Vale Satadru Sen (1969-2018)

It is with great sadness that I make note here of the sudden passing of my friend and CUNY colleague, Satadru Sen (of Queens College’s History department),  on October 8th, 2018–he would have turned fifty in January. The news of his death came as a shock; my family is united in grieving with his family, friends, students, and colleagues.

Satadru and I met because we had to: we taught at CUNY; we were Indian immigrants who moved to the US at similar ages (Satadru in high school, I moved after my first degree); we loved cricket (Satadru wrote a few guest posts on my old cricket blog, and reviewed my book Brave New Pitch); we had a taste for Indian military history (he reviewed my book on the air component of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan); we liked traveling in the American West (he went on long motorcycle rides across its vast expanses and came back with stunning photographs.) We exchanged notes on our backgrounds and inclinations; we cursed the descent into fascism of the US and India; we fretted and fumed at CUNY bureaucracy, at the stupidity and obduracy of many of its administrative decisions; we were perplexed and enthralled by our students; as we became fathers, we discussed the trials and tribulations of parenting. (Our wives were in law school when we first met, and soon, we were the fathers of young girls–thus allowing for points of resonance between our families.)

Satadru was a genuine scholar and intellectual. As his department made note:

His scholarship was his passion; through it he sought to expose the inequities and hypocrisies wrought by colonial regimes in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean World.  His research ranged from the institutionalization of discipline and punishment to the global celebrity of a cricketer-turned-politician and its implications for understanding the experiences of subjects in imperial contexts.

Satadru’s five single-authored monographs include Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands(Oxford University Press, 2000), Migrant Races: Empire, Identity, and K.S. Ranjitsinhji (Manchester University Press, 2005), Colonial Childhoods: The Juvenile Periphery of India, 1860-1945 (Anthem Press, 2005), Savagery and Colonialism in the Indian Ocean: Power, Pleasure and the Andaman Islanders (Routledge, 2010), and Restoring the Nation to the World: Benoy Kumar Sarkar and Modern India (Routledge, 2015).  In addition to these are two collections of essays and one co-edited volume.

That publication list is one component of the claim I made above; far more germane was the quality of his writing and scholarship. His writing had flair and passion–visible quite clearly too, in his blog essays, marvelous long-form ventures of analysis and observation. (I reviewed his book on Ranjitsinhji for ESPN-cricinfo; in retrospect it might have been the best academic book on cricket I’ve ever read.)

Satadru and I met infrequently, but we exchanged mails and messages often; sometimes we met for drinks or coffee in our neighborhood; after we became fathers, we met with our families for teas and play-dates. On each occasion, we found time to retire to a  corner to trade our mordant little notes on academia, cricket, history, and the like. His observations were sharp and informed; I trust he enjoyed his interactions with me as well.

I’ll miss him; so will his family and friends and all those who learned from him and were enriched by his scholarship and companionship.

Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

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Responding to Caitlin Kelly on Journalistic Standards, Writerly Solidarity, and Bloggers’ Responsibilities

Caitlin Kelly from the New York Times writes in my comments space in response to my blog post from a few days ago and I respond. I want to expand on that response because I think her comment and mine bring to light some interesting issues. (The comments space also features some very good remarks by Satadru Sen, David Coady and Anna Gotlib; please do check it out.)

First off, it is entirely unclear to me why Kelly thinks a blogger needs to contact a journalist for clarification, when the blogger’s point is to note a piece has gone to press that doesn’t show the care required of a journalist. The point is to criticize the article, to call it out, to show to readers a journalist does not seem to have done the legwork required in order to produce a good piece of journalism. Critics of journalists cannot be expected to check in with them for vetting as it were; this seems like an unnecessary constraint. Since when has this requirement become de rigeur?

My friend Julie Rivchin Ulmet made the following perspicuous comment on my Facebook page:

That’s incredible on so many levels. First, you didn’t refer to any conduct by the author of the piece, you referred, appropriately, to the “New York Times” and the “article”. Its a bit ridiculous for her to take it personally, let alone to do so publically. And because you are referring to a published article and not behind the scenes actions, it is preposterous that you should ask for comment. It’s basically textual analysis. The text speaks for itself.

‘The text speaks for itself’ indeed.

