To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Introducing new Mandel Center for Humanities Director Ulka Anjaria

Ulka Anjaria (DEP) has taken the reins as the second Jehuda Reinharz Director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Humanities, following her predecessor Ramie Targoff (DEP). During her time at Brandeis, Anjaria has held positions as a professor of English and is affiliated with the South Asian Studies program and the Film, Media and Television program at Brandeis. Her research interests include South Asian literature and film, postcolonial literature, global perspectives and interdisciplinary learning. Additionally, she has authored two books analyzing Bollywood and contemporary Indian media, with her most recent book offering an introduction to Hindi cinema. Anjaria’s research interests and teaching experience inform her novel take on humanities at Brandeis. 


The word “humanities” has a tendency to evoke mental images of ancient texts, art and music—items that would likely be found in a museum, Anjaria explained in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot. “I think that word sometimes gives off this old-fashioned vibe, so my goal at the Mandel Center is to … make humanities feel relevant to everyone in the Brandeis community and expand the idea of humanities beyond just the study of texts,” she says. 


Anjaria sees class curricula as a place to instill a greater sense of the present impact of work in the humanities, saying, “Thinking about curriculum, what kinds of courses to undergraduates and graduates want to see which makes us think about the direct work the humanities can do in the world.”


Part of making humanities feel relevant to a wider audience includes adopting the perspectives of social scientists, scientists and artists when understanding historical and current issues. “I am an English professor but I never only get English majors in my classes, and I think that makes for great discussions,” Anjaria notes. 


While Anjaria feels that the opportunity for diverse perspectives in humanities class settings is attainable at the undergraduate level, the specialization that a graduate program in humanities demands is less conducive to interdisciplinary thinking. She plans to instill cross-departmental communication in Brandeis graduate programs and help students realize that “[their] field is not the only one where you can learn something … and [their] campus is not the only place you can learn something.” 


Reflecting on political issues and public health issues from the pandemic this past year, Anjaria hopes to convey to students that “…we can do better if we deal with [these issues] in an interdisciplinary level.”


Another important goal of Anjaria’s is to help students understand humanities from a global perspective. Anjaria explains that if people only engage with media from the U.S., “…[they] can get a very distorted picture of what is happening in the rest of the world.” Her publications concerning foreign media aim to counter negative representations of South Asian cultures. Anjaria seeks to translate her research goals into common class practices in the humanities, where students push themselves to “get over stereotypes [they have been] inadvertently imbibed from the media, and include people on their own terms … without condescension.” 


In addition to class content, Anjaria believes that guest speakers are an important contribution to the humanities experience at Brandeis and can serve as a means of introducing under-represented perspectives in academia. This coming year and in the future, Anjaria plans to “invite more people to campus who work in the humanities in a variety of ways, not just scholars.” This includes high school teachers, media production teams and more. 


Some guest lectures that students can look forward to this year include the annual Mandel Lectures in Humanities this April where Columbia University professor and writer Colm Tóibín will be discussing James Baldwin. Additionally, several faculty members will be discussing their work, among which is Professor Patricia Alvarez Astacio (ANTH), who will be discussing her fieldwork with textile workers in Perú. 


Under the leadership of Anjaria, the humanities at Brandeis will offer a multitude of experiences with interdisciplinary, global and innovative focuses. As Anjaria puts it in a BrandeisNow interview, “It’s an exciting time to be leading an institution like this because the humanities are more important than ever.”


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