Connected Classrooms #1: A Project Across Borders

This blog was co-written by Professor Nandini Chatterjee, Dr. Gajendra Singh, and Fatima Naveed to introduce their project ‘Connected Classrooms’

In March 2021, after a year in lockdown, it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a state of dystopia, laced with traces of optimistic futurism. Within higher education, long-standing complaints about structural inequality and issues of accessibility appear to have suddenly gained wider attention, with ‘accessibility’ ‘decolonisation’ and interdisciplinarity’ becoming buzz-words. This is the world in which the Connected Classrooms project is coming to be, as a University of Exeter funded initiative of teaching innovation, via the Education Incubator. The aim of the project is to develop a South Asian history module that can be taught and learned simultaneously and collaboratively in virtually connected classrooms, at Exeter and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. The project’s team members in Exeter are Professor Nandini Chatterjee, Dr. Gajendra Singh, Dr. Rebecca Williams and Fatima Naveed (project assistant); in LUMS, Professor Ali Usman Qasmi and Professor Ali Raza.

As the project assistant, I have been fortunate enough to be privy to the discussions that shape this module. In particular, being able to offer my perspective as someone on the intersection of student/teacher, as well as a Pakistani researcher of South Asia in a British higher education institution, has been an invaluable experience. This is especially so because, in classrooms or in larger academic settings, I have found myself pigeon-holing my own research, out of sheer exhaustion at having to constantly explain exactly what it is I do – and why it is valuable – to those who have their own, surprisingly narrow understanding of ‘South Asian Studies’. The realisation that I am not alone in doing this, however, has been reassuring, and has often been in the form of conversations with colleagues from other departments and colleges. Exposure to forms of interdisciplinary learning and research at the undergraduate level, therefore, is extremely important, and the blend of various research expertise, as well as geographical locations, that this project offers students, is something to be optimistic about.

Along with my optimism, now more than ever I find myself conscious of positionality; of researchers, of writers, of theorists, and of students. The privilege of access to knowledge – via education, or even via the internet that allows me to write this blog, and you to read it – is something that we must all always grapple. For me, the aim of this project is to help students and researchers to interrogate their own position. It forces us to look at South Asia as an active subject to study, analyse and work with, rather than an object that we can observe passively and about which simplistic conclusions can be drawn. And in this current climate, it is undeniable that there is a need for collaboration, particularly across continents, or else academia remains the proverbial ivory tower, trapped in a Eurocentric way of looking at the world. Therefore, in trying to design and plan for a module on post-colonial and contemporary South Asia, it is only natural for several issues to arise:

  1. Firstly, we must consider the identity of both the students and the researchers on this module, as well as the institutional constraints under which it is to be delivered. By having students located in a South Asian country (Pakistan) in the same classroom as students in Exeter, we wish to avoid the content being treated as devoid of all practical reality for students in Exeter – as just another ‘essay topic’ – and to avoid positing exoticized authenticity to students in Pakistan. Considering these class, gender, and religious affiliations, a microcosmic look should therefore enable all students to critically deal with their respective positions using current scholarship.
  2. Secondly, by making it very clear that expertise on South Asia is shared with students and teachers in South Asian countries, we want to push for an understanding that there may be different ways of teaching and learning about the societies, cultures and histories of South Asia, and many of these can be and are done more interestingly in Pakistan.
  3. Thirdly, by trying to design the module in such a way that the ‘problems’ of South Asia are not distanced and separated from those of Britain, we want to enable students to make connections. With a shared history rooted in colonialism, South Asia and Britain make for an interesting case-study in tandem, allowing us to highlight their shared, even exploitative, conflict-ridden pasts.
  4. Fourthly, by partnering with students in both institutions, we plan to push for a student-led dimension of decolonising the curriculum. Student feedback is integral to making classrooms a space where real, deconstructive and decolonial learning takes place on an even plane, rather than on a hierarchical level. Considering the identities of our students, we are aware that no one geographical location has a monopoly on ‘expertise’, however we are equally insistent that nor does one’s degree level determine their level of understanding of any topic.

Just as collaborative research has been shown to be of the utmost importance to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, its benefits to a research culture between the UK and the countries its institutions research cannot be emphasised enough, particularly when it comes to student engagement. Our short tech trial, held in March 2021, which aimed to test out the logistics of using online classrooms for teaching and learning, highlighted just how essential human connection is to academia. Even through a screen, the spirit of collaboration is kept alive through a shared understanding: whether of language, culture, and current affairs, or through the uneasiness that underpins every discussion concerning the rise of authoritarian governments as well as the curbing of dissent, in all parts of the world.

Before we look ahead, however, we must look back, and offer thanks to our volunteer participants for our March 2021 tech trial: from Exeter, James Dronfield and Daniel Philips, and from LUMS, Noor Bakksh and Mohid Ahsan. We would also like to pre-emptively thank the staff and students who will work with us on this project, and shape it into what it is to become (which is hopefully a success). To this effect, we would like to invite members of both institutions, as well as other members of the wider public – whether in academia or not – to offer their comments, suggestions, and feedback on our proposed project and its aims. Our eventual goal is to develop this module into an entire MA course, utilising pedagogies and practices that must occur in a collaborative fashion to make an active contribution to the field of South Asian Studies, rather than to merely objectify it. Any comments can be addressed to the project head, Professor Nandini Chatterjee, at connected-classrooms@exeter.ac.uk.

Professor Nandini Chatterjee is a historian of South Asia and works on law and cultural exchanges in the British and Mughal empires. She is director of the Exeter Centre for South Asia and joint chair of the History Decolonising Working Group at Exeter. She is also the current project lead on Forms of Law in the early modern Persianate World, 17th-19th centuries.

Dr. Gajendra Singh’s research is focused on histories of colonialism in South Asia, as well as nineteenth and twentieth century South Asian history and postcolonial history-writing. He has previously worked on Indian soldiers’ experiences of the First and Second World Wars, and is currently researching the Ghadar Movement.

Fatima Naveed is a PhD student in the Department of English and Film. She researches the theme of literary dissent in the work of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (1933-1978) through literature, film, life-writing and archival analysis. She is the project support intern on the Connected Classrooms Project.

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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