Published: 11th October 2022
UNESCO Chair in Vulnerability Studies UoH's Prof Pramod K Nayar talks literature, language and King Lear
University of Hyderabad’s Prof Pramod K Nayar talks with us as the new UNESCO Chair in Vulnerability Studies
“Are you a literature student?” asks Prof Pramod K Nayar, 15 minutes into our interview with him. For someone who has been asking the questions so far, this stumps me for a second. In that split second, I reflect on the question he posed. What gave away the fact that, indeed, I am an ardent student of literature for life. Was is it my incessant line of questioning on literary studies or the dismal condition of research in the fields of Arts and Humanities?
Can you blame me though? This was my first-ever conversation with the new UNESCO Chair in Vulnerability Studies, Prof Pramod K Nayar. We all, of course, know him from the books he wrote, especially on literary theory. They have been my trusted friends throughout my college days. Frankly, the professor himself needs no introduction in the literary studies world, he has been a stalwart in his field with multiple publications and awards. The honour of being the UNESCO Chair in Vulnerability Studies is the latest one bestowed on him. But when we connect with him, he is as erudite as we expect him to be and, we discover, perceptive as well! What else would spur him to guess that I am a literature student?
Anyway, I am rambling. That's because it is rare to be able to interview the UNESCO Chair, but it is rarer to be able to converse with a professor whose works one has read and revered throughout their academic life. Anyway, back to his question. “Are you a literature student?” When we reply in the affirmative, just like that, our interview with the professor turns into a conversation.
UNESCO Chair in Vulnerability Studies and the directives that come with it
For the uninitiated, Prof Nayar is a professor at the University of Hyderabad, Department of English and has recently been awarded the prestigious UNESCO Chair in Vulnerability Studies. With the directive to develop Teaching and Research programmes in the field of Vulnerability Studies to further shape it, the Chair will be located in the Department of English of the University of Hyderabad. “We will offer online courses, open education resources, workshops and courses to anybody in the country or abroad. It is a free space where we are allowed to design programmes within the ambit of the chair's projects," says Prof Nayar and continues, “These will be offered to students within and outside the University. The limit of the chair is teaching and research which will then lead to publication.”
The prestigious Chair aims to work with other national and international UNESCO chairs and Prof Nayar will be heading a global team of 15 faculty members from multiple disciplines and on that note, he says, “It will be very challenging and interesting to lead such an eclectic team of scholars with contributions from legal experts, sociologists and of course, literary scholars, my parent discipline and there are international scholars and those who have worked on human rights.” He further adds, “So, it will be interesting to see the different kinds of inputs they bring to not only define vulnerability and vulnerable studies but also develop it for teaching.”
The goal of the UNESCO Chair is to further the United Nations’ agenda built especially around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The vulnerability discipline which will be shaped around the SDGs will, as per Prof Nayar, have domains like the climate crisis, poverty, gender with SDGs as the broader areas. Prof Nayar says, “We will keep things depending on the expertise available and see what we can do with it. That is exactly why the Chair was awarded because it fits into the UN’s agenda.”
Referring to Shakespeare and Charles Dickens
When we ask the professor about how will literary studies contribute to this agenda, he had a particularly interesting response. Explaining the ways in which literature helps us understand the ways of the world he says, “In literature, there are several representations of vulnerability; it could be the working class, gender, sexuality — people who have been rendered vulnerable in the course of history as represented in literature.”
Using the example of Shakespeare's old fool, King Lear, he emphasises the vulnerability of ageing and adds, “Literature is a prominent field in which the human is defined and through that, their rights are defined. The vulnerability in ageing is a persistent theme in literary works from the very early times to the present. Additionally, the representation of the working class in the works of Charles Dickens. So, vulnerable humans are made available to us in certain forms in literary representation.”
