Guest Speaker Dr. Rekha Sethi Brings Expertise to AMES at Duke

Professor Rekha Sethi at Duke University
Professor Rekha Sethi at Duke University

Dr. Rekha Sethi is not a typical guest lecturer. She traveled all the way from New Delhi to spend a week sharing her unique insight and guiding students through the material of AMES 191: Indian Literature of Marginalized Society. In India, she teaches at Indraprastha College for Women which is a constituent of the University of Delhi. She is a professor focusing on post-independence Hindi poetry and fiction and also an accomplished author. She worked with Dr. Kusum Knapcyzk to put together a very instructive and enjoyable lesson plan.

AMES 191 delves into the marginalization of Dalits (caste discrimination), tribal communities, women, and LGBTQ+ people in India. In the midst of our unit on women’s discrimination, Rekha Ji brought a special perspective to our class as an educated woman both living in modern India and also teaching at a women’s college. While the literature in the class is presented in English, Rekha Ji’s work in translation perfectly complemented Kusum Ji’s helpful notations and was particularly useful for diving deeper into the complex stories at hand. She pointed out many literary devices and hidden meanings in the pieces that would normally be lost to the reader in English. Her familiarity with the authors and their bodies of work gave the class helpful background knowledge to guide our discussion on the texts.

Much of poetry can often feel inaccessible on account of foreign writing style and its lack of presence in daily life. And for American students, this is almost always the case for Indian poetry written in a foreign language. However, Kusum Ji picked out a captivating set of poems from contemporary Indian poet Anamika and Rekha Ji expertly walked the class through the selected works. Rekha Ji has written analytical papers examining how Anamika’s poems challenge the patriarchy in India. She used her strong grasp on the topic to effectively lead students through an otherwise complex set of poems which artistically detail the unjust treatment that women face in India. While she spoke eloquently to the various pieces and their typical interpretations, she also challenged us to think independently about each and come to our own conclusions on the messages and themes.

Rekha Ji was present for an entire week of class which served as another beneficial aspect of her visit. Such continuity is uncommon for guest lecturers, but it allowed for much more thorough discussion on each story. The additional time also allowed the class to ask her more personal questions about her experience as a woman pursuing higher education in metropolitan India. Listening to her anecdotes helped us connect to the material in a much more tangible fashion than simply reading and discussing stories from within the Duke bubble.

I was privileged to have Rekha Ji as a guest in both my AMES 191 and Hindi 203 classes. Kusum Ji is always bringing both educational and fun lessons to all her courses, a balance that is often difficult to find.


Additional student comments about Rekha Sethi's lectures:

Maggie- Yes! I really enjoyed their professional insight and the anecdotes she was able to tell us. I liked being able to ask questions and get answers from their own personal experiences. 

Khushmeet- I enjoyed having Dr. Rekha Sethi in class. Their unique perspectives and insights were a nice change of pace and challenged us to explore different materials that she was experts in. 

Pratikchhya- Yes! I really enjoyed Dr. Rekha Sethi’s presence in class. She was passionate about what she talked about which made class more enjoyable.

Vishal - Rekha Ji’s visit was unique in that she was present for the entire week which gave more continuity to her lectures and helped the class understand her material better. We were able to discuss the readings with more depth and analyze the texts to a conclusion which was beneficial.

Annika - I really enjoyed Dr. Sethi’s presentations because she was in person and talking about the marginalization of women which is something I can relate to in many ways. 

Pranay - I really enjoyed both guest speakers. I liked Dr. Rekha Sethi’s analysis of the different literature that we went through. She clearly was an expert on the topics she spoke on, and this allowed for very high-level analysis of the works we discussed. 

Taranjit - I loved Dr. Sethi’s lectures and enjoyed her analysis of the literature we’ve discussed in class. I felt it was a nice way to take the poems and stories we’ve read one step further. 

Sofia–I loved hearing Dr. Sethi’s perspective and knowledge about the literature we read. I thought she was so interesting to listen to and she did such a good job with making sure we really understood the readings and the authors’ purposes. 

Natasha - Rekha ji’s readings were also very interesting, and not only did I learn more about feminist literature in India, but also, I feel that I gained authors I can add to my regular repertoire because of how much I enjoyed what Rekha ji gave us to read. 

Josie - I enjoyed Dr. Rekha Sethi's analysis of feminist literature. She has such a sharp eye for parts of the literature that could have different meanings. Since Dr. Sethi was here for a week, it would have been cool if she taught us how to analyze more of the pieces on the first day and the second day to have an open conversation about our analysis to share our different opinions. The reason I want to learn how she analyzes literature is so that outside of this course I would be able to use that skill. 

Mallika- I really enjoyed both guest speakers, but I was especially drawn to Dr. Rekha Sethi. Not only was the subject matter interesting, but she was able to analyze each line in a poem down to the bare bones. I have never looked at poetry or literature that way before, and it was eye-opening. Being introduced to Indian female poets that write about topics that are usually banned or taboo in society was incredible. I plan to explore far more in that genre, and possibly get in touch with Rekha Ji to discuss it further. 

Nitya - My favorite speaker was Dr. Rekha Sethi because I am very interested in feminist literature. I thought Dr. Rekha Sethi’s talk was really empowering and taught me a lot about how Indian women asserted their power by taking back control over their bodies and asserting their sexuality. This was particularly interesting because sex is such a taboo topic in Indian society. In fact, I rarely ever watch Hindi/Bollywood movies that have any sexually explicit scenes. Thus, reading Indian literature that normalizes sex and female desire was really interesting.

This speaker series was supported and funded by Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Duke Service Learning & Duke India Initiative.