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"Reacting to the Past"- interacting with the cultures and histories of India and Pakistan

In the Fall semester 2007, Prof. Murphy Halliburton's cultural anthropology course Peoples of South Asia (Anthropology 208W) used a variety of writing assignments and pedagogical techniques to interact with the cultures and histories of India and Pakistan. After an introduction to South Asian history, the course engaged in a "Reacting to the Past" game (a type of pedagogical role-playing game developed at Barnard College) called Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945 in which students recreated a meeting in Simla, India in 1945 where delegates negotiated the future of the Indian subcontinent during the waning of the British occupation of India. Students were assigned to play actual historical roles, such as Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, and Jawaharlal Nehru, and were required to write and orally present papers advocating their proposals for the future disposition of India.

Students devoted themselves to learning about their roles through assigned readings and outside research and often stayed long after class had ended to negotiate political deals with other student-delegates. Reacting papers were written in the voice of the historical character and incorporated materials from student readings and research. A group of students who comprised the delegates of the Indian National Congress party, on their own initiative, produced additional written documents that presented a platform and organizational model for a future government of India. They distributed this proposal to other student representatives in an effort to win them over to supporting their efforts to maintain a unified Indian state rather than partitioning the subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. By granting key concessions to Muhammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, the Congress members were successful and their referendum passed resulting in a single, unified India and no separate state of Pakistan. Many students were passionate about the game and often continued debating their positions in character in the hall outside the classroom long after class had finished.

After the Reacting game was completed, students were required to write more "traditional" academic papers on readings in cultural anthropology and South Asia studies, such as analyses of the meanings and implications of the caste system and an ethnographic study of consumption and social mobility in an Indian village. Since Prof. Halliburton believes that getting to know a culture should involve not only studying the history and social practices of a region but should also include engagement with the sights, sounds and other sensory and embodied aspects of culture, later in the semester, students wrote what was known as an "aesthetics paper." In this assignment, students were asked to discuss the visual, gustatory and aural experiences they encountered during a visit to a South Asian restaurant and an in-class viewing of a Bollywood movie.

When asked to give their reactions to the various writing assignments, students explained that one thing they appreciated about the aesthetics assignment was how it allowed them to interpret their own experience in their writing as opposed to discussing the research of others, which is ordinarily what is done in much social science coursework. Students felt this assignment made their engagement with culture more direct and less disembodied, and one student explained "you don't forget what you learn [in the aesthetics paper] because you experienced it." Students felt that they learned a lot from the more traditional academic essay, but they were able to write a more clearly focused and communicative paper in describing their personal aesthetic experience. Prof. Halliburton in his reaction to these assignments found the aesthetics papers often more articulate than other assignments. The strong point about papers from the Reacting game meanwhile was that they had an argument that was more focused and a narrative that was more structured than the assignments based on readings and lectures. One student felt that the rhetoric in the Reacting papers involved a "rallying tone" as they attempted to get a reaction from classmates. The Reacting papers did not, however, engage with reading materials as thoroughly as the more traditional academic essays.

Overall, it appeared that students benefited from a variety of styles of writing, and each type of assignment-the Reacting papers, the aesthetics paper and the traditional social science essay-had its own advantages in terms of whether it brought out a focused argument in relation to historical events, a clear articulation of personal experience or a reaction to social science research on South Asia.

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