Adrienne Wooster (AW): How has your experience been as Whitman College’s Institutional Representative for the Scholars at Risk network? How did you and Saladdin first become acquainted with one another?
Gaurav Majumdar (GM): My work has been a pleasure because there is an obvious ethical dimension to such engagement. I work on cosmopolitanism and anti-colonial literature in my scholarship, and so there is an international dimension to my work that involves ethics, as well. The ways in which crises bring cosmopolitan ethics to an intense boil have been demanding, but enormously satisfying. As for Saladdin, I came to know him though Scholars at Risk (SAR). We formed a SAR Committee at Whitman after our Provost and Dean of Faculty agreed to join the network. The committee screened the profiles for various relevant candidates and Saladdin stood out. We interviewed him via Skype and we were all impressed not only by his intelligence but also by how personable he is – and that impression has only grown. I hosted a reception for him a couple of months ago at Whitman and I said to my assembled colleagues that Saladdin is a person with a very large heart, a great sense of humor, and sometimes an almost bewildering amount of courtesy. Knowing Saladdin has been an excellent experience.
AW: Do you think lack of academic freedom is an issue on campuses here in the US? Do you feel there is a need for more education and dialogue around the issue?
GM: Unquestionably. The Indian/ British novelist Salman Rushdie has argued that the university should, indeed, be a safe place for ideas, not sentiments. Increasingly, colleges and universities in America are calling for the safety of an astonishing range of sentiments rather than engaging in difficult inquiry and trying to work though problems. Across the country and, because of the enormous influence of the American system, across the world there is a call to work around problems. SAR implicitly demands that people work through problems in very beautiful ways – ways that call upon, challenge, and interpret ideas, while bringing ethics and politics into the arena. More so, the work at SAR sometimes forces people to revise their assumptions.
AW: What do you believe we can do as individuals to further academic debate and inquiry despite efforts to silence dissent?
GM: The first imperative is for scholars to do their research – to gather enough evidence within their work so that the communication of their work might fertilize intellectual life. [There is a profound need] to show that expression works better than the repression or oppression of difference. We can all voice opinions and claims that have enormous ethical urgency, but might not be popular or might not be easily accepted. After voicing such opinions and claims, we need evidence, and for evidence, research is both essential and invaluable. We probably should delve into the exploration of opinions and ideas that make us uncomfortable. Some of the work and research SAR does makes people very uncomfortable – it introduces the unfamiliar to familiar spaces and introduces unfamiliar people as well as crises to collage campuses that in various, overt ways continue to be [sheltered, microcosmic], and disconnected from the world. As a result, students often, perhaps unconsciously, want to stay in that [microcosm] and cling to their enchantment. The presence of someone who comes from a troubled part of the world or who comes from enormously troubled circumstances jolts students and faculty into an awareness that they might have distanced from their own minds, consciously or unconsciously.
AW: What do you think you have learned from working with Saladdin? What advice do you have for a member considering hosting with the SAR network?
GM: What I have learned most is that the 21st century carries information across the world very rapidly. Arguments in the humanities resonate and shape significant opportunities for communication across national, cultural, ethnical, racial, and religious boundaries. This became clear to me because I am very fascinated by literary theory, an area in which Saladdin’s sophisticated knowledge has galvanized my own interest. As for my advice for people hosting with the SAR network: I’d request that they do not assume the lack of sophistication of those they might host. By no means can I be certain that there may be such expectations, but I have come across them myself sometimes. Occasionally, on campuses and universities across the U.S., there is the, perhaps, well-intentioned, but naïve assumption that one has to explain circumstances and the ways in which disciplines in the U.S. work, given that a scholar from SAR comes from ‘elsewhere.’ Such [an assumption] does not ease the way to hospitality in any way. This does not mean that people shouldn’t make an effort to introduce a visiting scholar to local circumstances, but I would urge some caution about assumptions of a scholar having a lack of theoretical sophistication or a lack of cultural familiarity especially given the way that the U. S’s influence has spread across the world.
AW: What projects are you working on currently? Do you and Saladdin plan on any collaborative efforts?
GM: I am working on two book projects at the moment. One book is a project on solidarity and constructions of failure in anti-colonial fiction. The other book is on modernist literature and informality because the modernists were among the most scandalous people you could find. They offered both literary, formal, and behavioral models of informality as a kind of ethics that I find very attractive. Saladdin and I have some overlap in our theoretical leanings, but we are not currently planning any collaboration other than my hosting him. However, it has been an absolute please to work with SAR and to host Saladdin here [at Whitman].