Course Spotlight: India Today

Contemporary India course makes connections across disciplines

By Erin Crews 09C 09G

At Emory’s third-annual India Summit in March, newly appointed Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao called for broad, multidisciplinary study of India at American institutions. “You’ve studied China very intensely in this country,” she said, “and I would like to bring up that there is a need for the study of India in a very deep and intense way in US universities—not just focused on one area or the other, but in a more integrated, multisectoral sort of manner.”

Among the audience were students and faculty involved in a new university course, India Today: Economics, Politics, Innovation, and Sustainability, which is leading the way toward a truly interdisciplinary approach to teaching and studying modern India.

Each week the class draws on the expertise of Emory faculty in disciplines as wide-ranging as public health, literature, religion, business, and economics—as well as a slew of distinguished guest speakers such as Ambassador Rao, development expert Pranab Bardhan, and novelist Salman Rushdie. 

“Because of the diversity of perspectives and approaches represented by professors from different disciplines, the course offers students the opportunity to examine the current state of affairs in India prismatically, from social, economic, literary, and political angles,” says Associate Professor of English Deepika Bahri, who led class sessions on Bollywood, media, and the novel. “They are learning that India today cannot be understood without a sense of the Indias of the past,” she continues, noting that multiple sociopolitical and economic realities coexist within the India of the imagination. “India is best understood today, as it always was, through a conversation with the rest of the world.”

Led by economics department chair Elena Pesavento and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Media and International Affairs Holli Semetko, the core team of faculty includes Bahri, Distinguished Visiting Professor of History and Political Science Marion Creekmore, and religion professor Joyce Flueckiger. Students also benefit from lectures by Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing Jagdish Sheth, Director of Goizueta Business School’s Global Perspectives Program Jeff Rosensweig, and Manoj Jain, who teaches in the Rollins School of Public Health. 

“We’ve all had a great experience this semester and we are planning to teach India Today annually in the spring term for the coming years,” says Pesavento.

Growing impact on the world stage

“India—with its functioning democracy, booming and innovative economy, strong security establishment, and large population—is playing an increasingly important role in world affairs,” says Creekmore, who is also a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Halle Institute for Global Learning and has served as the US ambassador to Sri Lanka. “Depending on how one interprets the data, it has already emerged or will become one of the great powers of the 21st century. The India Today course immerses the students into these and many other aspects of Indian society, helping them appreciate the growing appeal and impact of India on global developments and on their personal lives.”

Creekmore also teaches an undergraduate class on South Asian politics that brings in diplomats from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as part of the Halle Institute’s Speaker Series. Semetko, who directs the institute, explained that providing a diversity of perspectives is crucial to the student experience.

“By offering the course during the spring semester to dovetail with the annual Sheth Lecture in Indian Studies”—which was delivered this year by K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India—“and the annual India Summit, we are able to give students unique opportunities to engage with topics outside their major fields,” Semetko said.

Bringing the material to life

The curriculum is designed to move beyond the traditional boundaries of the classroom and to provide students the opportunity to create knowledge in real-world contexts. The class doesn’t just read articles about India’s foreign policy stances; they have dinner with the Indian ambassador to the United States. Students don’t simply write an essay about The Moor’s Last Sigh; they pepper Salman Rushdie with questions about the novel during a class discussion with the author himself.

The course attracted students with a wide range of interests and motivations for enrolling. Roma Bhatia 12C, a biology major from Michigan planning a career in medicine and public health, appreciated that students can incorporate their own goals and interests into assignments. “Because of my interest in chronic disease, I was able to learn from public health professors like Dr. Manoj Jain who are on the cutting edge of developing health promotion campaigns in India about ‘lifestyle’ diseases like CVD and diabetes,” Bhatia said. “As a future physician who hopes to work in India professionally, understanding how Indians perceive health and how they utilize health care resources has helped me to think about how to develop a successful public health campaign for India.”

Vivek Gidumal 13C, an economics major from New York, echoed Bhatia’s sentiments. “The content of the class was fantastic and the freedom we had in choosing our final papers was especially rewarding.”

Erin Crews 09C 09G is editor of Emory in the World.

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