Junior Faculty Teaching Fellow Spotlight: Anand Vivek Taneja
Anand Vivek Taneja
I am an anthropologist of religion, and I work on new religious forms and inter-religious relations in modern South Asia. My book, Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecology in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi, focuses on the ritual practices, dream-lives and modes of healing and sociality shared by Hindu and Muslim communities in contemporary Delhi’s medieval ruins, where Islamic spirits known as jinn are venerated as saints. I explore how these theologically novel saint-shrines emerge in a complex landscape of erasures and altered temporalities inaugurated by the Partition of India, and the massive ecological shifts and legal enchantments inaugurated by the post-colonial State, but also represent a continuing dialogue with the subaltern memory of Sufi ethics shared across conventional religious divides. At Vanderbilt, I teach courses on the Sacred and the Secular, Modern Islam, Islam in South Asia, and Religion and Film in India.
My inspiration to become a teacher began when I was an undergraduate. For six years before starting graduate school at Columbia University, I used to work as a Docent on weekends, leading walks around Delhi’s monuments and ruins, sharing the history, stories and traditions of Delhi’s medieval past with a diverse range of people, foreign students, tenured professors, children living in slums, salaried professionals. Through this experience, I learnt many lessons about teaching, such as the value of approachability, interactivity, enthusiasm and engaging narrative in conveying the complex histories of a place. I also learnt the advantage of the immersion in a visual, material, and tactile sensorium in making abstract philosophical ideas and dry historical facts “come alive”. When teaching in a university classroom in Nashville, it is hard to recreate the same immersion. So I find myself experimenting with different methods for making the worlds of South Asia and Islam, experientially distant for most of my students, come alive and become meaningful to them.
For my class on Modern Islam, which I taught for the first time this past semester (Spring 2015), I arranged for a series of films to be screened weekly in the library, in parallel with the themes and topics we were reading and discussing in class. Students were graded on the short papers they wrote in response to the films. This assignment made them watch the films while simultaneously thinking about the texts they were reading in class, and led to them being highly engaged and enthusiastic in subsequent class discussions. As my teaching career progresses, I want to learn and refine more such techniques and strategies of setting up dialogues between often abstract classroom material and the visceral worlds of film, literature, and (as an anthropologist) human interaction.
As I progress in my teaching career, I also want to push students towards a ‘rigorous eclecticism’ in their independent work. For my own research, I combine ethnographic research and oral history with work in government archives, readings of Urdu literature (poetry, hagiographies, antiquarian texts), and even Bombay cinema. This diversity of sources comes from a keen awareness of the interconnectedness of affect, religious forms, history, and the state, and a desire to pursue connections beyond the boundaries usually imposed by disciplines. As a teacher, I want to encourage a similar eclecticism in student work, in terms of both sources and disciplinary forms, but always tempered with rigor.