Q&A with Director of Alumni Relations Kate McGormley and Professor Sitara Thobani

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background and how you ended up in academia?

A:
My academic work really came out of my experiences and interests as an Indian classical dancer. I was trained in the diaspora - in Canada and the US - as well as in India. I was struck by how, through my dance practice, I was learning about the living traditions associated with Indian classical dance, and yet I was also frustrated by how easily these traditions could be essentialised to construct particular ideas about India as ‘ancient’, and Canada and the US as multicultural and therefore modern. And so, for my graduate work I studied the historical development of Indian classical dance and how it was shaped by British colonization as well as Indian nationalism; I then built on this research in my postgraduate work to trace how these politics are carried forward into the contemporary transnational context.

Q:  What are your primary research interests?

A:
My research interests include post/colonial feminist and critical race studies, as well as South Asian and diaspora studies. I see art and cultural production as my entry point into these disciplines, and am interested in how these inform and shape formations of racial, religious, national and gendered identities.

Q: What do you like most about teaching in a place like the RCAH?

A:
The interdisciplinarity of RCAH is what makes teaching here special for me. I love that my students make connections between the issues we are discussing in class and topics they have studied elsewhere, or experiences they’ve had doing any number of other activities. These experiences always add new dimensions to our conversations, and makes teaching here both stimulating and enjoyable.

Q: What is your teaching philosophy?

A:
I firmly believe that in order to bring about meaningful social change, we must understand the historical, social and political contexts that shape our thought, our categories of knowledge, and indeed, what we count as knowledge. This belief is central to my teaching philosophy. Examining how these categories and forms of knowledge are themselves historically produced and situated, as well as how they are sustained through forms of cultural representation, is therefore a major component of all my teaching.  I also work with students to contextualize their experiences in light of course material to understand their own social and cultural locations. In other words, I encourage students to complicate absolutist notions of cultural difference and otherness in order to interrogate the ways in which these boundaries are drawn and the power relations through which they are sustained.

Q: What are one or two of your proudest professional accomplishments?

A:
A major turning point for me was the publication in 2017 of my first book, Indian Classical Dance and the Making of Postcolonial National Identities: Dancing on Empire’s Stage. Not only did this book help me address some of the issues that I have grappled with as a dancer and a member of a diasporic community, it has opened the door to a whole new avenue of research I am now very excited to pursue.