PhD Comprehensive Exams or How I arrived at my research questions

I took a break from writing my blog pieces because I had to focus on my PhD comprehensive exams. However, I knew that at some point I will be writing about the PhD comprehensive exams in detail because one of the ways I process things is through writing (the other is through talking to colleagues who listen to me rant). I passed my exams today and I am back to writing on this blog.

At University of Pittsburgh, there are multiple components in the PhD comprehensive exams:

a) First, I had to form a committee of three members who would be examining me.

b) In the next step, I had to write a comprehensive exams proposal (roughly 10 pages) and a working bibliography. The scope of the project exams is usually bigger than the dissertation but not as generic as Postcolonial Studies or Environmental Humanities. It needs to be a little more specific than that.

c) After I had a meeting with my amazing committee members about my comprehensive exam proposal, I wrote two papers of substantial length (nearly 35 pages each). So basically 70 pages of writing that went through numerous drafts and revisions.

d) After the papers were ready, I took my two-timed written exams based on the bibliography and the papers. I took them on two consecutive days. Each written exam was 3 hours and I had to answer two questions on each day.

e) Finally, the oral examination.

What I am really interested in writing today is not the process or the mechanics that I described above but what I really learnt about my scholarship in the process.

Architecture of Research Questions

When I entered grad school in 2018, I was more generally interested in the politics and poetics of water in South Asia. I wrote in my Statement of Purpose for graduate school, “How does the tension between water as a material entity and its ordering into spatial forms enable us in imagining alternative forms of sovereignty and citizenship for the nation-state? How do we theorize conflict over water, especially in relation to its spaces, through forms of hydrological thinking such as flow, depth, surface and network? What are the specific forms of violence and knowledge structures (such as affluence/poverty, high caste/low caste, urban/rural, sacred/profane, abundance/scarcity) that emerge because of our encounter with spaces of water and water as a resource in South Asia?”

After four years, I can tell that my questions are different. Thinking about conflict and water as a resource are valuable frameworks but those are not the questions that I am drawn towards anymore.

Instead, my questions in relation to Indian Ocean archipelagic writings look something like this:

At a time when two of the primary lenses of looking at Indian Ocean archipelagos are either climate crisis or militarization, how does Indian Ocean literary studies construct liveability in the archipelagos? What can tracking the ordinary and common-place encounters in Indian Ocean archipelagic writings tell us about liveability, rather than following a narrative, where only the ‘grand’ or an ‘event’ gains prominence? Pursuing these questions forces me to confront further inquiries: how do the archipelagos grapple with the history of empire and neocolonialism, while also imagining a just future for themselves? How does our understanding of these literary histories change when we are grounded in off-shore archipelagos rather than the continental landmass?

So how did I arrive at these questions?

For context, I had a background in Indian Ocean Studies from my M.A. and then M.Phil. I was introduced to the field of Indian Ocean Studies during my MA when I took a class on “Literatures of Australia and New Zealand” offered by Dr. Nilanjana Deb. I wrote an MA dissertation on the Ibis Trilogy focusing on the chronotope of the ship and then subsequently an MPhil dissertation on how the river Hugli serves as a vehicle of imperial governance in late 19th century and early 20th century Bengal.

When I was writing my SOP, I knew that although I was writing it as a South Asian studies scholar, I would come back to Indian Ocean studies. In the meanwhile, I was introduced to Black Feminist Studies during my PhD coursework. It changed my life. Forever. I read Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, Tiffany Lethabo King and it changed the way I thought about scholarship, politics, method, ethnography and archives. These went on to significantly shape the way I think about the ordinary or the everyday in relation to Indian Ocean aesthetics. To be clear, there are multiple ways of thinking about ordinariness, as an aesthetic category in Indian Ocean archipelagic writings, especially considering the rich and multilingual textual traditions that Indian Ocean Studies draws from. But what I think, ordinariness as a concept does for me is that it recenters liveability beyond survival and resilience and foregrounds different models of worldmaking.

However, when I was writing my comprehensive exams proposal on “The Indian Ocean in the Postcolonial Anthropocene: Theory, Literature and Art”, I did not think about ordinariness at all. There was nothing in my bibliography on the ordinary and the everyday. Rather, I focused on three sites/movements ( underwater, archipelago and tidalectics) to ask: How does Indian ocean studies shape Postcolonial Anthropocene and vice versa? During the course of writing my examination papers, I engaged carefully and deeply with Postcolonial Anthropocene, rather than an outright rejection or a celebration of the term. This made me pay more attention to how climate justice was being talked about in Indian Ocean literary studies texts. I noticed that the vocabulary offered by climate justice was often couched in very quotidian and mundane details rather than the catastrophic. It was at this moment that I knew what I was interested in exploring for my potential dissertation.

I was interested in the textured nature of everyday living and how literary studies configures that. I rethink ordinariness as a critique of capital in Indian ocean archipelagic writings, but I am also interested in understanding where it does not hold up. That’s how I arrived at the question of liveability through aesthetics.

I can say that it’s a fantastic time to be doing Indian Ocean studies. I have learnt a lot from my interlocutors: my amazing exam committee members Dr. Shalini Puri, Dr. Neepa Majumdar, Dr. Troy Boone who have challenged my thinking about aesthetics and politics; my friend and colleague Dr. Neelofer Qadeer’s work on Afro-Asia; Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Ari Gautier’s project on Le Thinnai Kreyol ( I have to acknowledge that I somewhat disagree on how they have conceived the archipelago so far in the project, but I still find it provocative and productive); Camelia Dewan’s work on Sunderbans ; Isabel Hofmeyr’s much awaited book on Dockside Reading and what I think is going to be very crucial work on Indian Sunderbans by Barnamala Roy and Pritha Kundu. Watch out for their work!

I am grateful for the community of Indian Ocean Studies scholars and pleased to be in scholarly dialogue with them in my work.

Onwards…

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