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In Conversation with Shiv D Sharma

Shiv Sharma works as a Critical Writing Faculty at the Young India Fellowship. He teaches Critical Writing through his course Narrating Desire, Framing the Political.

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15 February, 2021 | 15 min read

Shiv Sharma works as a Critical Writing Faculty at the Young India Fellowship, and also as a consultant to the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University. The Critical Writing Programme at Young India Fellowship helps Fellows engage with a world of ideas and enables them to develop and express their own thoughts and experiences in a well-reasoned, lucid, and engaging manner.  

He teaches Critical Writing through his course Narrating Desire, Framing the Political. He shared with us his understanding of desire and how it manifests itself in multifarious arenas and how he encourages his students to think critically using the tool of theory.  

What got you interested in the topic of Desire and to further propose this as a CW course? 

I have always been interested in questions related to desire and how it manifests in our daily personal, political and cultural experiences. That is what specifically my research is about, and more broadly, my scholarship is situated within the field of Gender and Sexuality Studies. So when I was thinking about what course to offer as a Critical Writing faculty, I wanted to of course pick something from my area of specialisation. But an important consideration for me was that the YIF is a mixed bunch, with students trained in a variety of disciplines. Thus, I wanted to put together a course that everybody could relate to. To me personally, desire is a subject of inquiry that relates to all areas of life. That’s what I envisioned with this course, that it should allow students to make such connections.

I was also driven by the contemporary moment, where desire is always posed as something different from politics and is treated as something unwanted for public discussions. By politics, I don’t necessarily mean institutional politics but basically a way of interrogating power structures. Can thinking about Desire change the kind of assumptions you bring to any field of knowledge production? Maybe it can make us think differently about how we live our lives, how we constitute ourselves psychically, culturally and socially etc. These were some of the questions I wanted to address. 

Can you tell us what exactly is your understanding of Desire? 

There are various ways of thinking about desire. Western philosophy has thought about desire in particular ways, and then we have various other traditional ways of understanding Desire. But at the basic level, to me, Desire is that force that moves us away from certainties and creates a distance between you and your ideas about yourself. To be a desiring individual is to try to cope with otherness, try to cope with what we are uncertain about regarding our own selves and our relations with the world and people. The word ecstasy comes into my mind as I think about desire, and ecstasy can be broken up into its constituent parts of ex-stasis, which means moving away from oneself. That’s what desire is to me, and anything which has to do with Desire has to do with questioning fundamental assumptions about the constitution of ourselves as well as the constitution of our world. Thus, it becomes a very interesting way to look at the relationship between the self and the world. 

Your course is very dense. But essentially it’s a CW course, so how do you maintain the balance between teaching theory and teaching critical writing? 

Honestly, for me, theory is probably the best way of doing critical thinking. The reason being, theory is nothing but narratives on how to think about the world. One thing is of course that in class, we took a lot of time to unpack the text when we were doing theory-heavy readings. And contrary to what many of us might assume, it was interesting that in the previous semester when we read Freud, students’ feedback made it clear that it was one reading that they really enjoyed. Many students also added that they hoped they could read something like this in the next sem too. I could also see that they were really pushing themselves hard to make sense of Freud. So I think for me, that’s definitely a way to learn critical thinking, which is a step towards critical writing: learning how to think step-by-step and logically in a clearly reasoned out manner. Reading something that you already understand might not allow you to do so because it is already transparent to you. Theory gives you a challenge: to be able to make sense of it you will have to labour through to understand its logical premises, how the argument is built and so on.  

While coming up with these topics in class, how do you encourage critical thinking in class, what is your model for that? 

It is a fundamental aspect of my pedagogy that the way I think about doing theory is to try and put it in conversation with very simple questions; questions we think about on a daily basis, what we encounter in our own lives and what is related to our lived experiences. It helps to show people that theory and the world of academia are not divorced from real life. For me, that’s the kind of thing which you should be doing with critical thinking– that you should be able to make connections between the stuff of everyday life and what these complicated theories or academic essays are trying to tell you. Just to give you an example, the most recent one– we are currently reading Foucault in our class, who is again a very complicated writer. We are doing his book ‘The History of Sexuality’, and in one of our classes, the set of discussion questions around which we kept generating ideas was: what is sexting? What kind of endeavour is it? What do you make of it? Through our conversation, students slowly understood why I asked this absurd question in class in relation to a very dense theoretical text. And that’s my idea, that you actually disarm students by really pushing them to think about texts in relation to their own experiences or things around them.  

In fact, through Foucault, we have thought a good deal about ongoing farmers protests and the current political struggles in our country that we have witnessed over the last few years, in relation to Foucault’s ideas on power and discourse. That kind of connection between what you are observing in the everyday world to what you are reading is an important way to bring in a critical dimension. That’s how I think about critical thinking or even critical writing, that you have to be in conversation with what you are experiencing and that ideas should not be a separate world, divorced from our daily life. 

You were talking about how the YIF’s are a very diverse bunch, so do you sometimes end up with students that are completely flabbergasted with the world that you are introducing them to and how has that been like? 

