Project Humanities in Pakistan

This visit demonstrates the English department faculty exchange and institutional partnership between Kinnaird College for Women in Pakistan and Arizona State University via Teaching and Research in American Literature. Our lectures on American Literature, curriculum development, children’s literature, women in automobiles, and the race and gender politics of hair were eye opening and engaging for all of our audiences. Our trip to Lahore, Pakistan gave us an invaluable opportunity to bear witness to the absolute transformative power of talking, listening, and connecting.

ASU Project Humanities in Pakistan:

Talking, Listening and Connecting
- B. Taylor Coe, Project Humanities Research Intern


In mid-November 2014, a contingent from Arizona State University’s English department and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict traveled to Pakistan for a week of lectures, conversations, and demonstrations at Kinnaird College of Women in Lahore, in the province of Punjab. The partnership between the two institutions exists to foster collaborative research and teaching efforts in cross-cultural American literature. As a member of the English department at ASU, Dr. Neal A. Lester, Founding Director of Project Humanities, went to Pakistan along with literature professor Deborah Clarke, and Carolyn Forbes, Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. Dr. Lester had an absolutely amazing experience talking, listening, and connecting with students, faculty, and staff at Kinnaird.

I interviewed Dr. Lester about his trip, and some of what sticks out for him the most were the vibrant colors of the city and the attitudes of the people he met. He was struck by how excited Kinnaird faculty and students were to engage with the American Literature material unwrapped by the visiting American instructors. The students’ appreciation of more nuanced approaches to literary dissection was very apparent, especially when reading children’s literature. Kinnaird faculty and students had considered approaching children’s books with the same critical eye they brought to canonical texts. Most had not considered children’s literature and children’s texts, dolls, nursery rhymes, and the like as a viable lens through which to read, understand, and document a culture. Imbedded within the stories created by adults and told to children are clues to the deepest hopes and cultural values. The students at Kinnaird often read a work and took it at face value, trusting that the narrative voice, in all cases, was also the author’s voice. When asked to question the relationship between the author and the narrative voice, they were quite excited to have a fresh technique to use in the study of literature.

Two faculty from the English department at Kinnaird visited ASU in fall 2104, sitting in on classes and attending scholarly and cultural events.

Kinnaird Faculty with Nikki Giovanni

Our ASU team will host another cohort of five faculty at ASU during the spring 2015 semester. Just as visiting Lahore has broadened Dr. Lester’s perspective on Pakistani culture, the Pakistani faculty's visit here will surely enhance and challenge some of the cultural assumptions about America and Americans. Indeed, most of what Dr. Lester brought back to Project Humanities was a fresh and heightened awareness of the local Punjabi culture, not just an understanding of what his Pakistani colleagues teach and how they teach. He was very quick to point out that what the American public sees of Pakistan in the news is not wholly indicative of all of Pakistan any more that what Pakistanis see of America in the news headlines and in Hollywood movies and on television is all that is America. For instance, while the first cohort of Pakistani faculty was here, Dr. Lester and the Project Humanities team had the Pakistani faculty volunteer with them at the Central Arizona Shelter Services where they served food and distributed clothing to homeless persons. This early Saturday morning experience left a deep impression on the visitors as this is an aspect of America rarely if ever talked about and thought about since American is believed to be the land of plenty.


                                                                    Kinnaird Faculty at Project Humanities Day of Service at the Central Arizona Shelter Services

While Dr. Lester and the other ASU representatives were given a strict security detail by the hosting American Embassy, Dr. Lester never perceived himself to be in any danger at all… well, maybe when they were in the chaotic traffic on the roads of Lahore. He said that visitors were advised not to drive because understanding the traffic rules in Pakistan isn’t always easy. He even expressed confusion a time or two when he, as a passenger, sat on the left side of vehicles and the drivers sat on the right, the opposite of driving and riding the American way; one of many examples of taking for granted how much living in a specific culture shapes our understanding of everyday things that can differ greatly from culture to culture.

Another detail that registered with Dr. Lester was the fact of being at an all-women’s college, a new experience for him in all of this thirty years of teaching at the college level. Being at a women’s college, Dr. Lester was able to learn a little more about feminism in Pakistan. Female students were vocally concerned with societal expectations and personal desires, to have both a family life and a professional life, and they well understood the challenges and the tensions that these two pulls presented for them. As well, women of the college wore a range of expressive clothing, from traditional Pakistani garb to denim jeans and other Western attire similar to American women's fashion. Just as our perception of Pakistani life is filtered through our media, so too is their view of American life. What they know of America comes mostly from pop music, television shows, and movies. Having us there as Americans allowed us to talk about and think through some of the ways that America is consciously and unconsciously constructed for the rest of the world.

Through this continuing three-year funded partnership between ASU and Kinnaird, both schools stand to learn much from one another. We don’t often think of how we approach education as an aspect of our culture because it seems so normal to us. Through coming together via shared passions with different peoples all around the world, we can find opportunities to learn as much about ourselves as we can learn about others. Such an experience is at the heart of the Project Humanities mission and vision of talking, listening, connecting.


Photos from the Visit:

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Book Authors from Pakistan

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Kinnaird Faculty at Project Humanities Day of Service at the Central Arizona Shelter Services in February 2015


Beyond the Hijab: Pakistani Women’s Perspectives

Photos from the event:

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Visiting Faculty from Pakistan donating for the Spontaneous Day of Service



Farewell gathering for the visiting faculty from Pakistan: Click here for pictures