Home 2017 I Feel, therefore I Am

I Feel, therefore I Am

written by Arnapurna Rath October 26, 2017
I Feel, therefore I Am

I sometimes wonder if the “father of western philosophy”, French philosopher, René Descartes had any gender complexities in mind, when he was talking about “Cogito Ergo Sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) in 1637 in his Discourse on the Method? Some of my thoughts in this regard emerge from the idea that the history of knowledge and history of creative writing, in essence, has been the canonized history of men as intellectuals and as thinkers. Therefore, when Fundamatics requested me to write an article on what it means to be a woman academic in IITs, the floodgates of emotions were thrown open, bringing me face-to-face once again after several years with the Cartesian notion of Cogito Ergo Sum. Let me pick this funny quarrel with Descartes (I am not sure if he was Dr. Descartes), by presenting myself as a woman academic (in humanities discipline) in the very densely populated universe of men in the IIT system, and to see if I can still hold the “I think, therefore I am” syndrome without certain fatal wounds. The disclaimer attached to this article is that it is the story of one individual, and the thoughts here are not necessarily alluding to or subscribed by all the women academics of my country and elsewhere. If there is any trace of narcissistic self-centeredness, take it as a lapse of my narration. I could not separate the I from the subject position of this narration.

This quarrel with Descartes has autobiographical underpinnings that take me back to the first few days at IIT Bombay, when it started with a group of peers (all men and all engineers) asking me a question at the dinner table in the mess-hall. They asked me if I had read any Immanuel Kant in my career as a literature student. I replied that I have read only one or two essays on Kant and not by Kant. Until that point in time, I had never seen so many men in life. Since they were IIT students, to be honest, I was drawn by their intellectual attractiveness, considering my upbringing that made me think of physical attractiveness in the other gender as kind of taboo. Anyways, to cut it short, the group cast a helpless glance, relegating me to the stature of the marginal scholar immediately, drawing personal inferences about my ignorance and innocence.One of them helpfully offered the suggestion that I should go back to the library and read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, adding that such books will be important to make me “think” and “think deeper”, helping me develop analytical skills, if I intended to take research in humanities with any seriousness. I did that faithfully, and started reading Kant from the moment I reached back in the library. After reading Kant, I went to other Enlightenment thinkers for helping me shape my thoughts, and then to many others. In a few months’ time, I could open my mouth and had started discussing with colleagues and peers who happened to be not- women, with some confidence. It all started as a desperate attempt to prove my intellectual abilities to a peer group, slowly went further to my professors (some of whom had lesser faith on my capabilities than my peers), and then to family and friends. I was thankful to those colleagues in the initial days of my research, who actually led me to think first and then to argue. This was my first encounter with one of the several challenges that reminded me of my own intellectual shortcomings.

Since they were IIT students, to be honest, I was drawn by their intellectual attractiveness, considering my upbringing that made me think of physical attractiveness in the other gender as kind of taboo.

Coming from a semi-conservative family where to be a woman was not a subject/topic of discussion, rather to live the life of a woman was a normative aspect of my birth, I never, in the true sense of the term, have been able to develop a sense of anger/ frustration about my position as a woman in the society. I have been pretty chilled-out and in some ways appreciated the attention that comes with the adage of being a woman in IITs. On several occasions, during some deeper academic discussions or introspection, I actually forgot about my gender until someone crudely reminded me about it. At several junctures in my academic career, I was resented by certain women members of the academic community for the fact that I did not write about being a woman in any of my papers. I was obsessed during research days by the two men who occupied most of my life and thoughts; Mikhail Bakhtin and Amitav Ghosh.