Well, absolutely and I think when the option to switch courses came, I was really expecting that I was going to lose out on half of my class, haha! But that didn’t happen. I think that intellectual challenge is fundamentally a part of our attachment to the world of ideas and if your professor was telling you things that you already knew and simply confirming your convictions, then I am not sure what is the point of spending 9 months doing that. Yes, there will always be students that are struggling to understand basic conceptual terms which, for example, other students from humanities take for granted. In such cases, I try to break it down for them.

In class, we have been doing exercises around certain conceptual terminologies. For the purposes of a critical writing class, however, I think it is also necessary to stress that sometimes when we feel that a text is too difficult for us to understand, it is often so because we are not paying attention to the sentences, we are not really reading, and we are only getting overwhelmed by the complexity of language. Yes, those challenges have come up in my class, but to a great extent we have been able to move beyond them. Which is not to say that students now understand 100% of the essays that we read in the class. I think none of us does, and for me, all critical work has to acknowledge the idea of “partial knowledges” that we create. Even when I go back to certain texts that I’ve read many times before, I realise that well this is a very different way of reading that I am doing and I discover new things in texts that I read over the years. So yes that’s it but I think what’s useful to me is the way we and my classes are heavily discussion-based, they are hardly ever lecture oriented, so I think I just push people to think. Doesn’t matter if there’s one line in the text that you understood, let’s think about how you relate to it,  what you understand of the world and not worry about whether you get 100% of the essay or decoding its hidden meaning. It is a very particular way of looking at academia, so we work with the assumption that it is not some secret knowledge that we are trying to understand.

To me basically and that’s especially related to that this is a course in critical thinking and writing is that we are trying to just train our brains to think in a particular way to read texts in a particular way, to digest and write in a particular way. To that extent it doesn’t even matter to me if you fully understand the text, as long as you can generate ideas about it and come up with an idea and have a conversation about that idea. This is much more important, how many of the people would go back to reading Foucault in their lives? They probably won’t. What you’ll get from the intellectual exercise of struggling with the text is really important. 

So you mentioned that your classes are discussion heavy and the YIF bunch is diverse so the opinions that you get might also be polar opposites in many discussions, how do you mediate that? 

Mediate in the sense, I don’t think my role is to bring them to a conclusion or say that this is how everything is connected into a singular whole. You know in some ways, the premise of my course, the whole point of thinking about desire, is to not to get away from that kind of thinking of the integrated whole of this western metaphysical thought of certainties, rational knowledgeable subjects.

What has been an interesting part for me is that in fact sometimes the students are not sure of what they are speaking but they are really good ideas, they really end up presenting ways of thinking about the text  that you wouldn’t think about as a teacher. So yes, I don’t think there is a part of mediation required but what is involved is that to try to be attentive to them as to how they are thinking about it. These are different ways of thinking about it, generating ideas together. So I think that’s never been really an issue that you know how to bring these different reading ideas together, one thing yes, one kind of hardline we keep drawing is that and that’s part of your critical thinking training is that your ideas cannot simply be your fantasies about a text, we try to ground the discussions as much as possible in the text. So when I see people saying something, I ask them to point me to the line that’s is talking about the text.

For example, we also encourage talking about even how you feel about the text, that feeling too also has to be grounded in something concrete such as the form of the text. I try to maintain that discipline that ideas might be really varied but they are to be grounded into something that the text provides you, rather than your own assumptions and fantasies about the text.

YIF is constantly in a state of flux but CW is the only sort of stability that we get during the Fellowship where we can actually witness our trajectory from the beginning to the end. Are you able to witness that in their writings from the first one to the last one? 

Certainly, this is something we keep on discussing in class and I think many of them have improved significantly just at the level of constructing your sentences better, organising your piece better and so on. Also, I think I at least like to fully pay attention to the critical thinking part of it even though the course is primarily about writing. In class I am completely blown away by that you know people can really think about ideas, their ideas become bolder. And I tell them that earlier you even used to blush away by even mentioning the three-letter word sex from your mouth but now you can talk about your own fantasies. They actually bring their experiences to the class which is quite interesting and which helps me see them pushing their own limits of thinking to think critically of something as basic as pornography and debates surrounding these cultural objects and ideas. So yes, I think it’s a journey that everybody is figuring out right now and it’s very difficult to comment on it as a whole because I also like to see this as a very individual journey in the sense that not everybody is going to write in the same way, not everybody wants to be an academic. In the end the purpose for everyone is to write argumentative essays, just to achieve a certain level of clarity in your writing and show a certain amount of rigour and that I think all of my students to that extent have been able to already achieve that and I am very thankful to my bunch for that.  

Shiv D Sharma thinks and writes about desires that underpin everyday individual, social, cultural as well as political experiences of people. Shiv has a MA in Historical Studies from the New School for Social Research and is a recipient of Fulbrigh-Nehru and Inlaks scholarships (2018). His research addresses questions related to gender and sexuality, desire and subjectivity in relation to history and popular culture. 

Shiv likes to think of himself as a gypsy-scholar, straddling multiple disciplinary and theoretical frameworks in his intellectual pursuits. A former engineering graduate and Young India Fellow, he is also a founding member of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University, where he has previously worked for three years. 

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