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  • Where Is the "Other" in This Class?
  • Ananya Jahanara Kabir (bio)

In this essay I discuss some strategies for dealing with what may be broadly termed "cultural difference" in the classroom. I teach at the School of English at the University of Leeds. The department prides itself on being the first institution in the United Kingdom to begin teaching, in the 1960s, what was then called "Commonwealth literature."1 This phrase has now been replaced by the term postcolonial, in keeping with changing trends in how the "other" is thought about in the text.2 The term Commonwealth implied a family of literatures, which, however different from each other (and from the canonical centrality of English literature from England), were broadly united by something in "common." The word postcolonial, one could argue, blows the cover of this "something" by prioritizing the "colonial" that is the root of the commonality. Yet by the edginess of the "post" it also obfuscates that commonality and thus increases the sense of a literature of estrangement. The postcolonial poses, above all, as a literature of the "other." But, as my title asks, what is the pedagogic status of this other?3 How might the subject positions of those teaching postcolonial texts interact with the subject positions of those being taught? How may one calibrate, for one's own learning processes as a teacher, the difference that emerges out of the material gaps between the places where the texts originate and the place they are being taught in? Where, in short, should the other be located in the class: the teacher, the students, or the text? And can this sense of a slippery, mobile other be mined for a usefully critical pedagogy, one that enables both students and teachers to think both through and in difference? In considering these questions, I (in the spirit of the colloquium at which this essay was first delivered) concentrate on the ways in which a concept of "area studies" can inflect and dialogue with what I call, for the sake of ease, the "general postcolonial." [End Page 641]

Mapping the Terrain

It will be useful to begin by presenting the structure of postcolonial teaching at Leeds and explicate it in the context of the way the province of English literature is schematized and carved out for pedagogical consumption. At Leeds, literature is arranged under broad rubrics such as Medieval, Renaissance, Civil War and Restoration, Eighteenth Century, Victorian, Modern, American, Contemporary, and Postcolonial.4 Each category is considered "equivalent" in terms of teaching faculty (at least one professor, several lecturers and senior lecturers, possibly some externally funded postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students). Each subject-group team teaches a "core module," and its individual members offer "optional modules" that reflect their individual interests and specializations. Both core and optional modules are competitively chosen: that is, the more attractive they look, the more students sign up for them. However the core modules are ring fenced to a certain extent, in that there are three cores preassigned to each semester of undergraduate study, of which students have to choose one. Thus it works out that in the first semester of each academic year, about one-third of the level 3 (final-year) undergraduates sign up for Postcolonial Literature, which is one of the most popular core modules on offer. Many of these students simultaneously opt for a postcolonial optional module in that semester offered by the staff teaching postcolonial literature. Several of the same students also sign up for postcolonial optional modules in the second semester of that year, or do an undergraduate dissertation on a postcolonial theme. All these decisions have to be made at the end of the previous academic year, before the summer break. In other words, it is extremely common for many Leeds undergraduates to consciously plan their final year of their degree as a postcolonial one.

From this summary of student choices it would seem that the postcolonial enjoys a high profile at Leeds, and certainly the healthy student numbers for the postcolonial courses support this assumption. But how do these students know about the postcolonial in advance? First, they know through the blurb in the students' handbook, such...


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