Stopping to Reflect
(This piece was first published in the January 2019 issue of Teacher Plus, a wonderful magazine for educators.)
Being a freelance educator is, in some ways, akin to being an artist. One is able to pursue the provocations that hold personal meaning in a way that educators bound by the structures of academic institutions may not be able to do even if they wanted to. Of course, the relationship to money is different because one often trades the promise of security — however tenuous that might be — for a life of adventure and creative fulfillment. However, the opportunities are diverse and limitless if one is open to writing gigs, speaking engagements and consulting projects alongside teaching.
I am aware that I speak from a bit of a privileged vantage point. Access to opportunities comes not only from hard work and talent but also from access to networks aka social capital. My Hindi-and-Marwari-speaking parents sent me to a fairly ordinary, church-run, government aided school in suburban Mumbai but the fluency in English that it gave me opened many doors. That I was ridiculed for my clothes and body language at school and in college is a story for another day but I did grow up to be confident that my language skills would help me make a strong case for my suitability as a candidate wherever I go.
I have learnt that sincerity as a quality is widely respected, and people are often willing to go the extra mile to provide support. That could mean waiving off participation fees or offering travel grants or taking care of accommodation. Though freelance educators cannot fall back on institutional funding for professional development, it is important to me that I continue to keep learning beyond my disciplinary training in college and at university. My work would be stagnant, irrelevant and lacking in passion if I didn’t make the time and space for new perspectives from others and reflective thinking of my own.
In August 2018, I went to Kolkata for the fourth edition of the annual History for Peace Conference hosted by the Seagull Foundation for the Arts at Tollygunge Club. It was a unique coming together of historians, school teachers, museum educators, anthropologists, artists, policymakers and various others engaged in making history intelligible and interesting for young people.
I enjoyed most the contributions made by Krishna Kumar, Romila Thapar, Audrey Truschke, Anand Vivek Taneja, Avni Sethi, Aanchal Malhotra and Anam Zakaria but I was disappointed by the comparative analysis of history textbooks from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh because it lacked critical depth. I am not a history major but the conference spoke to me as a peace and human rights educator working in a world influenced by fake news, divisive propaganda and violent extremism.
Later in the year, in November 2018, I participated in a dance symposium and writing lab called ‘Indent: The Body and the Performative’ hosted by Gati Dance Forum at Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi. The itinerary included talks, performances and work-in-progress sharings scheduled before and after the writing lab. I signed up because I wanted to look anew at my own M.Phil. research work in English Language Education, which focused on writing pedagogy and peer feedback in the context of a community magazine put together by teenagers in a low-income Muslim neighborhood of Mumbai.
The writing lab was exciting because my peers came from a variety of backgrounds such as dance, law, visual arts, publishing, activism, performance research, education and design. The structure developed by Urmimala Sarkar and Indira Chandrasekhar in collaboration with Mandeep Raikhy and Ranjana Dave was open and free-flowing, responsive to inputs, and appreciative of visceral as well as cerebral modes of engagement. Our brief was to develop ideas for a journal focusing on the body and/in performance.
In my work as a freelance journalist covering arts and culture, as well as my work as a facilitator of men’s groups keen on unpacking masculinity, I have been particularly interested in forms and languages that challenge patriarchy, heteronormativity and body shaming. This work is exhilarating but also challenging since we live in a society that continues to be excruciatingly prescriptive about how individuals ought to inhabit their own bodies and express themselves.
My reflection on these themes gained tremendously from encountering the work of Navtej Johar, Padmini Chettur, Amitesh Grover, Chloe Chotrani, Alessandro Schiattarella, Gee Imaan Semmalar and Bernice Lee at the symposium. I wish writing pedagogy in schools would also make it possible for students to dialogue with practitioners and critics in ways that would challenge the boundaries of their thinking and encourage them to take creative risks. I, for one, cannot wait to take back what I learnt into the classroom.