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The Ins and Outs of Experiencing India

The following is a guest post by Jenna Reinbold, an assistant professor of religion at Colgate University. Ms. Reinbold and 26 other Colgate faculty members–10 percent of the institution’s faculty–traveled to India for two weeks as part of an effort to internationalize the material they teach in the university’s core curriculum. The trip was paid for in part by a grant Colgate’s president had received from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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Colgate faculty members in India. Photo courtesy of Christopher Henke.

I estimate that I brushed my teeth about 29 times while in India. On two of these occasions, I found myself frozen in mid-brush when I realized that I had rinsed my toothbrush with tap water rather than bottled water. Each time, I seriously considered throwing away my toothbrush, but I ended up being content with pouring on a bit of hand sanitizer instead, convinced that whatever toxins the hand sanitizer had to offer would likely prove less dangerous than the stomach-churning bacteria potentially lurking within India’s water supply – bacteria harmless in itself (I think?) but seriously threatening to anyone whose GI tract has never had the opportunity to build up a “relationship” with it.

My cautious dental hygiene habits served as a daily, visceral reminder of my status as an outsider in India. I was, moreover, not just any kind of outsider; I was a member of that dangerous, oft-maligned class of outsider bearing academic knowledge–that class of outsider eager to make use of what Edward Said called “the rational interpretive skills that are the legacy of humanistic education.”

Edward Said cowed at least a generation of academics by reminding us of the dangers inherent in the particular blend of ignorance and investment that has marked many a “Western” scholar’s engagement with “non-Western” societies in places like India. (Incidentally, it is thanks to the likes of Said that I can use quotes to acknowledge the complexity of terms like “Western” and “non-Western” before proceeding blithely with my train of thought.) As a member of the post-Orientalism-smackdown generation, I spent much of my time in India acutely self-conscious of the ways in which I, an enthusiastic academic wielding grand theories, might unwittingly perpetuate the abridgments, abstractions, and “positional superiority” that so frustrated Said.

Despite my self-consciousness, however, I was first in line to offer up blog posts proffering the theories of Marx and Durkheim.

I am still trying to reckon with what this means for my location on the insider-outsider spectrum. If there’s any authoritative knowledge I have gained as a result of my time in India, it’s the knowledge that I am in no position to be speaking in the guise of an insider. Yet, I am clearly no longer the same kind of outsider that I was two months ago. I am an outsider who has come close enough to a society to have been swept up in a number of those serendipitous moments of human comity that are almost impossible to anticipate, fabricate, or replicate from a distance. An outsider who has come close enough to have actually glimpsed a few grand theories jarred from the pages of their books and thrown into lively relief amid the goings-on in front of me. An outsider who has, on the flip side, come close enough to have been in the midst of some of the religious practices I regularly read and teach about and, in so doing, to have witnessed a few of the ways in which such practices deviated from my expectations–thus pointing to a universe of complexity that calls into question some of the fundamentals of my knowledge and teaching.

(Who knew, for example, that the premium placed on eye contact with the gods–a phenomenon explained famously and lovingly by Diana Eck–might actually lead some Hindu priests to strategically conceal the images of these gods in an effort to intensify the atmosphere before a final “reveal”? No doubt Eck and millions of Hindus knew this–to say nothing of a performance-studies theorist or two!–but the thought simply hadn’t occurred to me.)

On one level, this leaves me a bit uncertain about how to bring my India experience into the classroom. Our job as professors, after all, is not only to command a body of academic knowledge; it is also to attain a level of comfort with the enterprise of running the particularities of this world through the sieve of that knowledge. While my experience in India presented me with a number of thrilling affirmations of the scope of the body of knowledge to which I have dedicated myself, it also reminded me of provisional nature of this knowledge–of the many ways and the many venues in which this body of knowledge has yet to be tested. In this respect, India has left me somewhat more self-conscious than I was before I left, as Said would perhaps be gratified to know.

On the other hand, given our aspiration as college educators to convey not only information but also critical-thinking skills, I have no doubt that my experience in India will serve as a model for how I might push my students to assume a more global orientation in their reading and thinking. Such an orientation requires a level of investment in a given body of knowledge: a commitment not only to become versed in that knowledge but to become driven by that knowledge, driven to direct that knowledge to the task of making sense of the world. However, this orientation also requires an ongoing self-consciousness about the limitations of that knowledge–even in the midst of depending upon it! – and an attendant commitment to exploring how this knowledge actually plays out in lots of different places. It requires, in other words, an unwillingness to bask for too long in the thrill that comes from having figured things out.

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