V I J A Y. P R A S H A D
The following feature story appeared in the campus publication MOSAIC in March, 1999.
EXPERIENCING THE WORLD THROUGH OTHER PEOPLE'S EYES
Like an exercise in virtual reality, Assistant Professor of International Studies Vijay Prashad challenges his students to "enter" the material he teaches. Whether exploring poverty, oppression, or nonviolence, Prashad urges his students to understand the material intellectually and viscerally.
"When I teach a class like 'Anthropology of Poverty,' I try to get students to look at something that is perhaps not in their own experience and teach something similar to empathy. In the poverty class, the central question is: 'How does it feel if you're poor and how do you retain your dignity? Do you tell yourself that you're poor? What does it mean to be poor in a society that counts dignity by wealth?' As an anthropologist, I ask my students, 'What are some of those feelings you have when you walk past a neighborhood that's abandoned, or in which people live under quite horrendous conditions? When you walk past that neighborhood, can you feel anything else except revulsion and charity?'"
In a similar way, Prashad integrates into course material and his teaching (in a course on "Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nonviolence") the emphasis both Gandhi and King placed on community. "King's favorite expression was, 'We need to make the beloved community,'" he said while explaining why group projects take precedence over individual efforts. "It's very hard to teach about community and then pit students one against the other."
Since joining Trinity's faculty in 1996, Prashad has earned a reputation as a challenging and popular teacher. A native of Calcutta, India, with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, he also teaches courses in South Asian history. Prior to joining Trinity's faculty, he taught history at Syracuse University and Cornell University.
A brilliant and widely published scholar
According to Director of the International Studies program Dario A. Euraque, "Vijay is very innovative in how he builds courses. He's taken U.S. culture in the '60s and '70s and connected it to Asia to produce the course 'Hippies: Asia in the American Imagination' and done the same thing with his nonviolence course. The courses are an indication of his wanting students to distinguish between images in popular culture and their basis in fact.
Prashad has written two books Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of the Balmikis of Delhi, scheduled to be published later this year by Oxford University Press, and The Karma of Brown Folk, which examines the place of South Asian Americans within contemporary U.S. racial groups and race relations. It is scheduled to be published next year by the University of Minnesota. He is working on a third book, this one about nonviolence in the nuclear age. Not only is Prashad the author of articles for many scholarly journals, but he is also a contributor to a variety of popular magazines, a lecturer at many academic conferences, and a former correspondent for New Delhi Television. "He's brilliant," says Euraque.
Students concur with Euraque's assessment. Individualized Degree Program (IDP) student Kim Koester '99, an international studies and anthropology double major who is also the President's Fellow in international studies, has taken three courses with Prashad. "Students get inspired by Professor Prashad's mind," Koester says. "His brilliance and depth of knowledge are apparent right away in the classroom." She recalls that in Prashad's "Anthropology of Oppression" course, he introduced students to the philosophers Kant, Sartre, and Rousseau, connecting each's theories to the realities of oppression, an approach that is indicative of the interdisciplinary nature of his teaching. "He leaves an indelible mark on you."
Jennifer A. Acampora '00, a sociology major enrolled in her third course with Prashad, praises her professor's emphasis on collaborative learning. In the "Anthropology of Poverty" course, Acampora joined classmates in going into the community to understand personally what constitutes poverty. "We had to go into Hartford to find out who poor people were, understand how the government was failing them, then learn what we could do on an individual basis to help. Professor Prashad's teaching style involves seeing what you can do to change things."
Anthropology major Kajal S. Gehi '01, who is also enrolled in her third course with Prashad, recalled that in his course "Empire and Nationalism," he read passages from King Leopold's Soliloquy to get students to understand Leopold's rule of the Congo. "King Leopold was very prejudiced, but the reading got us to understand his point of view. Professor Prashad gets you to feel the way people felt. He brings the subject alive!"
What, fundamentally, does Prashad seek to impart to his students? "Hopefully, my students will walk out into the world looking at things critically and being analytical about everything," he says. "I also hope I will have taught them the capacity to make passionate encounters."