Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Harveen Mann

When I first met Dr. Harveen Mann, I walked into her office to find her kneeling on the floor, determinedly shoving several books into an already-overstuffed shelf. Her office at Loyola University Chicago’s Lakeshore Campus is a cozy display of texts, manuscripts, and her work.

After earning her BA in India, she obtained her master’s at Panjab University and then her PhD at Purdue University. She has published an extensive collection of works focused on a diverse range of topics including cultural representations of British-Asians, religion and culture of Sikh formations, women in decolonization, and literature of partition. Dr. Mann is also working on a book-length monograph titled, In Pursuit of Equality: Feminism and Nationalism in South Asian Women’s Literature in English.

Beyond her research, she teaches English Literature at Loyola University. What makes her classes so unique, however, is her focus on South Asian authors, books, movements, and how all of these facets compare to life in the US.

I sat down with her to discuss how she discovered her passions, her hopes for her students, and the strength that she has seen in the women around her.

 

SK: When you were first getting your BA, did you know that you wanted to pursue this type of career? What made you chose to pursue the masters and PhD program that you did?

HM: I think it’s chance. It’s family history that comes to haunt you in ways that you don’t expect. In India you don’t declare a major in the undergrad, but you do take a cluster of courses. I had started with economics and english and psychology I think. I don’t remember correctly, it’s been so long! After that actually I had studied for and taken the GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test] for the MBA programs. And I had gotten into some of the top MBA programs in India.

That is where I should have gone, but there were some other family stuff and at that time. I was very young. I was 19 and there was not too much guidance. I lost my father when I was very young. So these would have been MBA programs away from where I lived and there was nobody to guide me to go there, which is what I should have done. So I entered my MBA program in my hometown, which was still a very good program but not quite like the others I had gotten into.

And I sat in a week’s worth of classes there and I just could not connect. My heart was with english literature. My father had been an english literature professor before he entered the civil service in what was then undivided-India and divided-India. So I think part of that is what I inherited as well. So in a sense I switched — I did the masters in English at Panjab university in India.

Then I wanted to, for a couple of reasons, to come abroad. There’s also sort of this misunderstanding among people in the West and in America that people have to be in dire economic straits and that’s why they come to the West. That’s not true at all, that’s a small percentage. I came from an educated, professional, well-to-do family and came here for my PhD in English.

SK: What made you choose the dissertation that you picked? What were your passions behind that?

HM: When I had first studied very traditional British literature — with some smattering of American literature — in India in the masters program, the Indian literature in English was what we called an ‘optional paper’. So you took that or not and there was no real sense of significance attached to that. But when I got here, and I went through the regular course of British and American courses, I had an advisor who was a modern British scholar and she at that point had started hearing about these non-Western literatures.

She suggested to me, “Why don’t you take a look at that instead of doing the usual?” She’s the one who encouraged me. Nobody at Purdue at that point — none of the faculty were specialists in that field. They had hardly any reading under their belt, if at all. But they were very supportive.

There was more attention being given to these non-Western literatures, I want to say, at that point in the Western academies than there was in the Indian academy. Now it’s different, even from what I know now — and I don’t travel much, I’m like a foreigner in India now — even now the English literature is still very focused on British and American lit. But there’s much more attention to India and other postcolonial literature than in the past. But yeah, there’s still left-over British colonial enterprise.

SK: I was looking at the works that you’ve published and I was struck by the diversity and wide range of different works. I’m curious as to how you find the balance and what motivates you? Regarding your book that’s coming out, what motivates you to write about South Asian literature?

HM: This is not where I started out. But it’s one of those accidental things that unfolds to it. I found an interest that maybe resonates with me, maybe I feel some sort of responsibility to say something about these literatures because they’re still very underrepresented in the Western academies. Now that I think back, I don’t want stuff in my teaching to question my philosophy in teaching. Don’t ever ask me that — if you think I can put that down in a document — everything is sort of from the gut-upwards. These are not things that I’ve thought here, but they’re deeper.

I think it also probably has to do with strong role models in my life. My grandmother — I only knew one grandmother, the other one had passed away when my father was quite young — she was a very strong woman.