Overall, I was simply pleased by the awareness and had a lot of gratitude for having the privilege of academic engagement, and the freedom to read in a country where most women are trained to be such types as good partners, great mothers, and great daughters. The expectation in my part of the world was that one takes it easy, and takes care of both home and the world, Ghare and Baire (to use the famous Tagorean phrase).  It is less daunting in some ways for families to let a girl study literature, because of the assumption that literature can soften a girl’s heart and mind and could make her a better and manageable individual, equipped to manage her parents and society. Therefore, the expectation of my own family from my academic engagement was limited to a spatter of poetry recitation of Wordsworth and Keats, or some nice drawing-room conversation on Rabindranath Tagore or Fakir Mohan Senapati. No one had foreseen the dangers of relegating their daughter to the sinister domains of advanced reading and later observing these sinister domains come to reality when I started my journey as a practicing academic.We did not discuss Pandita Ramabai or Sailabala Devi or Amrita Pritam in most conversation. Only later in life, my family understood the dangers of letting me go onto the path of critical thinking –once I started questioning everything.

It is less daunting in some ways for families to let a girl study literature, because of the assumption that literature can soften a girl’s heart and mind and could make her a better and manageable individual, equipped to manage her parents and society.

It was in the graduate classroom when instructors mentioned cultural theories, hetero-normative behaviors, gynocriticism, the voiceless, and many more such aspects that I started realizing that I am not Cogito Ergo Sum. I might have opinions about the world and perspectives that might be different from the ways that I had grown up thinking. I had learned to unlearn about being too sure of my thoughts. To my mind, to say that a certain gender – men or women and the other genders could exist by themselves was a step forward in new complex meaning making. With my readings, I felt increasingly uneasy with extreme -isms which propagated a certain degree of servitude to intellectual fashion of our times. I was haunted (I still am) by the questions which are kind of quasi-academic: “what is the purpose of knowledge?” “Happiness, Peace, Joy…or endless critique of life, people, and arts?”I have felt that the limitations that are perceived in academic thoughts and concepts (especially by the masses), have been the result of the limitation of communication or expression of those thoughts to the world. Each time I put myself through intense self-questioning about “what is the purpose of my academic enquiry?” How does one express emotion, feelings, talk about interpersonal relationships, gender biases, or cultural issues without somehow being perceived in one extreme light or another? Language itself has played such a limiting part in expressing feelings associated with cultural and individual memories that we end up sounding either too pedantic or too hollow. The interesting aspect of this entire training was that during most of my advanced research, the maximum academic support was extended to me by professors, peers and teachers, who incidentally were men.

Our tea-time chat revolved around discussions about how significant it is to be careful about being kind and sensitive towards grooming our sons as much as we are towards grooming our daughters.

There were amazing women academics too, but sometimes they appeared too remote and distant, to my simplistic mind. Many times, while I was with friends, and well-wishers, we had discussions regarding the significance of gender sensitivity towards different kinds of gender, men included. Our tea-time chat revolved around discussions about how significant it is to be careful about being kind and sensitive towards grooming our sons as much as we are towards grooming our daughters. Kindness perhaps helps a man evolve into a stronger social being, is what many individuals said to me during these conversations. Friends in different academic campuses/public spaces narrated to me experiences about the lack of sensitivity in grooming a son by parents, unlike the daughter who is handled with greater care by families, just because they are supposed to be sent away to another family and because of a whole range of cultural symbolism that are associated with women. These were important life lessons which have remained with me in my journey.

After I started working, the journey has been more complex. The memories of campus communities as a student are different and had to be unlearned once again. Academic teaching and research is a different game altogether, especially for someone who considers herself a bit orthodox in academic orientation. In a world where you are continuously judged by the gaze of the other, and are self-reflexive about your own gaze into thoughts and action, it gets difficult to live through layers of individual and collective perceptions. The work-life balance for certain women academics becomes a challenge. I face this existential crisis of a tight-rope walk between “what should I be” and “what am I”? If I practice and preach “morality, ethics, blah, blah…”, I am considered as boring, product of “artificial construct of established social norms” or I am branded plain “arrogant” or even too “ambitious”. Whereas, if I am too outspoken and beyond cultural norms, I live in the danger of being immediately branded as a “slut” or “easy to please”. Intense categorization is a part of my self-reflexive process in my country.

