Aparna Vaidik serves as Associate Prof, History, Ashoka University, Sonepat, Haryana. Before Ashoka, she taught at Georgetown University, US, and has worked with University of Delhi for five years. She did her Bachelor’s in History from St Stephen’s, New Delhi and her postgraduation in the same subject from University of Cambridge, UK. Her PhD in History was from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has guided many a PhD student in Classical Antiquity, the Russian Revolution, the History of Modern China and Japan, and more. She published her first book, Imperial Andamans — Colonial Encounter and Island History in 2010. Fresh from conducting a workshop on ‘The Jungle book and colonial imagination’, edex catches up with Prof Vaidik over a telephonic conversation.
Is this workshop and the other ones you conduct over the year, an attempt to make History interesting for our students?
Even without such workshops, History by itself is interesting. It is the approach that’s dampening students’ spirits. History is not about dates, chronology or memorising events, as it is made out to be. Besides getting your facts right, empathy and imagination is important for historians. Be it Mangal Pandey or Bhagat Singh, what you see in movies is starkly different from how it all happened in real life. You need to reproduce events in an imaginative manner without straying away from the actual facts, and make it interesting for children.
Mostly, students seem to tick History as an option only because they think it is a good foundation for UPSC or simply because they want to ride on the brand value of the college. Your opinion on the job opportunities History can provide so that students will view the subject in a different light.
As far as History is concerned, it is the big daddy of all subjects. If engineers can find jobs, so can those who studied History (chuckles). For example, at Ashoka, which is a liberal arts institute, we don’t just teach History as a major. While you study 12 History and its related electives over three years, you are also bound to study another set of 12 electives that could be anything from Mathematics to Computer Science. Such permutations and combinations can open up avenues in journalism, archaeology, museology, radio jockeying and public health amongst others.
How are private universities like Ashoka giving History education much needed fillip?
Pedagogically, we are different, say from Delhi University. We design our own syllabus and don’t chase textbooks. It is a different form of learning – there are a series of lectures, discussions and seminars that help students reflect on their own thinking. Our assignments are about students framing their own questions as opposed to just finding answers.
As an educator, how do you find today’s students?
Thankfully, our admission policy is such that only motivated students find themselves at Ashoka. Admission is not just based on your Class XII marks, but students are also tested on various parameters, as reflected in their essays and personal interviews. Of course, even after these, there are students who need a little nudge to get them focused in the class or on the subject.
Tells us about your observations on research in History.
I had been in America for seven years. When scholars from India come there, they are stunned by the facilities available. Indian scholars are much respected there for their knowledge. I would say that despite the limited facilities available here, we are at the cutting edge of research. We might be cash-strapped but that doesn’t translate into poor intellectual capital.
What challenges do you perceive in History education?
It is the perception of the subject that is playing truant most of the time. Just like Mathematics, children seem to love or hate History. They are scared only because they are taught badly. Interest issues could be addressed in terms of workshops such as the ones we conduct in Ashoka, where we see considerable attendance from students of Science or Commerce background. Teachers themselves aren’t convinced about their value. An overhaul of the approach to teaching is needed.