The Collegian
Thursday, December 08, 2022

Traveling scholar brings stories of India to sociology courses

This semester, Meenakshi Thapan, a sociology professor at the Delhi School of Economics, is teaching two sociology classes at the University of Richmond: Women in Indian Society; and Gender, Migration and Identity.

Uliana Gabara, dean of International Education, met Thapan in India and invited her to teach at Richmond about a year ago.

"It's through personal and professional connections that they get invited to be a scholar here," said Krittika Onsanit, director of International Student, Scholar and Internship Services.

Thapan said she hadn't heard of Richmond before, so she looked it up on the Internet. She accepted Gabara's invitation because she thought she would enjoy teaching at Richmond and because it would be very different from the University of Chicago, where she taught in 1995.

Thapan said she wanted to teach in a completely different environment and also wanted to meet students from different academic and intellectual backgrounds, as well as faculty who were doing different kinds of work from people in Chicago and India.

Thapan grew up traveling all over India. Her father was in the Indian army, so she went to different schools whenever they traveled. She was enrolled in a boarding school in a small town in northern India after her parents decided that it wasn't the best for her education to be moving around so frequently.

After boarding school, Thapan went to study psychology at Delhi University, and she later studied at the Delhi School of Economics at Delhi University to receive her master's and doctorate degrees in sociology.

Thapan said one of her most memorable experiences was her doctoral work, during which she conducted a study about a high school in southern India. She has published two books about the school, a first and second edition, called "Life at School: An Ethnographic Study." Thapan said it was very different from other schools because it is run on the philosophy of Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti.

"I was fascinated by that school because I found it so completely different from my own experiences and also from what it was trying to do with kids, a kind of global perspective through education," Thapan said. "I'm fascinated by how young minds are developed socially, culturally and through schooling."

Thapan said she was surprised during her first weeks of teaching at Richmond by the effort her students put toward the courses. In India, she teaches graduate students, so she had different expectations for students at Richmond.

"When I came here, I thought that I would be teaching at a different pitch because I am working primarily with undergraduate students," she said. "But I must say that now that both the courses that I teach are underway, I find that the students are as interested, as hardworking and as committed as graduate students would be, and that is very heartening. That was beyond my expectations."

Another surprising aspect of teaching at Richmond for Thapan was that students eat, drink and chew gum during class, she said. India has a long tradition of what is considered "good behavior" on the part of students, and those behaviors would be considered very disrespectful to the professor, she said.

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"What really surprised me here was that the students didn't mean any disrespect," she said. "It was just a cultural difference."

The grading system is an aspect of teaching that is very different at Richmond from the Delhi School of Economics. Seventy-five percent of the grade is the annual examination at the end of the year, and 25 percent comes from the tutorial system, she said. The tutorial is a small group of five or six students that meet with a professor.

Having an Indian woman teach a class about women in Indian society is a very different experience than having an American woman teach it, Onsanit said.

"She's going to have a much richer understanding being that she's from the society she's teaching," she said.

Junior Julie Kokemor, who is currently enrolled in Women in Indian Society, said she thought she was getting a much deeper understanding about the subject during Thapan's class than she would if she had had an American professor.

"For me, personally, wanting to go to India and to work with women coming out of prostitution, it gives me a good idea of how to change my mindset and to go with less expectations and less assumptions about them," Kokemor said. "It's such a rich opportunity to have someone from that culture teach you about that culture, instead of having someone teach it who thinks they've mastered the culture, but who's not from it."

One of the things Thapan said she was trying to do in her Women in Indian Society class is change the way people perceive Indian women.

"I think common to everyone across the world, there is the idea that women in India are very oppressed and that they're victims of society, and how terrible that is for India and for Indian women," Thapan said. "And while this is true, that women are oppressed and subjugated to this patriarchal society, it's not specifically a problem in India. I think it's a universal problem."

The first time she heard students talk about their perceptions of Indian women, Thapan said made sure her students understood how people shouldn't construct these world views about specific communities of women.

"They are oppressed, but how do they get out of that?" she said. "That is what I am trying to correct."

Thapan said she spends a lot of time on campus outside of teaching her classes, including working out at the gym and reading in the library.

Thapan said her colleagues at Richmond in the sociology department and the Office of International Education have helped her tremendously in adjusting, including driving her to and from campus.

"I'm feeling at home, and I like this little office," Thapan said of her office in Weinstein Hall. "I come in even on days that I'm not teaching"

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