Sometimes more than academic and research output, the attitude and personal life of women academics remain a part of public memory and discussions. As young masters students of humanities, we (I was foremost in that “we”) associated Simone de Beauvoir, the great French feminist, more with her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, than the brilliant body of her work. For that matter, we used to discuss Sylvia Plath for her life with Ted Hughes, more than for her amazing poems. Amrita Pritam was thought in connection with Sahir and Imroz, as much as for her outspoken body of writings. Recently, our very own Kangana Ranaut will perhaps haunt public fascination because of her explosive interviews on that “silly ex” more than the brave work that she has done for cinema.

Sometimes more than academic and research output, the attitude and personal life of women academics remain a part of public memory and discussions.

Classroom orientation towards women academics varies from absolute irreverence to a great sense of love and respect, which at times may be difficult, but not impossible to earn.  The theories that one learns in graduate classes are sometimes difficult to apply in real-time classroom and professional situations. I have observed in undergraduate first-year English classes that women students in the classroom are quieter and less responsive than the men, especially in the presence of women faculty members. I do not know the reasons for this lack of openness among women students, maybe they are looking for role-models in the classroom and many among us do not fit the bills. I do not have definite answers to these observations.

It is easy for us to slip into the danger of being branded as rigid or as too bookish in teaching scenarios. There are already popular articles on NPR-ED and Science-Open about how women professors are rated lower as compared to their male counterparts in classrooms. However, I have a strong feeling that women academics will also not like to be privileged in the classroom evaluations purely because of their gender. It has to be merit that decides the cut. Many among us have not been very strong in terms of packaging and marketing the courses that we design and teach in classrooms. We live a take it or leave it syndrome and that shows in the number of students who take electives offered by us. I still have the faith that I am learning along with my students and if they have to learn something from me, they better come and discuss with me. The old-timers, as they say!Women academics have their own style, commitment and approaches to teaching and research that make them unique in the academic ecosystem of IITs. As I am writing this article for Fundamatics about the significance of emotional connect and the importance of emotional quotient in women (like me), Kazuo Ishiguro wins the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2017. The Nobel committee in its press release mentions that the award is for Ishiguro’s novels that display a great “emotional force”, “uncovering the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. The Nobel committee by valuing the significance of emotional force seems to have validated the thought that not everything is Cogito Ergo Sum. I would like to mention in this context, that it is not easy to handle emotions and feelings in an academic setup. Writing fiction must be liberating in that sense, but life is dense when it comes to handling emotions in “real-time”. However, it is also not appropriate in a certain sense, to escape the role of “emotional force” of human beings in changing academic scenarios. If we are able to tap into the force at the level of gender discourses successfully and deal with them responsibly, academics will prove to work wonders for its future generations in India.

I am an early career academic. My thoughts are neither directed against my profession nor at the people that I deal with in my everyday life. The journey as a woman academic so far has been challenging, sometimes fulfilling and enjoyable, but at times giving me a sense of pessimism about women researchers getting a chance of being highly recognized in their fields.  I encounter several challenges and insecurities from within and outside giving me a feeling that, “I am not as good as many other thinkers and writers of my time”. I am still struggling against the possibility of being relegated to being an average scholar. Knowledge and information age has grown with such speed, that I do live in the anxiety of succumbing to these challenges. There is reluctance at this point in my life to accept the idea of competitive academics. I quarrel with Descartes on paper, but if the gentleman comes to the tea-shop and tells me, “hey why did you fight with me on Cogito Ergo Sum?” I will possibly go hiding and never come out. Perhaps, I may spend time with Wordsworth for a while, before he too makes me uncomfortable, as I move in new quests, because “I feel, therefore I am”, and because I am not able to separate my thoughts from my feelings.

Fair as a star, when only one

is shining in the sky.

– William Wordsworth, “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways”


Further Read

Boring, Anne, Kellie Ottoboni,  Philip Stark. “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness”.Science open. January 5 2016. Web. 22 Oct 2017.

Kamenetz, Anya. “Why Female Professors Get Lower Ratings”.NPR-Ed. January 25 2016.Web. 22 Oct 2017

“Kazuo Ishiguro – Facts”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014.Web. 10 Oct 2017.

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