Teachers must get to know students and then learn how to teach them: Spivak

Published: October 26, 2014
Professor Gayatri Spivak talks to Dr Nauman Naqvi at the Habib University’s Second Postcolonial Higher Education Conference on Saturday. PHOTO: EXPRESS

Professor Gayatri Spivak talks to Dr Nauman Naqvi at the Habib University’s Second Postcolonial Higher Education Conference on Saturday. PHOTO: EXPRESS


Professor Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak is perhaps the most befitting person to be the keynote speaker in a conference on postcolonial higher education.

A leading authority on postcolonial study and feminism, Spivak has had transformative impact on the production of knowledge at highest levels, according to Habib University School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences acting dean Dr Nauman Naqvi. He shared these words as he called Spivak on stage to deliver her keynote speech at Habib University’s Second Annual Conference on Postcolonial Higher Education on Saturday.

Spivak, who teaches at Columbia University and is the first woman of colour to hold the title of professor at the varsity, shared the secret to her style of teaching. “The teacher must get to know his students and try to learn how to teach this group,” she said. “In my classroom, I try not only to solve problems for my students but also produce problem-solvers.”

Addressing the students in the audience, she said they must learn that democracy is not about us and ourselves, but those unlike us. “Do not let education join the Anthropocene – human activities hastening the extinction of the earth,” she said.

To a question from the audience, Spivak said teachers must not try to change the minds of their students. “You rearrange desires,” she said. “That is why it is so important to know who you’re teaching.”

Spivak felt that only a fool can think they can change anyone’s values. “We need to realise that there isn’t that kind of a distinction – enforcing a different set of values is reminiscent of apartheid,” she pointed out.

She recalled that there is only one person whose mind she has ever changed. William Sampson, who after his medical degree went to work in a factory and joined a union where he tried to tell his colleagues that their job wasn’t to struggle for job security or collective bargaining but to change exploitation all around the world, she said. “The FBI shot him and did not allow video-graphic evidence.”

And that is why she stated, “The task of a humanities teacher is to provide a non-coercive rearrangement of desire in the classroom.”

Colonial past

Spivak’s paper on ‘Higher Education in Our Subcontinent’ looked at problems in the education sector shared by both India and Pakistan – born out of a colonial past. “It is with the intention of slow cooking of the soul that, in the postcolonial nations, some of us propose regional humanism in higher education,” she said. “This requires a radical interrogation of the notion of contemporary post-coloniality.”

She spoke of how post colonialism had become the poster child of the colonial diasporas, the immigrants in metropolitan countries, which was a misnomer. “It has no place in the modernity of the old colonies today.”

As more and more metropolitan universities globalise today, she said, we tend to overlook the class apartheid. The trend allows British and American universities to feel that they are relaxing their own ‘quality control’ while making money on the side. It is a way of glossing over the class apartheid while keeping it alive and undisturbed, she added.

We should refuse the interpolation of the global and adopt the complicity of our roots, she said. “Even as we collaborate with foreign metropolitan universities in order to establish an adequate ethical base to the use of science and technology, we must realise that without the careful production of subaltern intellectual, the largest sector of the electorate is left incapable of helping in the establishment of social justice.”

Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Sumsum
    Oct 26, 2014 - 7:58AM

    Translation please :)


  • GS@Y
    Oct 26, 2014 - 8:28AM

    Wow! Gayatri Spivak visiting Pakistan is a huge deal. Other universities like LUMS and QAU should not waste this opportunity to enable their students to get in a room with her. Lots to ask about and learn!


  • Humera
    Oct 26, 2014 - 8:44PM

    to GS@Y…”other” universities like LUMS have been around for decades but never bothered to invite such noted scholars to bring them in the “room” with them, speaks volumes regarding their intellectual credentials (or lack thereof). It’s remarkable and heartening that a new university is already showing it’s commitment to bring global knowledge leaders to Pakistan. Kudos to them.


  • CU_Alum
    Oct 27, 2014 - 6:28AM

    “Spivak, who teaches at Columbia University and is the first woman of colour to hold the title of professor at the [university]…”

    Many other women of color became professors at Columbia before Spivak did. She is the first to hold the title of “University Professor”, which is Columbia’s highest rank. There are only 13 University Professors among a faculty of about 4,000.Recommend

    Oct 27, 2014 - 11:42AM

    It is ironical that Spivak should speak about class apartheid at the Habib University, which has been established by a large business group. Class apartheid is advanced by big business groups, which encourage the concentration of resources among the elite segments of society. In particular, the Habib University is not catering to Spivak’s “subaltern intellectuals” in Pakistan where over one-third of the population lives in poverty. Perhaps, in the future, Spivak should do some background research about private universities before visiting them. After all, the Habib Group is not the flag bearer of Marxian principles, which Spivak claims to believe in. Finally, Spivak has famously posed the question: “Can the subaltern speak?”One is compelled to respond with: “The subaltern definitely cannot speak to the elite Habib Group”. —Asma Siddiqi


  • Oct 29, 2014 - 1:53AM

    What Spivak can do to pro,ote Basic Teaching in Karachi and Sindh Areas


  • MK
    Oct 31, 2014 - 12:41AM

    Asma, well said. Cheers!


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