Learning with Moinak Choudhury

Moinak Choudhury

Learning comes in many forms, like personal experience or attending classes. Some people find that teaching is another great way to dive deeper into a subject, and that preparing information to share with others requires you to understand it well yourself.

“Somewhat coincidentally, my [other] research looks at autodidacts or people who teach themselves,” says Moinak Choudhury, who presented his course, Cashmere, Saffron, and Tea: Making and Belonging on the Indian Border, last January. “I had been looking to develop my understanding of Indian history and political economy,” and designing this course framed the perfect motivation to do so.

Moinak first heard about OLLI from Culture Corps volunteer Sayan Bhattacharya, whose courses had already introduced OLLI members to “complex social and political issues in India.” Culture Corps, a program of the University’s International Student and Scholar Services Office, gives international students the opportunity to share their cultural experiences with the U of M community, and OLLI regularly partners with Culture Corps in this learning venture. When the administrative coordinator in the English Department emailed Moinak with fellowship opportunities, he was drawn to the potential of OLLI and Culture Corps. “This opportunity to work with OLLI members brought together a familiar program at the right moment.”

“When we think of India, we recall some common portrayals of food, language, culture, and physical features. But growing up in northeast India, my experiences were quite different. I had grown up with family stories about immigration during the partition of Bengal into the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh,” Moinak says. “Some of the scars of regional and religious conflict have reappeared over the last decade as the political climate in India has taken a sudden turn.” How best to approach this topic with a Western audience?

He availed himself of a technique used by Global Minnesota, with whom he’d done some work previously through their program that invites international students to present and discuss their countries with primary and middle school students. The technique was to play on familiarity: just as the US loves baseball, so is India passionate for cricket. In Moinak’s course, he used the popular commodities of cashmere, saffron, and tea to open the door for his audience to begin a deeper exploration. “What began as an organizing idea quickly developed into something better. My preparation for this class helped me understand both the difficult and important combinations of cultural diversity, climate change, and resilient labor which lie behind these products. By dividing each commodity into ‘making’ and ‘belonging,’ my class, therefore, introduces learners to the underlying value of the commodity and the people who make it for us.”

OLLI member Marilyn Anderson, a student in the course shared: "Last March, COVID-19 slammed our doors and windows shut—just as our OLLI class, Cashmere, Saffron, and Tea, by Moinak Choudhury began. In it I found a new horizon, over the curvature of the earth, into three sections of Northern India—their history, culture, and economics. Marvelous trip!"