Metropolitan Scholars and the Role of Cultural Informants

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths Colle...
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2007. Photo by Shih-Lun CHANG. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having read enough of Gayatri Spivak to understand the power dynamics involved in the center-periphery exchanges, I have always been wary of the role of the cultural informant. As a scholar of postcolonial studies, therefore, I always keep a critical eye on my own conduct in order to avoid falling for this deeply troubling role.

Recently, in my exchanges with a graduate student from a neighboring university, I have also learned the deeply exploitative and troubling structure of power between the US scholars and the students that they bring from the global periphery as the recruited cultural informants for their projects.

One such student who was enrolled by a US scholar to help him finish a nationally funded project on a mountain language of Pakistan, has provided me an experiential view of what, until now, has been simply a theoretical project. This brief article is therefore an exercise in giving voice to this student and so many others like her who are being legally exploited by the so-called scholars. Naturally, to protect the student I am not providing any names. I will probably openly do that in another venue if the mistreatment of this student continues.

This un-named student is not one of your average struggling Pakistanis brought in by a benevolent scholar to provide her the opportunities that only a metropolitan university can dispense. This student was involved with the US scholar from the very inception of his project and provided not only the basic knowledge of the language but also put all her local contacts at the disposal of the US scholar. Her reason for this, simply stated, was to aid a US scholar in recording and saving the linguistic heritage of her people. Now this US scholar does not speak a lick of the language that he is trying to preserve. Coming from literary studies, this alone is almost unthinkable to me: I cannot imagine applying for a job in my own field without a native level understanding of English language. Furthermore, the US scholar has not shown any interest or love for the language or culture of his study.

So how does he accomplish his research without even knowing the language? Our un-named graduate student does all the grunt work, and the professor just collates and piles up the data collected and prepared by this un-named Pakistani graduate student. I find this practice deeply exploitative and unethical and I will write about this to the granting agency of this professor soon.

But right now my point goes beyond just this systemic exploitation of the subject of periphery by the enunciating subject of the West. In the process of her education here, the Pakistani student has also learned the modes of research and methods of scholarship in her field of study. She has now started developing her own ideas and projects about research on her own culture and language. In my field, this is the natural outcome of a mentor-mentee relationship; we always expect our graduate students to learn and then go beyond what we have done ourselves. That is how a field of study constantly renews itself.

But in case of this student, when she went with her project proposal to her mentor, she was told categorically that she could not do that. The reason: the project could ruin the professor’s own project. The student was also told that she was being ungrateful for trying to do things at her own despite the great favor done to her by her mentor of bringing her to the US.

In a nutshell, then, this graduate student can only have one assigned role: that of the willing silent subaltern on the periphery of her master’s imperial project. I find this extremely distasteful and unjust. I have advised this student to report all the verbal and other abuses to her department. I have also encouraged her to dump this professor and ask the department for another graduate mentor.

In the long run, I hope this graduate student learns the methods of her field and then, I hope, I want her to publish her research and demolish the house of cards built by her mentor, a house of cards built with the labor of this graduate student.

It is strange that we always critique the exploitative nature of the market and the corporations, but it seems that when it comes to us academics, we can also be deeply exploitative. Only in our case the stakes are so low that our actions are petty and childish.

So, here is to this un-named student: Go on, learn from these oppressors, and then write your own story–You at least know the language!


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