S. Asian major easier said than done

Despite piquing the interest of a handful of students on campus, Yale College’s first new major in almost a decade is still sorting through some initial growing pains.

After a joint effort by students and faculty last year enshrined South Asian Studies in the Yale College curriculum, the major has seen early signs of interest among students this year. But both undergraduates and professors said a wider variety of courses and professors are needed to offer a more complete understanding of the region, and students complained about what they called the major’s “burdensome” language requirement.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted unanimously to approve the major last year, Yale’s first new major since cognitive science was approved in 1999. Students can only declare South Asian Studies as a second major.

Phyllis Granoff, chair of the South Asian Studies Council — which administers the major in lieu of a formal department — and the major’s director of undergraduate studies, estimated there are currently four or five declared South Asian Studies majors.

“Our courses have been very well subscribed this semester,” Granoff said. “I certainly do think that more students are going to major in South Asian Studies.”

Professors on the Council and students in the South Asian Society characterized last year’s effort to establish the major as a collaboration between faculty and undergraduates. Talk of a South Asian Studies major at Yale had been around for several years, but an organized push did not find traction until last year, said Ruchita Poddar ’09, a former cultural chair of the group.

“We had discussed it a couple times, but nothing had materialized,” Poddar said.

Last year South Asian Society created a board position with the express purpose of lobbying faculty for a major. Students circulated a petition to gauge interest in the major — which Poddar said garnered hundreds of signatures — and took inventory of currently available courses that could fit under the major. Granoff submitted the proposal to the Committee on Majors, and it was formally approved last spring.

“South Asian students have been wonderful in supporting South Asia so that there’s more awareness of South Asia on campus,” Granoff said.

That same partnership between faculty and students is continuing into this year. Vidur Sehgal ’10, the Society’s current South Asian Studies Action chair, said he is working to gauge feedback about the major from students with Granoff, and said the Society regularly advertises the Council’s guest speakers and events through its student panlist.

But students who lobbied for the major or are declared South Asian Studies majors complained about the lack of range of courses offered.

“It can kind of fall out of favor, so to speak, if we don’t offer a greater diversity of classes,” Poddar said. “I was thinking about a South Asian religion class this semester but there weren’t that many listed. I thought there would be more.”

The South Asian religion courses offered this semester are “Introduction to Indian Philosophy” and “World Religions and Ecology.”

Poddar, who is an international student from Bombay, India, said she herself is not considering declaring as a South Asian Studies major — because she would not be learning anything new.

“It’s a great major for students of South Asian descent, but who were born and brought up in America,” Poddar said.

Linguistics professor Stanley Insler, who teaches Sanskrit, said he would like to see more of an emphasis on the ancient history of India.

And Govind Rangrass ’08, who will be the first student to graduate as a South Asian Studies major, said there is currently not enough emphasis on the issues of north India. Rangrass, a citizen of India until last year, is from the Punjab region of northern India.

Another concern among students is the hefty language requirement of the major. Those interested in completing the curriculum are obligated to gain advanced-level proficiency in one South Asian language and complete the beginning level in a second language, in addition to taking seven courses relating to the region.

For those previously unexposed to any South Asian languages, Rangrass said the major would require a daunting dedication of time that may scare off some students, especially since it can be taken only as a second major.

“If the major wants to attract people from a non-South Asian background, they’re going to have to make that requirement less burdensome,” Rangrass said.

But he added, “One language doesn’t get you far in India at all. You’re in a bit of a predicament.”

Senior Hindi lector Seema Khurana said the major’s language requirement is on par with that of other institutions. The University of Pennsylvania requires its majors to study one South Asian language up to the intermediate level, while Harvard University allows students to choose between two years of studying either Sanskrit or both Hindi and Urdu.

“If you don’t really have the grasp of the language, you don’t really get the sense of the people and the sense of that area,” Khurana said.

Insler said because most of the South Asian languages are closely related, except for Tamil, the two-language requirement is not very difficult to fulfill.

“It’s comparable to learning Italian and picking up Spanish,” Insler said.

Demand in Hindi was so high this year at the introductory and advanced levels, Khurana said, that the original part-time faculty member hired last year was asked to teach more courses than originally planned. Khurana and lector Katherine Good are each teaching two sections of elementary Hindi to accommodate the approximately 35 students enrolled in the course. Khurana said she would like to see another full-time Hindi lector hired soon to meet demand.

In addition to Hindi, Yale currently offers formal instruction in Tamil and Sanskrit. Students can take Urdu through the Directed Independent Language Study program run through the Center for Language Study.

Granoff and Insler said there is a push to offer Urdu formally as early as next year. In November, the Council submitted a proposal to the Provost’s Office about launching a search for an Urdu lector but Insler said they have not heard word back yet.

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