Q & A with Fulbright Recipient Shealeen Meaney, Ph.D.

Professor and Fulbright recipient Shealeen Meaney in Goa India.

Professor and Fulbright recipient Shealeen Meaney in Goa India.

As Sage’s most recent Fulbright Fellowship recipient, Associate Professor of English Shealeen Meaney, Ph.D., is spending winter 2017-2018 teaching American Literature and Women’s Studies at Goa University, which is the graduate institution for the state of Goa in India.

In this Q & A, she shares how the vibrant location connects to her expertise in travel and environmental literature; how the experience will enrich her teaching when she returns to Sage; and how Sage’s previous Fulbright recipients (she is the sixth in recent years!) inspired her.

The full interview appears below. Click here to read a condensed version.

What attracted you to India and to Goa, more specifically?

I did apply specifically to be at Goa University, but I did not know whether I would actually be posted here. At the application stage Fulbright warns that there are no guarantees that you will be sent to the university or college that you propose to visit, even if you have a letter of invitation, so I was very excited that I was offered a place at Goa University.

Goa itself I had read about often, both in historical travel accounts and in more contemporary cultural narratives of tourism. It was a very early colonial contact zone as well as an Inquisition site, and it remained a Portuguese outpost amidst British India, so it is really a fascinating place. It has a blend of Hindu and Catholic cultures (there is quite a lot of in-migration, so there is also a growing Muslim presence, among others) and locals are quick to tell you about the ways it is different from the rest of India. Today it is best known as a beach tourism destination, which makes it particularly interesting to me as a scholar of travel and tourism – and as a scuba diver and ocean-obsessed person. I grew up on the Connecticut coast and I have always remained a coastal person at heart, so I am drawn to peoples and cultures who are shaped by the sea.

I was also looking for a university with an interest in offering courses in my field, and Goa University offers M.A. programs in both English and Women’s Studies, so it seemed like a perfect place to offer myself as a resource.

Miramar Beach, next to Professor Meaney's apartment in Goa, India.

Miramar Beach, next to Professor Meaney’s apartment in Goa, India.

Please tell me a little bit more about your research and Goa’s connection to it.

Well, in both my dissertation and subsequent research I have studied the writings of women who traveled to India, particularly American women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For both British and American women, traveling to and writing about India often provided a way of learning about other women’s lives and speaking about the issues they faced, pushing against the boundaries of conventional womanhood at home, and asserting their voices publicly on the domestic and world stages. Their representations of India’s cultures and peoples were, as we might expect, often quite problematic, but they are likely interesting to me for just this reason.

I have written about and given many conference papers on the writings of these traveling women, so India seemed like a logical destination for me as a scholar. In fact, this past year I spent some of my break in the University of California at Santa Barbara archives reading the handwritten travel journals of a woman who had moved to India with her family in the late 19th century because her husband had been granted a consulate post to Calcutta. Her story was interesting to me because it was so different from the stories I had heard before – she didn’t want to be in India and, by and large, did not like it.

I had read so many accounts of India that it seemed like I just had to see it for myself. I was also fascinated by the India that I encountered in my readings for the WORLD* courses I taught, and the clear dichotomy in the US and global media between India as site of yoga pilgrimages and enlightenment and India as a nation marked by violence against women and residual caste prejudices.

Cows on Calangute Beach in Goa.

Cows on Calangute Beach in Goa.

What are you teaching at Goa University?

My project is a teaching project entitled “Re-Mapping Identities: American Literatures of Encounter, Place, Community, and Self” and I offered to teach courses, give lectures, and help with program development related to it. As part of this, I offered an emphasis on women’s literature and feminist pedagogies and cultural studies. The broad topic clearly taps into my own scholarship and teaching background and it also seemed to me to be one that was a good fit for India – and for Goa in particular.

I am teaching a five-credit graduate course in American Literature, which meets twice a week for three hours at a time. Here in Goa, there is a set curriculum for each course and this curriculum has been approved at both departmental and institutional levels. In July, I was sent a draft of the existing American Literature course, which I was told had not been revised in 20 years. I was encouraged to revise the course and increase the credits assigned to it, which I did. The course then went through departmental revision (in light of what future faculty would do with it and how it fit with the standard undergraduate curriculum) and then was approved for me to teach this year.

I have also been invited to give lectures on American Literature by several of the undergraduate colleges affiliated with Goa University and to offer lectures in the Contemporary Feminist Thought course in the MA program in Women’s Studies at Goa University.

The English building at Goa University.

The English building at Goa University.

Are there any surprising differences or similarities between your classes at Goa University, and at Sage?

Well, yes and no. I am teaching a survey of American literature, which is familiar territory for me, but the texts and the structure of the course are less familiar. Since this is a graduate course and not an undergraduate survey, it is focused on fewer than a dozen authors which we study in some depth. This has meant I need to do some research on authors and texts that I have not delved deeply into in the past.

In keeping with the norms of Goa University, it is also largely a lecture course. Unlike the small graduate seminars that I took myself and the seminars that I have taught for Sage Graduate School, this graduate course has 40 students enrolled in it and there is not an expectation that there will be extensive group discussion and shared knowledge production. There are 75 lecture hours assigned over the course of the semester and, as I understand it, students are expected to attend the lectures largely to listen, think, and occasionally ask a question. Rather than research papers there is a structure of assessment examinations and what they call “student seminars” (presentations).