So despite all these stereotypes of, “Oh the poor, oppressed, Eastern woman, you know. Unlike Western women who are highly liberated.” I raise two eyebrows to that! Let’s just take a look at ourselves first. So it’s always better if I can say somebody else is a poor thing. It’s all about myself, it’s not so much about who I’m helping.

I lost my father when I was five years old, my sister was seven, and my mother had to sort of support us. She had very supportive parents that came from a very wealthy family at the same time. So my father passed away in 1963, which seems like the dark ages now, [laughs] but it was not a good time for a widow in India. So she’s been a very strong presence in my life. My sister is also just two years older than I am.

I’ve been surrounded by cousins, aunts, grandparents, all very strong women. I cannot think of one that was weak. When people tell me about “Oh my gosh, the poor Eastern woman!” I say, “You’re looking at me! Do I look like a poor thing to you?” You know, so I think a lot of that came through as well.

SK: When you talk about strong women, what is that strength to you?

HM: It’s everything. They were highly intellectual in their own way — not necessarily always professional, but very intelligent women. They controlled everything in the household, you know, let the men think what they do think. They ran everything and they were fierce protectors of their family. Ambitious for their children and their grandchildren. All of those things. So I think a good mix — it’s not just the self-sacrificing forever, do-for-others kind of thing, but in what they did. Their battles with the world, as well, kind of thing.

It wasn’t easy, for example, for my mother to bring us up. She would be told, “Oh just get these two girls to high school age and then marry them off.” Or to move from the town that we were in, which was a professional town. And my oldest paternal uncle said to her that, “She should wear white — widow’s garb — and move in with us. Get the girls out of these fancy schools you’ve put them in. And as soon as your girls are of-age we’ll marry them off.” So those were the kinds of things that she had to face and do battle with. She said, “No, they’ll stay by my side.”

But then my paternal grandparents moved in with us and that too was a huge sacrifice. They had four older sons, they had a huge house, and very comfortable life — they left all of that to come live with the daughter and the two granddaughters. That was tremendous.

So I saw this all around me all the time. Most of my female cousins are around my age, and the men are sort of included but they are almost all professionals. This was never a question that they would go on and go into higher education and become professional in whatever they were in. That was never a question at all.

SK: When you do teach, how do you find that balance between the things you’re teaching about? You’ve written about women’s leadership and nationalism and religious aspects...how do you manage to cover all those different topics?

HM: I think the books that I teach contain all of these characters. The students, I think, have been very generous. I’ve been teaching since 1979 and I was 21 years old when I came here and entered a PhD program. So, you know, I graduated very young. I finished high school at 15, I finished my bachelors at 19, and I was done with the masters at 21. So at 21 I was standing in front of a class of Americans and teaching them class. Teaching them English. Teaching kids who were older than I was at that point.

They’ve been very generous though, I must say, despite where this country is today. I think it’s in a very hard place and I’ve never been more heartbroken for this country than right now. But the students…all anonymous evaluations — of which I must have 39 years worth, so thousands of evaluations by now — not one of them has said, “Why did they hire this Indian woman who speaks with an accent to teach us English.” You see if I was teaching math or computer science or whatever, that’s different. But to teach them English. There must be plenty of conservative students that have sat in my classes, but I’ve never heard that.

So I think it’s also the books that teach themselves in some ways. The books teach themselves to an audience that has not yet been corrupted by the adult world. I hope they hold onto the goodness in their hearts. Every book that I teach has ideas about religion, class, gender, caste, or nationality, or race built right into it, so it’s not that I have to find one strand to follow because we address all the strands and all the themes and techniques. I don’t think that what we are reading in these books is that distant and I don’t want my students to think that this kind of stuff only happens elsewhere. That’s the idea of the “Poor Eastern Woman” kind of thing.

We talk about contemporary stuff and I share with them my personal history. I never used to do that when I was a younger instructor. But then as our daughter grew up, I think she was in middle school, she would come home and tell us details about her teachers’ personal lives. I said, “Why do your teachers tell you this stuff?” Personal life meaning if they’re married, if they have children, what happened at home, that kind of thing. And she said, “We like that. They are not just our teachers then.” What she meant was they are human beings and we connect with them.

