Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Guest entry by Mina Rajagopalan, faculty fellow, The City

As I approach the end of my tenure at the Draper Program, it is hard to not write this blog post from a place that’s marked by both incredulousness and melancholy. Incredulousness, because three years living in Greenwich Village and six semesters of urban theorizing at Draper have flown by far too quickly. Melancholy, because in many ways I feel (perhaps not unlike most of my Draper students) that I have only just opened the book on teaching and researching urban studies. But looking back on my time at Draper, I am also humbled by my experiences as a professor and indeed amazed at my own learning curve through this process. The four different seminars that I have designed and taught at Draper; the discussions I was privileged to have with my students about neoliberalism in Dubai, or the gentrification of the Lower East Side; and the remarkable opportunity to advise and guide interdisciplinary theses have all broadened my own research perspective as well as my pedagogical foci.

It is often difficult for students to comprehend the profound influence that they make on their professors. Indeed, when I reflect upon my own time as a graduate student I am only able to conceive of myself as the awe-struck disciple of extremely erudite professors who seemed to possess bottomless pits of knowledge about their subjects. Yet, the minute the tables were turned and I was put in the position of teacher, I have known that the distinction between student and professor, particularly at the graduate level, is largely semantic. I don’t mean to suggest by the previous sentence, that I am one of those professors who is unaware of her responsibilities or duties towards my students. I believe in coming to each class prepared to guide discussion, support collegial debate and as most of my students will attest I am not shy about passing on varying amounts of knowledge to them in class or outside of it. Nor am I a professor who is comfortable with unnecessarily blurring the social boundaries between myself and my graduate students by being Facebook friends with them (this only happens after they graduate from Draper) or making merry with them after class or office hours. What I mean by challenging the distinction between student and professor in the graduate classroom, is to suggest that often the weekly seminars are as generative for me in terms of rethinking my own research as they have (hopefully) been for the students. Indeed, the times that I have walked away from a Draper seminar when I did not learn something new from my students, where my own ideologies haven’t been called into question (an uncomfortable but valuable lesson); when I have had to defend and thereby articulate my position about a particular theory, text, or even historical assumption have been few and far between.

The same is true for the Master’s theses that I have been fortunate to advise whilst at Draper. In supervising interdisciplinary theses I have been enormously inspired by not just the imagination behind these projects but also the intellectual transformations that each of my advisees experiences through the process of framing, investigating and composing their research into a tangible document. Meanwhile the challenge of editing graduate theses has been an eye-opening lesson in terms of my own research writing. Even as I have admonished each of my advisees to be more forceful and precise with their language, to steer clear of “bloggy” writing styles, and instructed them to pare down unnecessary jargon I have been reminded of the shortcomings in my own research writing, namely its lack of economy, passivity and my perverse fondness for run-on sentences. I can hardly claim to be free of all the latter discursive malaises in three short years, indeed there’s a way to go yet in terms of sprucing up my writing. But the important lesson for me has been to read my own work as I would a student’s and hold myself to those same standards of clarity and precision.

Well, I hardly meant this blog post to turn into a sentimental paean to my students, and certainly there have been challenges along the way. For the Draper faculty fellows, trying to keep the focus on our own specialized research subjects whilst exposing our students to interdisciplinary and comparative debates of the general fields in which we teach is a balancing act to say the least. In addition, each of us feels the constant pressure to keep ourselves visible in our chosen disciplinary tracks by publishing and attending conferences. Then there are the push-pull factors that working and living in New York presents. Essentially, the struggle represented by choices such as: should I stay in my office and work on this overdue publication or meet my friends at that new gallery opening in Chelsea? But despite all of this, here I am in my last semester at Draper feeling immensely grateful to each and every one of my students and advisees for the arc of education that they have perhaps unwittingly set me upon.

At a recent dinner conversation, I was asked what I would miss most about New York when it came time to leave in December. I will certainly miss my ritual of walking through Washington Square Park during the first snow of the season. I might miss my weekly treats from Sammy’s halal cart on W. 4th street and the chance to speak Urdu with him as he prepares my extra-extra-spicy chicken and rice. I know I’ll miss the reading room of the New York Public Library and the bright light streaming through the clerestory windows on crisp fall days. I’ll probably even miss waiting for the erratic A-train and might even regret cursing the MTA when I am living somewhere that doesn’t have a tenth of the public transport infrastructure that this city has. I am certainly going to miss drinking my morning tea while looking at the spectacular view of downtown from my 16th floor balcony at NYU’s faculty housing. But I know that what I will miss most, is the feeling that I get when I open the door to the Draper conference room at 6 p.m. on Mondays. The feeling that at the end of my class I will be transformed in some valuable way by my students—all in a matter of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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