How the international connect will help UoH
This award brings the University of Hyderabad and its Department of English to the global platform which becomes very crucial for its internationalisation. Prof Nayar lists three ways in which this amplification of international connection will aid the institution: “First, the UN is a planetary level platform and thus, it puts us on the map for me to collaborate with the UNESCO Chairs in India as well as people from all over the world. Second, it brings different disciplinary experts to produce courses together for a lecture so our students will directly benefit from being able to listen to people from all over the world in various departments. The courses they design or the courses they provide will be open to students here in the university and outside. Finally, the third is that it enables the university and the department to be part of the UN’s larger goals — SDGs, education and others.”
Prof Nayar happens to be ranked 120th in the world in literary studies according to 2021 Stanford University studies. He is also the only academic in an Indian university in the top 200 in this discipline. We were intrigued about his journey so far. His response comes with a chuckle, “It was interesting to start with and also challenging because you have to work at a consistently high level of publication, so, the kind of research you do and the kind of places in which you publish are both at a global level. That is actually the journey — you constantly try to publish your works at very high levels. You’re seen in the company of very highly qualified and visible researchers in big journals and anthologies.” He continues, “Also if your research is cutting edge in areas that are innovative and people are looking for new things such as posthumanism, if your work is in those areas then again it is a very useful path to global visibility.”
As a student of literary studies ourselves who witnessed a vast discrepancy of research in India in Arts and Humanities compared to Scientific research; we sought Prof Nayar’s opinion on the same. Agreeing with us vehemently, he responds, “Absolutely right and there are a couple of unpleasant reasons.”
What ails Arts and Humanities research in India?
Following this we witness the professor’s energy peak as he lists the reasons we failed Arts and Humanities research in India: “First and foremost, in many cases, we have lost the rigour of our disciplinary methodologies. People who are not trained enough to read novels are beginning to read films and comics. If you do not have disciplinary methodologies rigorously done, it is impossible for you to do high-level research. Second, we are willing to compromise where we publish and what we publish as long as we have numbers. It isn’t the number of papers published that matters but the quality of papers and where you have published that matters. Arts and Humanities researchers, in my view, unfortunately, don’t think like that. Third, we have also refused to separate commentary from scholarly writing, so, an opinion piece is also deemed to be research. As a result, scientists are raising heads because they are only publishing in Quartile 1 journals in the journal citation rate, while we will be publishing anywhere.”
Discussing the bleak condition of research in Arts and Humanities, we highlight the University of Hyderabad’s high ranking when it comes to Arts and Humanities research in South Asia. We ask Prof Nayar’s advice on what is it that sets the University apart and what can be done to pull other Indian institutions up in this domain. Referring to his previous answer he says, “We will have to insist that a basic methodological rigour has to be emphasised, starting from MA term papers through your PhD to faculty publications.”
Stressing the importance of high-quality publications, the professor adds, “A Cambridge University publication is not the same as a publication from a third-grade publisher. We have to get that in the minds of people in all other institutions. We have to train the students to do a close reading for language and its discourse. We, on the other hand, only summarise it by paying attention to the politics rather than the actual working of the language in a text. We need to train students on this. Emphasis cannot be on finishing the syllabus.”
Prof Nayar also takes the example of Chemistry as he concludes to draw an analogy of how the basic foundation of scientific research is catered to, unlike that of literary studies, “To pull other institutions up you have to insist on a basic level of competence in reading and writing skills. In subjects like Chemistry, the basics are covered well. No matter where you are, the basic foundation of the periodic table has to be done but in the literature classroom, these foundations are not done. The methods of reading literature have been abandoned.”
Tips for the young literature enthusiasts
With that, we conclude our conversation with the professor as we move on to our final question: What would you say to the younger Indian generation who aspire to pursue literature and look up to you as an inspiration?
Guffawing at the question, Prof Nayar insists that he would probably need some time to think and come up with a response for that. He does so quite swiftly as he writes a speedy response via email to us: "I would suggest that those studying, or keen to study literature, should get their methodology right. Rigour in methodology — when reading poetry or fiction — is the foundation for all future work (reading, research, teaching). Even politics in and of a text comes to us through its language, its form, and unless we learn how to struggle with the language of a text what we are doing is summary, not analysis. And before we embark on glamorous "