This is the ninth post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.
I joyously reacted “Wow, see this! This is what I advocate for: Incorporating Literature into STEM education” upon seeing this poster (feature image), calling my friends back to make them see it and asking them to lend me a phone so that I could capture it. Though my friends seemed to be disinterested as they found the poster dry and unremarkable, its presence, encapsulating the deep idea, within a light illuminated frame at the Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University, USA made me feel delighted. Even now, at times, I keep going back to this image and ruminate on the profound message of addressing the importance of a literature pedagogy for a STEM-based curriculum, which Shakespeare with his subtle smile appears to send out loud.
In this article, I reflect upon my journey of learning about the water beyond H2O. I elaborate on how alternative water pedagogies have shaped me intellectually as a Civil Engineer turned Sociologist. I use literary studies to show how the affordances offered by literature shaped my perceptions and understanding of water from a deeply quantified understanding of water to an element that shapes knowledge categories and environmental justice.
I consider myself a water enthusiast who is passionate about learning about the water beyond the rigid disciplinary boundaries reinforced by mainstream academia. In my work, I have always aimed to bring together Natural and Social Sciences for a more nuanced water literacy. I have had to undergo a process of learning and unlearning, over the years, to relearn what exactly the meaning of water is. This dynamic process of self-learning is about a decade long (2012-present) and is marred with struggles against maintaining mono-academic normativity. Although in the contemporary Indian education system, growing acceptance of such trans-disciplinary choices is visible, it will take another decade for such choices to be normalized, accepted and functional. Even now, when I assert that “I am a Civil Engineer with Masters in Sociology,” I am often considered naïve for my peculiar academic choice. In India, a student in Civil Engineering does not have the opportunity to take courses in other disciplines because the education system is deeply stratified.
During my Civil Engineering training (2012-2016), subjects like Hydraulic Engineering and Irrigation Engineering expressed water as simply a function of two variables ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’. Hence, I developed an understanding of water as a resource to be ‘managed’, ‘controlled’, and hence ‘quantified’. This understanding was challenged by the reality I witnessed as a volunteer of an NGO which required me to visit the marginalized and water-scarce areas after my college hours. Here, I sensed and grasped the meanings of water which were not just different, but distinct, from what we were told in engineering classes.
During the last year of my technical training (2015-2016), I was selected for an internship in a Multinational Company where I received a chance to conduct field surveys at a “world-class infrastructure” dotted with artificial fountains and waterfalls. While the former was facing intense water scarcity, the latter’s focus was on beautification through the construction of artificial water infrastructures. My experiences as a volunteer and intern emboldened the two contrasting images of ‘waters’. With four years of technical training as a Civil Engineer, I failed to answer the reasons behind ‘water injustice’ in the two adjacent spatial areas. Water, here, in scarce ‘quantity’ and impotable ‘quality’ was not limited to the physical properties of water. These variables were potent enough to exacerbate the socio-economic inequality and became the carrier of gender inequality and class discrimination; something we were never taught in Hydrology classes.
With an organic urge to know more about latent meanings of social interactions and material environment, I opted for a Master of Arts (Sociology). To further enrich and broaden my sociological understanding, I undertook different online courses, referred to alternative journals, and participated in dialogues and discussions. These learning experiences were marked by numerous case studies and stories. This made me realize that it was the absence of stories, real or fictional, that made my Engineering curriculum incapacitated from accommodating and investigating an important third variable, that is, access or entitlement to water. It is now, after five years, that I can account for the socio-hydrologic reasons to answer the question with which I started my water journey.
Drawing on these fieldwork and academic experiences in India, I have been advocating for a humanistic curriculum for engineers that trains them to grasp the social and cultural context of water. Water is deeply embedded in the places through which it flows and accumulates. These places have their history, politics, and, characteristic social variables which are shaped by the flow of water and vice-versa. Engineers trained in the curriculum of Indian universities need to have a more holistic knowledge of these literary and socio-cultural aspects of water because it would help them better to adopt a more justice-based approach to water management. For instance, I think reading literary works that center on the water will allow engineers to develop a creative and imaginative vocabulary of understanding water in a more multi-faceted way. Such thought-provoking experiences are not possible in Indian classrooms where an engineering student learns hundreds of equations about balance in water pressure, water flow, and elevation as part of hydrology but remains oblivious to the social pressure that determines water flow. I do not intend to generalize all engineers but my critique is about the pedagogy of teaching water in engineering institutions in India.
I suggest the inclusion of literature – stories, novels, plays, and, poetry – to provide intellectual stimulation to Engineers and Social Scientists. This should not be limited to the first year of technical education as a meager English Language Training course. Rather, suitable literature in regional languages can be carefully designed as case studies to expose learners to theoretically simulated practical dilemmas they might encounter while conducting real-world investigations. This approach will facilitate interdisciplinary brainstorming by exposing learners to multi-faceted dimensions of water. This will provide them an opportunity to internalize hydrological attitudes and values paving way for just, responsible, and sustainable individual and community actions around water.
To exemplify the mobilization of literature as a tool for advancing hydrosocial water literacy, a case study can be developed based on the allegorical play Muktadhara or The Waterfall (1922) by, Nobel Laureate for Literature (1913), Rabindranath Tagore. This play could be selected for developing a case study as it seamlessly transports the learners to an agricultural landscape marred by social injustices. The unjustness arises out of the conflict between ‘hard’ interventions in form of state-sponsored dams and ‘soft’ socio-political, cultural, and, psychological variables like the (un)democratic political landscape, community attitudes towards the ‘other’, Gandhian values, (mis)use of science, land entitlements and economic rights. It prophetically mirrors water injustice as a negative fallout of modern developmental projects that vex contemporary water politics and democracy.
Similarly, a water literacy module could also be based on The Tempest by William Shakespeare, which is filled with water motifs. A step ahead, the messages of these plays can be playfully articulated in technical thinking through artful engagements like theatre. Role-playing and character creation in theatre forges attitudinal change besides creating engineers with effective public communication skills. In India, we need engineers with both of these qualities, regardless of their specialization, and this makes the inclusion of teaching literature in engineering classrooms imperative.
Feature image: The dynamic pairing of star-crossed disciplines, Literature and Engineering, at Purdue University, USA . Credit: Author
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