In 1984, the Committee of Six selected political science professor Amrita Basu, along with Frederick Griffiths, Stephanie Sandler, David Sofield and Marguerite Waller, to conduct an investigation that would result in the “Report on Conditions for Faculty Women.” This document had rippling effects, including the creation of the Department of Women & Gender Studies (now Sexuality, Women’s & Gender Studies).
We recently asked Basu, Domenic J. Paino 1955 Professor of Political Science and SWAGS, to look back to those days and compare them to the Amherst of today. The former director of the Five-College Women’s Studies Research Center, she has written a book on women’s activism in India, edited two anthologies on global women’s movements and recently published a book on religious nationalist violence in India. She teaches courses on social movements, women’s activism and postcolonial nationalism.
Q: How was student life different in your early years at Amherst?
A: When I arrived in 1981, Amherst had been co-ed for five years. It was a steep adjustment for women. They came into a very male-dominated culture. They were impressive and strong women who were academically successful in a challenging environment. The student body was much more homogeneous then than is today. There was a strong fraternity culture. Important changes began in the 1980s and have continued to this day.
Q: How has your teaching changed over the years?
A: When I first came here, there was an assumption that, because we had expertise in a certain field of research, we would know how to teach about it. We’ve become much more attentive as an institution to our pedagogical techniques and more interested in adapting our teaching styles to the interests and needs of the student body.
I give students more feedback on their writing and help them develop research skills. I try toassign less reading and to discuss the reading I assign in greater depth. I make fewer assumptions about the background students have about the subject matter of my courses.
I also try to forge connections between what's going on in students’ lives and in the outside world. I teach a course on "Political Identities" in which I’m especially interested in the relationship between personal and political identities.
I think there's been a culture shift at Amherst, a shift in the direction of less lecturing, more seminar-oriented classrooms and more attention to helping students develop their abilities to listen, speak and communicate.
Q: Today you’re more likely than before to have students who have personal experiences with the postcolonial world, which is your main area of interest. How does that fact change the classroom discussion?
A: Having a more diverse group of international students means that they're able to appreciate, understand and relate to these issues more. I think this has made teaching here much more exciting.
Q: How is the field of women’s and gender studies evolving?
A: First, there’s been an increased emphasis on sexuality, and we have more faculty members whose research concerns sexuality. Many students are interested in the ways in which sexuality has destabilized traditional gender categories. One of my colleagues will be teaching a course on transgender issues next year.
Second, the field is increasingly interested in the intersections of gender and race, class and transnational issues. It's become increasingly clear that one can't think about gender without thinking about the ways in which gender and women's identities have different significance and meaning depending on how they're interpolated with other identities, both locally and globally.
Q: How have advances in technology and connectivity changed how you do your work?
A: I was part of this experiment called the Global Classroom Project, in which some of us co-taught courses with a faculty member in another country. I co-taught with a colleague in India. We had students read the same texts at Nehru University in New Delhi, India, and here at Amherst College, and talk to each other about these texts.
One class session, on student activism, took place when there was a huge student strike in Nehru University. For students to be able to compare their experiences of being involved in student protest here and there was phenomenal. I loved having students converse with their peers in India and to replicate my own experience of collaborating in my research with Indian colleagues.