South Asia itself. Repeatedly, I was accompanied by a discomfort when the region or its issues were being taught in a vacuum, as a relic itself; static; delinked from its present. It bothered me that South Asian history, especially, was sometimes taught in disassociation with, for example, its rapid and burgeoning weaponization in India and Pakistan which have previously and are continuing to yield dreadful repercussions there. The present is the afterlife of history, and we cannot neatly sift and separate the two. In fact, during my first semester, I remember approaching a professor of mine who acknowledged that the discipline of history needs a reckoning of its own.
Perhaps my discomfort arose from my experience at LUMS, where professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences taught texts, theories and ideas by cultivating and revealing their resonance to our immediate environments, what was happening around us, in the university, in the city, in the country. There was an urgency, there was an immediacy, there was relevance to the texts and knowledge which primed us for bearing them in our mind, contemplating them, holding onto them and engaging them in our everyday. Here, however, I was frequently faced with one dilemma: I have this knowledge, but what do I do with it now? Why does it matter?
I suppose the disconnect itself is a product of the geographical distance between America and South Asia (?); a product of studying South Asia while oceans away from the region itself in a knowledge economy whose engine and circulation aren’t concerned with cultivating a politics of action and activism, but with reproducing academics and scholars to keep its machine moving. Or maybe this has to do with the scholar-practitioner/scholar-activist binary that has been assembled by liberal academia which tries to conceal how deeply political (by which, I don’t necessarily mean support for established political parties but a foundational ethic of who exactly your work or scholarship will aid, what does it say, and what will it advance) the academy is.
Maybe all elite universities are like this? Ivory towers gazing upon the world beyond, high and perched above them, rather than being in them.
And the truth is, the foundational architecture of the academy with its hierarchies and gatekeeping, the institution of the university, and inarguably the Ivies have historically been complicit and implicated in power, rather than being bastions of speaking truth to it. They’ve been built over the bodies and lives of the oppressed and dispossessed, and they remain participating in these enterprises but in the guise of newer practices and projects.
But then the question, which has been posed to me by many friends and strangers alike, also pertains to the value of studying South Asia in Amreeka. South Asia parhany Amreeka jao gi? South Asia parhnay Amreeka kaun jata hai?
I am well aware of the political agenda historically underlying the emergence of Area Studies in the United States (an agenda that is alive and kicking, as the number of military vets in the Middle Eastern and South Asian department have proven), but I also believe that there is ample ground for wanting to study South Asia in the United States too. The recent dismissals of Ammar Ali Jan, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Mohammad Hanif from different universities in Pakistan are vividly indicative of the state of academic freedom in the country and the consequent quality of education in national institutions of learning. More importantly, our region, its histories and cultures were studied for centuries in Western centers and the Western academy; cradles of orientalism. The apparatuses, the research, the archives for studying South Asia are, ironically, well-situated in the West, whether that’s the United States, the United Kingdom or even Germany. Writing and scholarship within my discipline of history has never been an apolitical endeavor, and the historian has never been the mortician or the embalmer to simply look at the dead past, dig in and dig it out. All histories, whether intended or not (really doubt the latter) have certain political, moral and ethical claims, which they represent and serve. History is absolutely political; it has always been. This convenient abdication and denial of an ethic or politics of excavating and writing history, and any kind of knowledge for that matter, is a charade for the intellectually dishonest and hollow. After all, the brutal enterprise of colonialism itself was thoroughly legitimized and validated by the creation of certain histories and modes of historiography; histories which dehumanized lives and undid entire worlds.
But how does one talk back to the empire if one does not know its language and ideas? It is imperative to use the same apparatuses that were once employed to deny our humanity to now study our histories and life-worlds on our own terms; to write them on our own terms, and to write them ourselves.
As a Pakistani student, I also had an additional motivation to pursue South Asian Studies abroad because even when this challenge to orientalist, imperial histories is thrown, the discipline assumes a markedly Indian representation and orientation. Subsequently, the South Asia in South Asian Studies has largely been a stand-in for India for all practical purposes. India has most representation in this area both when it comes to faculty (the only two Pakistani professors I know of at Columbia are Manan Ahmad and Akbar Zaidi), facilitating an array of courses dealing with India under the umbrella of many different disciplines, and also when it comes to students. They have better funding opportunities (when I was thinking of applying to graduate schools for South Asian Studies in both the United States and the United Kingdom, I would often come across grants, scholarships and aid offered by Indian institutions or organization for international students from India, and not a single one which was specific to Pakistani students) which allows them wider possibilities for research and scholarship.
Pakistan, on the other hand, well. This excellent article by Adnan Rasool on the hurdles Pakistani scholars face in making it to and in global academia sheds further light on the matter. But simply because the program has patent power differentials is not reason enough, in my opinion, for it to be abandoned or ceded rather than attempting to elbow one’s way in it for a place. In fact, precisely because South Asian Studies contains such power differentials (and quite frankly, which discipline in the academy doesn’t in one form or another?) and representative imbalances makes it even more significant and pressing for Pakistanis, and other South Asians, to pursue it and study either their own countries and histories, or expand the scope of research and subjects explored and written under the banner of this field. I remember being pleased to hear when our program director informed us there hadn’t been as many Pakistanis in the program previously because I did hope and I do hope that this establishes the passage of Pakistanis going into this field as possible and precedented. At the end of the day, an imbalance in the field requires intervention and redressal not abandonment and capitulation.
