'Community' the central theme to visiting Fulbright Scholar's time at Western

Rayson Alex, Fulbright Scholar in residence at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies during the fall quarter and the first part of winter quarter, says that the common denominator of his experience at Western has been “community.” 

Alex, whose teaches courses in the environmental humanities at his home institution, BITS-Pilani/K. K. Birla Goa Campus in Goa, India, is the recipient of a six-month Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Fellowship to teach at Western and to complete a research project on pedagogies in the environmental humanities.  He is the editor of several collections of essays on ecocriticism, has directed and created several ethnographic video documentaries and has been the co-director of a pioneering international film festival, the tiNai Ecofilm Festival.   

Alex taught a class, “Indian Films, Environmental Justice, and the Subaltern,” at Fairhaven during the fall quarter, which brought together a small group of students to explore film expressions of environmental justice issues in India and to make an eco-documentary themselves.  The course featured relevant readings, guest speakers, student presentations, and Professor Alex’s prodigious knowledge of India and environmental conflicts in India.  The course syllabus explained:  “Given the diversity of cultures and natures that India boastfully possesses, tensions about who gets what, which cultural values about environments are most important, and who gets to say, are abundant.  Environmental justice movements that common people have organized have been common in India – some have created templates for global environmental justice initiatives.”  Within this very big frame, students developed their own ideas and their own short film about environmental justice issues. 

Alex also took part in the organized events of Fairhaven College, organized two screenings of Indian environmental films and talks with the director of one of them, and gave a well-attended lecture, “Why I am not a Vegetarian: Food Fascism in India,” in the World Issues Forum at Fairhaven.  This lecture explained the paradoxes of politicized vegetarianism in India, and the kind of oppression in particular experienced by Indians of Dalit background by this kind of “food fascism.” 

In general, Alex made friends everywhere he went and was a valuable part of campus life during his tenure here.  Professor Hilary Schwandt, Department Chair at Fairhaven, praised Professor Alex for his interest and interaction with other faculty at Western, with his students at Fairhaven, and for his interest in building cross-cultural community.

"Dr. Alex is a wonderful addition to our community and a scholar colleague with whom we will continue to engage beyond the time we have together in Bellingham,” she said. 

I interviewed him about his background and experience here at Western. 

You’re a long way from home, growing up in Kerala in the very south of India, attending university there and then going on to get a Ph.D. and teaching at Bits-Pilani.  Can you give us a brief description of your background? 

I was born into a lower middle-class family with an annual income of less than 3000 USD. With a fixed low-income salary that my father earned being a vicar, my parents were able to educate four children. I still wonder how they managed to support my sisters who pursued their professional courses and also married them with a substantial “dowry.” As much as I feel proud of my parents who were committed to educating their children (My parents used to say “to the maximum they could achieve”), and of my sisters who paved the way for me, affirming that “education was our last resort,” I also feel proud of myself for having lived up to their expectations and my dreams.

So, education was about trying to be a just person, while pushing myself and the family up a level of status.  Having been trained in environmental humanities as a subject area of my specialization after my Masters in English Studies, I learned to question my identity, and realized that I had a porous self but a constant ethic in all contexts in which I had worked and lived.  Just who I am as an “Indian” continues to be a work in progress, but this early experience of going out into the world for an education provided the foundation for it. 

After these early experiences, my collaborations, research focus and convictions for life were molded and refined by my wife and co-academic traveler, Dr. S. Susan Deborah, who is an expert in ecology and gender and teaches at MES College of Arts & Commerce in Goa.  She has also been here at Western in December and January as a Visiting Research Associate in the Department of Global Humanities and Religions and has worked especially with Professor Michael Slouber and his “Fierce Goddesses of India” class in this department. 

Along with the course you taught at Fairhaven, your Fulbright award also supported a research project.  Can you tell us about this? 

I did research on eco-pedagogy, to record and document the pedagogical methods and strategies employed by faculty members teaching environmental humanities and social sciences, and art and humanities in general, at Western and elsewhere.  I’ve completed a series of interviews with Indian colleagues, and will compare the outcomes of these with interviews with colleagues in the U.S. The outcome of this comparative research will be an “Eco-pedagogy Manual” which will be published in 2023. The documentation of the course that I teach here will serve as a case study to discuss transnational pedagogy in the “Eco-pedagogy Manual.”  

