Traversing Crossroads

Homi Bhabha Shapes an Interdisciplinary Approach for the Mahindra Humanities Center

Professor Homi Bhabha, director of Harvard's Mahindra Humanities Center, rejects the idea that the center should only focus on pursuits that have traditionally been considered within the realm of the humanities: literature, art, and their related fields.

Professor Homi K. Bhabha
Homi K. Bhabha is Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center.

Instead, he said he strives to incorporate a multifaceted, interdisciplinary approach to the center’s pursuits, and to involve students and faculty members with a wide variety of expertise.

“Amongst ourselves, it’s not a humanities center,” he said. “It’s a crossroads of views, it’s a crossroads of beliefs, it’s a crossroads of faculty coming to us.”

This idea of a “crossroads” encapsulates Bhabha’s efforts to expand the scope of the material the Mahindra Center promotes discussion on.

As director, Bhabha has supported efforts to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, to bring together Harvard affiliates with different interests and backgrounds, and to make the humanities relevant to current events.

MIXING DISCIPLINES

Comparative Literature professor William M. Todd said the overall impact of the Humanities Center is “bringing to the discussion the subject of perspectives from a variety of disciplines.”

Bhabha believes that the Mahindra Center’s goal is to offer perspectives that extend beyond traditionally humanistic approaches.

“We also believe in thinking about history and architecture or the humanities and medicine or the question of mass incarceration and the concept of mercy,” Bhabha said. “So to bring in these different worlds, to make new constellations by bringing in different and often very diverse disciplinary worlds is something that we’ve been trying to do here.”

To describe the impact of these perspectives from “different worlds,” Bhabha said, “Your focus shifts from wanting to center yourself in any one discipline to trying to explore other worlds, other ideas and other visions from across the campus.”

As an example of the interdisciplinary activities the Mahindra Center hosts, Todd described a panel discussion about shame of which he was a participant.

Todd spoke about a paper on shame in Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works while Psychology professor Steven Pinker presented an article from a psychological point of view. In addition, Indo-Tibetan studies professor Robert Thurman from Columbia talked about shame in a religious context.

Moreover, Todd said the Mahindra Center has facilitated connections between people of various departments.

“It does really interesting work, and it’s [working with the Mahindra Center is] a good way to get to meet your colleagues across departmental boundaries,” Todd said.

Bhabha said his implementation of the faculty lunches where faculty across campus convene has been “one of our most successful events.”

Regarding faculty lunches, Dean of Arts and Humanities Robin Kelsey said the faculty lunches have had a “tremendous effect” on him. According to Kelsey, faculty members who work in the humanities at Harvard or in related fields make an appearance at the humanities center over lunch and share some of their work with their colleagues.

“It’s hard to think of another initiative that’s done more to connect incoming faculty members to their colleagues across Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the University than the faculty lunches,” Kelsey said.

Comparative Literature department chair David Damrosch said Bhabha has been influential in creating this interdisciplinary approach.

“Homi’s been very much interested in reaching out and building bridges between the humanities and other parts of the University, other perspectives,” he said.

‘READY FOR ACTION’

The Mahindra Center is also studying current events under Bhabha’s leadership. Bhabha said he believes that, in order to conduct these explorations, the center must approach them from a variety of cultural perspectives.

Comparative Literature lecturer Cécile Guédon said that she appreciated that the center provided a forum to discuss current events.

“It’s been around for some time, and it also finds us ready for action when the times ask and demand for it. And that’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “I think it needs to be underlined.”

History professor Sugata Bose explained that, under Bhabha’s leadership, the Mahindra Center has studied cultures that humanities centers do not usually explore, such as South Asia.

In 2011, the Mahindra Center invited Jim Scott, a professor at Yale who has studied Burma, to give a series of talks called the Tanner Lectures.

“We often don’t think of these places when we want to promote the humanities, but that has been done under the leadership of professor Bhabha,” Bose said.

Executive Director of the Center Steven Biel and Bhabha said the Mahindra Center does not just analyze ongoing issues like migration.

“We tend to respond quickly to short-term issues but deliberate on long-standing issues which have an ongoing history,” Bhabha said.

One of these “short-term issues” that the center addressed was last month’s presidential election. The day after the election, the Mahindra Center held an event called “Dark and Stormy” to discuss why President-elect Donald Trump won.

This panel was an example of a “newsflash,” an effort, started by Biel, to hold events to respond to these “short-term issues.”

Guédon praised the Mahindra Center for offering the Dark and Stormy panel.

“I think it’s admirable that we found tools already ready for action when the moment seized us,” she said.

The Mahindra Center is also focused on longer-term trends. For example, Bhabha is studying the experience of minority groups within countries.

“I think he has done extraordinarily well in highlighting what could be termed minority cultures which often get a short shrift because majorities dominate within nation states but minoritarian cultures are extremely important,” Bose said.

Bhabha said that his own scholarly background influenced the Mahindra Center’s focus on minority cultures. He said that he has studied “how the experience of minoritization... in general can make us question some of the norms and values that we take for granted.”

Bhabha believes that this approach allows the Mahindra Center to analyze and respond to current issues.

“In a time of often diverse and conflicting views, the role of the humanities center is to provide a platform for courageous and civil discourse,” he said.

Through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center offers a seminar to its postdoctoral fellows. This year is marks the end of a seminar on violence and nonviolence, and starting next year, the Center will address the issue of migration.

“It partly relates to what we have been doing in the past three years but in many ways it also responds to the great migration crisis that we have been witnessing,” Bhabha said.

Bhabha added that the group would also consider the practical effects of migration.

“Migration also has a connection to questions of citizenship and refugees, migration also connects to urban issues, where do you settle people who are migrants, migration connects to health issues, economic issues,” he said. “We tend to take issues of this kind and see what kind of contribution the humanities can make to them.”

BUILDING BRIDGES

Under Bhabha’s leadership, the Mahindra Center has helped bring together various branches of Harvard that would otherwise remain disparate.

According to Bhabha, his attempts to bring together a “community” at the Mahindra Center are necessary because we are “in an era in which the place of the humanities in the university at large is less self-evident.”

One of the many ways the Mahindra Center unites the University is by providing a space for students from Harvard's various schools to convene.

The Mahindra Center “reaches out to people in the Law School, the Medical School in particular, and has lectures, seminars, round tables which treat subjects which could be of interest to both communities,” according to Todd.

He added that these events often deal with “ethical problems, political problems, things which can be reflected upon philosophically… Remember these cross-school initiatives really remind us of the potential breadth of the humanities.”

Biology professor Steven E. Hyman said a sense of camaraderie is fostered through conversation and dialogue at the center.

“It’s a very wonderful open set of discussions partly because of the diversity of the scholars who came to the Mahindra and participated,” he said in describing the Mahindra’s lecture series.

Center affiliates also say they hope to encourage more undergraduate students to attend the events.

“I also want to work with Homi to ensure that everyone working in the humanities including our undergraduates feels that the Mahindra Center is a key location for them,” said Kelsey, who works on shaping policy and programming at the Mahindra Center.

“I think the humanities center previously had been oriented very much towards faculty and graduate students and probably more towards literary and cultural theory of a somewhat high order kind,” Damrosch said. “I think that Homi’s very interested in bringing this out into the world of campus.”

Government professor Michael J. Sandel commented on why Bhabha’s efforts to bring together different scholars have resulted in interdisciplinary dialogue.

“The secret to his success?” he said. “Homi does not colonize foreign places and disciplines, but offers an intellectual hospitality that makes engaging with the humanities, and with him, utterly irresistible."

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