Second, Kelly seems to ignore the tremendous power differential that exists between journalists like her who find a platform in media outlets like the New York Times and bloggers like myself. My blog posts have very limited visibility; if Kelly is worried her professional reputation will be hurt then she can perhaps rest easy. But her pieces have thousands of readers and are backed up by the authority of the New York Times; they have the power to influence opinion significantly. It is Kelly’s responsibility to do the checking, and to make sure her piece is not vulnerable to the kind of criticisms mounted in the Techdirt piece I was quoting. Like some dude once said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Third, Kelly wants to rely on a notion of writerly solidarity: that I should not attack another writer. But this is to invoke a solidarity or a fraternity that does not exist. More to the point, it is a dangerous invocation. Writers write, critics critique, journalists expose; once they put their ideas out there they should expect to be critiqued. I have now published three books, and am working on my fourth. None of my reviewers have bothered to contact me for clarifications; rather, they write first and then expect me to write defenses. I have a pen (or keyboard); I can defend myself very well with those. That’s what I do; I meet critique with more critique. I have written over 150 blog posts over at ESPN-Cricinfo so perhaps you could call me a sports journalist; I do not expect those who respond to me to ask me for clarification first. I have written almost 300 posts here. I don’t expect people who criticize me here to contact me first for clarification either. (In my response to Kelly I seem to have conceded too much in this regard). If someone critiques me, I will respond here (as I am doing at this very moment to Kelly’s critical comments).

Lastly, as I have noted, I look forward to Kelly’s response to the original criticisms mounted in the TechDirt piece. I have linked to her blog and will be monitoring it to see if that happens. Perhaps Kelly can post the original version of her piece so that we can see if editing by NYT editors above her resulted in the omissions we are all worried about.

Customer Relations in the Modern University

Satadru Sen has posted an interesting piece on his experiences teaching history at Queens College in CUNY. (I highly recommend Satadru’s blog; every single essay on there is literate and thoughtful.)  Because I wrote recently on completing ten years of teaching at Brooklyn College–and what I’ve learned from it— I thought I’d offer some thoughts triggered by Satadru’s article.

Many of the frustrations Satadru describes are familiar ones, some caused by the mysterious-to-faculty responses that  students have to syllabic requirements, some by the structure of CUNY’s pedagogical arrangements, which are geared toward administrative and bureaucratic efficiency. The latter, of course, is a common perception of the modern  university, which more often than not, is run in ways that have little to do with teaching or learning but everything to do with ‘management’, ‘maximizing resource utilization’ and other imperatives orthogonal to the educational process. (Consider, for instance, the three-hour night class, considered essential to the working student; I often wonder about its pedagogical efficacy.)

It is the students’ encounter with the university’s ‘system,’ which contributes to some of the students responses that Sen notes in his post; they have been exposed to the relentlessly bureaucratic structure of their supposed ‘institution of learning’ from the day they wandered onto its campus, and slowly but surely, they have internalized the most common response to the deadly impress of a grey, impersonal, bland and banal bean-counting culture: a state which is a halfway-house between reluctant acceptance and irate rejection. They sense the lack of concern with their education in the university’s arrangements; they respond accordingly. So, over the years, I’ve come to suspect that my syllabi, in which I strive for comprehensiveness as I detail the grade requirements, the reading list, and the varied administrative parameters by which I will conduct the class during the semester, are often viewed as just more ‘detail’, more official, and thus officious, requirements, which in the end do nothing more but build up just another fantastically complicated obstacle course, one to be deftly maneuvered through somehow.

The modern university too often functions like a modern corporation. (I don’t like comparing the university to a customer-serving corporation, but they insist on that analogy, so I feel duty-bound to comply.) In particular, it functions like those, that while ostensibly concerned about their ‘customers’,  are only really interested in the ‘first sale.’ After that you are a number to be quickly, efficiently, manipulated. Given this resemblance, it would make sense to note that customer-corporation relations are, and have been, at a notable low for a while. Part of the reason is that companies care little for customer service; it isn’t really an efficient money-maker.

And so,

The real problem may be that companies have a roving eye: they’re always more interested in the customers they don’t have. So they pour money into sales and marketing to lure new customers while giving their existing ones short shrift, in an effort to minimize costs and maximize revenue. [This is ] the “efficient relationship paradox”: it’s only once you’ve actually become a customer that companies put efficiency ahead of attention, with the result that a company’s current customers are often the ones who experience its worst service. Economically, this makes little sense; it’s more expensive to acquire a new customer than to hold on to an old one, and, these days, annoyed customers are quick to take their business elsewhere. But, because most companies are set up to focus on the first sale rather than on all the ones that might follow, they end up devoting all their energies to courting us, promising wonderful products and excellent service. Then, once they’ve got us, their attention wanders….

Apparently, if you try too hard to aspire to corporation-hood, you inherit its blemishes as well as its balance-sheets.