What have been your most impressive experiences with Western's students, with Western's academic culture, and what will you take away with you from your time in Bellingham?   

I think what I’ve learned from my experiences here have converged into three general observations.  First of all, it is good to be an idealist, sometimes. Throughout my teaching career, I have taught students of engineering and science backgrounds. In Fairhaven, I see a bunch of passionate humanities-art-oriented students who are sensitive, curious, and socially conscious.  It is such a joy to be with students who appreciate art and literature, who think that without humanities the earth wouldn’t revolve in its axis, and who are explicitly vocal about the need for a society to pursue justice in its thoughts and deeds, and who consider life as a beautiful opportunity to make people smile.  I am not an idealist, but I think being with students who are idealists lifts my morale and influences me to do more for any community in which I work.  

Working at Fairhaven has also taught me to be more open in my teaching practices.  The process of preparing the syllabus for my course “Indian films, Environmental Justice and The Subaltern” was a student-centered one. I revised the syllabus several times with the expert advice of professors at Western. I observed that all through the process, they were concerned about how the students would respond to such a syllabus. This was probably the first time I thought of contemporariness, theory-analysis balance, interactive and challenging assignments, clarity in giving instructions, teaching methodologies, accommodations for those requiring them, and Canvas-friendliness all at the same time while preparing a syllabus.

I’m just a visitor from another place, but this attention to community has been inspiring and crucial for the larger Fulbright mission, to achieve “mutual understanding.” 

I also developed a syllabus that would open up the classroom to flexibility and students as co-authors of the course.  It took me several months before my trip here to think my way into this experience, read materials, and watch films in preparation for the course.  But after I arrived in the US, I began anew with the syllabus preparation, spoke to the faculty members again and revised it further.  And then when I began teaching the course, I continued to revise it while interacting with the students.   The syllabus-making process in India, particularly in state-run universities and colleges, ends long before the course is introduced and is revised only about every 5-10 years. The one important thing that I learned from the Fairhaven practice is that the syllabus is a responsible, contemporary base on which knowledge is built and rebuilt, added, sometimes deleted, but is “religiously” critiqued all the time it is in practice. I am going to take this learning back to India. 

Working in a program that has required flexibility, and in an entirely new social context, has taught me a valuable Fulbright lesson, that adaptability is both a survival technique and a virtue.  Concepts are not adequate as a principle for action. When I finalized the syllabus before starting from India, I thought I should have several assignments to make sure that the students understood the concepts that I would work with in class. It is quite easy to lecture on a concept, but it is indeed difficult to learn (or “teach”) the concept through a student-centered discussion.  I learned how to listen to students more carefully to build a space for hearing out, and later connecting their observations to concepts or theory that were important to the course. 

Another example of an adaptation I made was when, on the advice of other professors, I decided to divide the class into three groups to complete connected by separate final projects. The students were not convinced this was a good idea. They wanted to do everything in one single group.  I really was not sure this wouldn’t be too unwieldy to work.  But I accepted their proposal, and then saw them develop a magical interconnection of all the members in the network, shouldering each other’s’ responsibilities and completing the work as a team. Their motto was, “we are one small group, working on one single story and submitting one single assignment—we will all work together.” Being flexible has fostered adaptability. The classes here were not rigidly structured like in India. Every class does not have to be lecture-bound. Some classes can be a reflection and interweaving of the previous classes and students thrive with this sort of engagement.  

I’ve also learned a lot about community, teaching here at Fairhaven and in general working with the Fulbright network in Seattle and with other Fulbright awardees from abroad currently in the U.S.  Community is a buzzword that is often tossed about when students, faculty and especially college administrators talk about their class, their college, their university and the place where they live – in Bellingham, their neighborhoods. But they also actually mean something by this. I have never heard this word used in official/email communications in India. The word community communicates a sense of belonging, ownership and interdependence. 

I’m just a visitor from another place, but this attention to community has been inspiring and crucial for the larger Fulbright mission, to achieve “mutual understanding.” 

Rayson Alex smiles at the camera
S. Susan Deborah smiles at the camera