Columbia professor Spivak corrects pronunciation at JNU lecture, stokes row

A lecture at JNU took an unexpected turn when renowned literary critic and University of Columbia professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak corrected an attendee’s pronunciation, leading to a heated exchange. The incident has ignited a debate online.
Columbia professor Spivak corrects pronunciation at JNU lecture, stokes row
Jaano Junction

Literary critic and University of Columbia professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s recent lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) touched off a blazing row after a video emerged of a heated exchange between Spivak and an audience member when she repeatedly corrected his pronunciation.

Anshul Kumar, who claims to be the Founding Professor and Chairperson of the Centre for Brahmin Studies, shared a video of the exchange on social media. The clip showed that the disagreement stemmed from Kumar's pronunciation of WEB Du Bois, a prominent Black civil rights activist.

While Kumar was attempting to ask a question following the lecture, Spivak interrupted him several times to correct his pronunciation.

"Du Bois (pronounced Do Boys). Will you please learn his name? If you're going to talk about the man who is perhaps the best historian sociologist of the last century and this is supposed to be an elite university, then please take the trouble to learn how to pronounce his name."

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Columbia professor Spivak corrects pronunciation at JNU lecture, stokes row

Spivak further explained, "He is an Englishman, not French."

Kumar responded, "If you're done with the trivialities..." at which Spivak rebuked him for being rude to an elderly woman. The moderator intervened, urging Kumar to keep his questions “short and crisp”.

When Kumar resumed his question and mispronounced Du Bois again, Spivak sharply corrected him again it. He reacted angrily, at which Spivak ignored his question and the moderator moved on to other audience members.

Kumar took to social media to express his grievances. He said his question was about Spivak's claims of being middle class, highlighting her lineage connected to prominent figures like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.

He also pointed out the irony of the situation by referencing Spivak's influential work, 'Can the Subaltern Speak', which critiques the silencing of marginalised voices by patriarchal and imperial forces.

Kumar's post ignited a social media debate. Some criticised Spivak's behaviour, calling it arrogant and unnecessarily humiliating.

Dr Meena Kandasamy, who recounted a similar negative experience with Spivak, argued that correcting pronunciation should be done gracefully and without public humiliation.

"Bullying someone over their pronunciation is just not done," tweeted Kandasamy. "You slip in the right pronunciation, gracefully, when you repeat the same thing, move on, and focus on the content of what is being said. That's what a committed, dedicated teacher does... To snub someone over their pronunciation, in a hall filled to the brim with people, shows insecurity, pettiness, and the unwillingness to be magnanimous."

Others defended Spivak's actions. Social media users argued that Kumar deserved the correction and that Spivak was right to insist on proper pronunciation.

"She was absolutely right to school you”, said one X user.

"When the subaltern finally spoke she rattled," said another.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 82, is an influential scholar who wears many hats. As a literary theorist and feminist critic, her work challenges patriarchal structures, explores the experiences of women, particularly in colonial and postcolonial contexts, and argues for giving voice to the marginalized.

She is currently a University Professor at Columbia University and a founding member of their Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Some of her most well-known works include ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ and ‘In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics’.

Source: India Today

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