Since I am coming from a different tradition, I do deviate from this somewhat and try to pull students into conversation with the text, but different students have different levels of comfort with this (as, indeed, they do at home) and, I am sure, with the foreign professor in their midst.

I am looking forward to the seminars which will involve pairs of students presenting their research in class. I know from my one-on-one conversations with the students that they are curious and insightful, so I am eager to hear them share their ideas with their peers.

In the coming months I will have opportunities to meet with undergraduates from the colleges and graduate students in Women’s Studies, so I am sure that my understanding of the educational system here will evolve through those experiences.

Vendors at the St. Francis Xavier Feast Festival in Goa.

Vendors at the St. Francis Xavier Feast Festival in Goa.

How do you expect your experience in India will enrich your teaching when you return to Sage?

Really, this question is one that I could write forever about, even after only three weeks in India. There are the obvious connections between the WORLD* courses I teach and the opportunity to live and work with women in another part of the world. There is the opportunity to meet and talk to people working on women’s, environmental, and development issues here in India.

There is the immense value of learning about American literature and culture as it is seen through the perspectives of people from other cultures. There is the challenge of teaching in a lecture format that is unfamiliar to me and that pushes me to prepare for courses in new ways, not only in terms of doing research and organizing lectures, but in terms of thinking about creative ways to pull in these particular students.

I’m going to force myself to stop at three main ideas here. The big one is the great value of being dislocated and destabilized. I am alone in a strange place, navigating new territories and meeting new people who don’t share my values and assumptions. I am hot and tired and overstimulated much of the time. On the bus to school, at the market in the afternoons, and walking the city beach at sunset I am generally the only white face (well, red and blotchy, really). I am often the only woman moving through these spaces alone and people (usually men) constantly ask to take selfies with me (something I am still working through my thoughts about). In the resort beach towns north of me I understand there are many European tourists, but they don’t seem to feature much in the Panaji spaces I inhabit daily and I haven’t ventured up to their part of Goa yet. There is immense value in all of this. Don’t get me wrong, I am neither unsafe nor unhappy – my Indian colleagues are here to help and two local former Fulbrighters have reached out to offer aid should I need it, I have a comfortable apartment to escape to when India overwhelms my introverted self, and I have met kind and welcoming people at the local yoga center who are quick to offer advice on local living. Honestly, I am already thinking that I must do this again sometime.

I’m going to quote from the opening of my Fulbright application here as it so obviously applies to my work at Sage. I was writing about literature, but my work and my life are so clearly in synch here:

As a scholar and teacher of travel and environmental literature I am always interested in the ways that we understand ourselves in new contexts – that is, in relation to new places, people, and cultures. What do we bring with us when we leave home and how does what we bring (our assumptions, values, experiences, and even our sense of “self”) shape what we experience, learn, and carry away when we once again move on. What happens when (and if) we return “home?” How do encounters with otherness shape our understanding of ourselves? Of our home cultures? Of our world? What is our impact on the “others” we encounter (and represent)? How might we meaningfully re-map our identities through encounters with those others and what does it mean to discover what geographer Doreen Massey has called “a global sense of place?” These are only a few of the questions that I propose to explore during a Fulbright experience in India.”

Yoga studio entrance in Goa, India.

Yoga studio entrance in Goa, India.

You are the sixth Fulbright scholar from Sage in the last few years – remarkable for a small university! Did any of the former Fulbright recipients at Sage inspire your interest in pursuing the opportunity and/or offer advice?

Yes! Even as an undergraduate student I had heard of Fulbright Awards and by the time I was in my Ph.D. program I knew enough to know that a Fulbright experience was one of the great opportunities that a career in academia might make possible. That said, as a teacher at a small college with no book to my name, I hardly felt like a competitive candidate for such an award. However Professor of History & Society Andor Skotnes, Ph.D., is quite the advocate for Fulbright. He has had two Fulbright Awards [Tokyo, Japan, 2000 and Nitra, Slovakia, 2011] and he regularly encourages his Sage colleagues to apply for them. His encouragement made this seem like a much more reachable goal, and once I had earned the award, the insights of colleagues like Professor of Economics Manijeh Sabi, Ph.D. [Dushanbe, Tajikistan, 2009], Pam Katz, J.D. [Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2012-2013] and Michael Musial [Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016] helped me to know that it was not an experience I wanted to miss.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Emerita Professor of Biology Dorothy Matthews, Ph.D., also received a Fulbright to conduct research in Gabarone, Botswana, in 2015-2016.

Scene from the Goa Arts and Literature Festival.

Scene from the Goa Arts and Literature Festival.

Is there anything that you would like to add?

I am so happy to be here. I am fortunate beyond words. Goa is a vibrant place, full of festivals and celebrations, and I have no end of opportunities to meet people and learn about the cultures here. I recently attended the Goa Arts and Literature Festival (featuring a colleague) and an Arts Festival with events focused on Goan Cooking, Goan Visual Arts, Goan Fashion and everything else you can imagine. And to be by the sea is bliss to me. A new sea for me. The Arabian Sea. The sea is the sea and yet it is always new.

*WORLD is an acronym for Women Owning Responsibility for Learning and Doing, Russell Sage College’s general education program. The team-taught, interdisciplinary curriculum studies women’s lives through the lens of historical, cultural, global, and systemic forces that shape women’s opportunities.