Hello and welcome to this blog. I’m Arvind-Pal S. Mandair (or Arvind as my friends call me). I am an educator by profession and I teach at the University of Michigan. My fields of research and teaching are cross-cultural philosophy, religion, cultural theory (especially post-/decolonial studies) with a specialization in Sikh and South Asian studies. I have a somewhat checkered educational background. I started out with a BSc/Ph.D in Chemistry and worked for multinationals like Akzo, Courtaulds and Laporte Plc in the late 1980s. I then took up an SERC Postdoctoral Fellowship at Warwick University in Superconductor technology for a couple of years. During that time I became involved in social and community activism, went through some serious introspection and as a result began reading continental philosophy and postcolonial theory while I was at Warwick. Eventually, in the early 1990s I decided to let go of an otherwise lucrative career in science and technology to undertake an MA in Philosophy/Religion followed by a second Ph.D and several years of relative uncertainty. By the mid-to late 1990s, however, I was able to embark on a new career in the humanities for which you can find a more detailed bio here as well as details of my journey here. I now live in Michigan, close to Ann Arbor.
So why start this blog? Its not because I have more time on my hands. If anything research and service demands more attention now than has been the case in previous years. Nor is it because the academy, as one report puts it “is facing an existential crisis” such that universities must “learn to engage in a relevant and meaningful way” with the public (Hoffman et al 2015).
This need to engage is certainly true, not least for elite research universities. For me there are other reasons for starting this blog. One of them has to do with the disconnect between humanities research and the experience of human life or just life in general. Most of us in the humanities are now faced with increasing demands to make our teaching and research objective, data-oriented and therefore more suitable for a STEM based student market. As a result there is increasingly less opportunity to explore the kinds of subjective processes and interactions that are so central to the humanities and to the very purpose of education – which is precisely why I changed my vocation from the hard sciences to the humanities.
In my current research I try to explore more directly a basic characteristic of my lived experience, namely, the experience of living, working and thinking between different cultures and traditions. Yet this between-ness, which I sometimes refer to as a diasporic consciousness (a kind of qualitative multiplicity that (dis)orders one’s sense of identity), is also precisely what I have had to repress all my life, starting from my earliest schooling, higher education and work-life, right up to my current vocation as a university professor. In my earlier published work, although it provided glimpses of this diasporic consciousness, it remains largely repressed, which is something you get used to doing to get past academic gate keepers and thought police. But I’m at a stage of my career where these hurdles have become less important than doing justice to a mode of life that I believe is far more ubiquitous than most people care to admit. So this blog is a way of giving expression to and celebrate thinking-between cultures, to be in touch with the joys, sufferings, the repressions of this mode of life that’s always situated between the inner and outer, public and private, professional and activist. The reason I engage in theoretical or philosophical reflection in both research and teaching is to try and tap the modal currents and intensities of subjective experience, to extract from it the possibilities for a better future in such a way that it can be transmitted to students, peer academics and the wider public.
Why do I think this is important and worth investing time in? For one thing, I think this between-ness is the condition of the world we live in, it is the condition and nature of life in general, despite the contemporary resurgence of nationalisms in geopolitics. Secondly, the books and articles I’ve published contain barely 40-50% of what I’m really thinking and experiencing. I want to try and un-repress the other 50% and make these modes of reflection more visible and available through this blog. Of course, some of that excess thought and experience can be brought into classroom discussions, and its something that I revel in. But its also the case that much of that excess simply disappears once the class is over or the course is complete. The creative energy of dialogical thinking generated in class discussions is dissipated until you get to teach the class again two or three years later. So part of my agenda with these blogs is to capture some of this excess thought and make it available to students, to fellow academics and to the public. At least that’s my hope!
So what am I going to be blogging about? And how do I intend to go about it? To answer the second question first, I’d like to triangulate between three main spheres – research, teaching and life, in such a way that each of these spheres informs the other two. I shall begin with several blogs that reflect on courses that I have recently taught. A full list of my courses can be found here. So for example in Fall 2019 I taught two courses: AS334 Race, Religion and Caste in India and the USA, and AS254 Neuro-cultures and Asian Theories of Mind. In a series of successive blog posts for next few weeks I’d like to talk about what motivated me to develop the race and religion course and some of the difficulties and successes of this course. After this I’d like to do another series of successive quick-fire blogs around my Neurocultures course which has been renamed Exploring Consciousness and will be available in Fall 2020. This will be followed by two posts on another class AS305 Violence and Religion in a Secular World. Once we get into Fall 2020 I’d like to get deeper into these courses by inviting students to join me in thinking through some of the topics in detail.
My research based blog posts will be organized into several series. One series which I will post on sporadically will be responses to texts that I am currently reading. Examples might include Wael Hallaq’s Restating Orientalism, Walter Mignolo’s On Decoloniality, or Martin Hagglund’s This life. A second series will be based around my forthcoming book manuscripts. One book project is on Geophilosophy (an emerging branch of cross cultural philosophy), another on Sikh Philosophy and a third on Violence and Religion in the Sikh context. Branching out of these three book projects will be posts on broader themes such as Spirituality and Consciousness – topics that I’m actively investigating. In addition, I am co-editor of a new book series on Translation and Religion and have written a lot on this subject. I hope to post something on this as well. The purpose of these posts will be to try and unravel difficult issues in these books and they will be conducted as discussions and interviews with graduate students or fellow academics who have been fellow travelers during the books’ writing process. Occasionally I will be posting reactions to contemporary political and social events, conference and lecture updates, about publishing, mentorship and health.
As you’ll see this blog is partly about my academic research and teaching, but also very much about giving expression to what lies beneath this teaching and research – which is human experience and the need to bring this into the educational process. I want to share experiences about my profession, to disseminate skills and knowledge I have accumulated over a period of 30 years in the corporate industry and academia, to teach others to challenge dominant and conventional ideas.