Then as she got older she said that I should share with my students. I said, “It’s none of their business who I am, what I am, where I come from. I’m teaching them the books and that’s all that should be their concern.” But of course, you know, getting older softens one as well, [laughs] so I share that with the students and they appreciate it. Also, I think I fudge a little bit because it gives you another leg or a different platform to stand on. If I stand in front of my classes and constantly talk about the Western colonialism and oppression of others and really berate that thing…at sometime I would think that I would have a knee jerk reaction to that and say, “Okay, enough.” They are not forever oppressed, and not everyone there is all good either.

SK: Are there things that you believe you can offer your students — perspectives or lessons — that you wish they would have opportunities to engage with elsewhere as well?  

HM: Of course I do, I mean it’s not again me — it’s the books. This is the only force in which many of them have been exposed to this viewpoint. This outside viewpoint. This much-more open view of the world. Just sitting here and saying, “We here are the greatest, we are the brightest,” says who? Let the rest of the world tell you that. Let’s look at what the world has to say about America. So these are students who are hungry for this kind of exposure that they haven’t been given.

I mean I raised a daughter who is going to the fanciest of schools. I’m sorry, it is such a limited curriculum — no world history, and world history means Western history. No exposure, no sense of geography, no sense of the rest of the world. I ask my students, “What percentage of the world’s population lives in the United States today?” First of all, many of them — and these are bright kids — don’t know the current population of the United States, let alone the population of the world.

4.7% of the world’s population is here. Out of that we want to hate at least 2% — so that leaves 2.7% of the world’s population doing battle and claiming we are the best and we are the brightest. I’m sorry, no. And put it into perspective. India and China are never going back to sleep ever again.

Everyone is in competition right now. Nobody is bowing down and saying, “Oh the great and mighty United States! And oh, white people!” Not a chance! Talk to people in India and ask them about British colonialism. They’ll say, “What? What are you talking about?” Tell them that whites are superior and look at the response you get.

So it’s right here! It’s in our own selves. A narrow-minded, ill-informed, almost illiterate population. But the students are very open to this. They say they wish we had more of this kind of material and more of these kinds of courses. I’m not talking about just myself — I’m talking about the material they’re exposed to. Africa is a country according to some people. Really? There’s no idea about what Canada is. Mexico? Oh, they’re rapists and murderers. Do we know who the PM of Canada is? What is the capital of Canada? Let’s ask the whole of America and let’s see if they can answer that. Nothing! That’s not going to work.

So it’s your generation that needs to take responsibility because the adults have failed you. They absolutely have.

SK: When you talk about taking and teaching responsibility, why is it so important for you to teach classes about this, or to write your book? How does that fit in?

HM: Again, I don’t think I do this consciously, but I talk to students because I feel for them. This is their future and it’s not a future that is looking terribly bright. My sister sometimes tells me not to get so worked up because it’s not our battle. We’ll be dead and gone and our lives and careers are winding down. But it’s to look at what will become of your generation; how will you participate in the world; and what is happening to this country?

I said to my friends and family — and these are mainstream Americans — that we’ve gone back 50 years. They said, “No, no don’t say 50. We’ve gone back 100 years. My husband is 62 and he said there’s no way this is what the rhetoric was and the actions and the gun violence and the everything. It’s in a bad state. So literature forms a part of that. It’s not that it’s separate from all of that.

I think that we all need to talk to the students about their engagement, their being civilian activists, them doing their bit. Not just burying their heads in their homework and saying, “It doesn’t impact me,” because it does. It’s your future.

SK: What’s your favorite book to teach?

HM: Oh, they’re all good! [laughs] You’ll have to take my courses to find out. I don’t have any sort of favorite to teach. They’re all wonderful books.

SK: What has been one of your greatest accomplishments?

HM: It’s not one. It’s teaching all of the students and their response. I mean that genuinely when at the end of every semester I say to each class that it has been my privilege to stand up in front of them and to teach them.

Note: This article has been previously published on the author’s personal class blog