I mentioned above how my Pakistani batch-mates and I encountered several conversations in class which were either Eurocentric (and sometimes even India-centric) but we would never shy away from widening the focus to South Asia in the case of the former and larger South Asia in the latter case concerning debates on climate change, nationalism, visual cultures, and whatnot. In some ways then, through our presence, we attempted to make South Asia present in class conversations that were Eurocentric and to make Pakistan present in conversations which were India-centric while claiming to be about South Asia. Obviously in a two-year MA program, I will not be producing some groundbreaking scholarship that will shake this field and I will only be handing in a thesis, but I one of the convictions I came to graduate school with was that I’d research and work on Pakistan, not due to some nationalistic myopia but plainly because I strongly believe the scholarship on Pakistan isn’t adequate and there is still much to be studied and written about it, so I should, in my own personal capacity, contribute to this however I can. This is also why I think more Pakistani voices are needed in the academic chamber generally, but particularly when it comes to South Asian Studies. There is a massive need for us to learn and be trained in robust methodological frameworks and theoretical tools and test their application in the study of Pakistan in order to dislodge pernicious narratives and comprehend the country better, and to impart the knowledge however we can when/if those of us who intend to return back home and foster local apparatuses and infrastructures of learning and studying.
But moving on. Maybe because of my past experience at LUMS or maybe because of the vast student body here, I sometimes think, as of yet, that there isn’t much student community in Columbia, let alone organized student action (but maybe it is my folly to expect student activism or student action in an institution that is the beacon of elitism). Perhaps that is specific to my Masters’ program which is sandwiched between the undergrad and the doctoral community, or my school, or a city as huge as New York in which the possibilities for friendship seem endless but the possibilities one can enact do depend on the space afforded to them, which in this case, is their academic program and institution. I mean, I cannot go to Times Square and tap people on the shoulder to request them to be friends with me. So while I agree entirely that it is essential to break out of one’s Pakistani bubble and mingle with people from different places and stages when you’re abroad for education but I should assert that, speaking from experience, it often depends on many more factors than just one’s willingness: the university, the program, the city, your budget (socializing isn’t free) and even the free time you can manage to squeeze out. This, of course, is assuming that you’re willing to break out of the bubble but for anyone in such circumstances, remaining closely connected to familiar faces in an unfamiliar setting is then only partially a choice and significant for social survival too. And in that regard, I am grateful to have found a wonderful community of Pakistani women who anchor and sustain me.
I also keep going back to the personal magnitude of my presence in graduate school as a brown woman. I am inhabiting an experience unimaginable by my previous generations, an experience that was unimaginable even for me till the day I set foot on this campus. How does one even begin to translate the lifeworld you’ve come from and what a giant leap stepping upon and walking on this campus means?
But I also think of those who do not have the privileges I did: a private-institution education throughout the course of my life, educational institutions which trained me in English and a specific dialect of it; a vocabulary legible to the Western academy which eased my path to it. And as much as I miss hearing Urdu or Punjabi, every single day in Amreeka has been and is a staggering reminder of what a massive privilege it is to know English. It permitted me access to and navigation of a wholly new world. To be able to render legible and knowable an unfamiliar and overwhelming world, and to be able to make yourself legible and heard in it. To comprehend and be comprehended. And this is only one of the many forms of privilege and luck (what are the odds of being born into a background that can grant you elite education) which allowed you access to this world in the first place and a shot at landing in it. In this unequal world, English is a central currency and social capital. Positions and vernaculars of privilege determine so much of what you get in the matrix of opportunity, which is demarcated from what you may really deserve. And I pray I never lose sight of this.
In light of my above observations and reflections, I must hasten to add that to apprehend the nature and limits of what you’re being given as education is less a cause for despair and often an education itself, but there is also much that I’ve gained and obtained from graduate school in one year and I have been careful to note my intellectual growth. I have had the opportunity to learn from some phenomenal professors who have challenged and reorganized the frames of my thinking, along with familiarizing me with modes of historiography and methods of doing history. I have acquired an understanding of how to actually do academic reading, how to really attend to the texts and listen to what they say as opposed to only critiquing and deconstructing them; how to manage 5+ conceptually-heavy texts for classes. And though there’s a long way to go but being pushed and enabled to actually speak up and present in seminars and classes and learning to really critically engage with texts, formulate and articulate questions, inquiries and insights out of them feels like one big milestone considering just how often and just how much I struggled with this in undergrad.
So as I continue to observe and reflect and continue to figure things out, at the end of the day, I’m doing what I love, which is studying history and striving to learn every single day, however I can. Or so I hope and try. But there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, of that I’m certain.
– Hafsa Khawaja
Note: this post is particularly dedicated to Aaisha Salman, my brilliant and lovely flatmate and batch-mate whose presence and conversations nurtured mine and helped me make sense of all that there was.