We May Be Using English, But That Doesn’t Mean We’re Speaking the Same Language
Universalizing global knowledge

Edna Bay, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Essay by Rohit Chopra, Visiting Assistant Professor, ILA

The following two papers were presented at the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts Colloquium of October 4, 2006. Visiting Assistant Professor Rohit Chopra was the central presenter, raising questions of the universality of knowledge for a global public. Associate Professor Edna Bay responded. Both authors wish to thank Angelika Bammer and all participants in the discussion that followed for a lively and stimulating session. For information on future ILA Colloquium topics, contact the ILA at 727-7601 or email jwwynn@emory.edu.

Vol. 9 No. 3
December 2006/
January 2007

Return to Contents

Going Global
How in the world is Emory?

Global Scholarship for Informed Action

Around Campus, Around the World

"I think we want Emory people working in global health to have a kind of distinctive, humble, non-arrogant, cooperative ethos."

"Is this an imperialist culture, in which we are getting the Emory name brand out, or is it a genuinely inclusive, reciprocal partnership?"

Swimming with the Turbot
Scholarship for a Global Public

We May Be Using English, But That Doesn’t Mean We’re Speaking the Same Language
Universalizing global knowledge


Rohit Chopra has raised the question of how knowledge travels around the world in light of America’s academic hegemony in a global public sphere. I accept his challenge to consider how we in the American academy may rethink the norms that we assume, and how we can work to get beyond what we might call a series of power relationships between us and scholars elsewhere.

Certainly, as Chopra points out, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the imposition of European knowledge around the world, and particularly on colonized peoples, as his turbot example so eloquently shows. At this point, the sciences appear to have successfully globalized their forms of knowledge and its production. Those of us in the social sciences and humanities, however, seem to be following something akin to the dictum that all politics is local.
I want to give three brief examples of my own experience in discovering the provinciality of this American “hegemony” and then make some practical suggestions for ways in which we might move toward greater engagement with others as we reach toward a universalizing global knowledge.

Osaka, Japan. On a trip to Japan some years ago, I visited the Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, an institution housed in a magnificent new building. Deciding to view an exhibition on pre-industrial economies, I spotted an enormous wall map, clearly of the world, at the end of the vast exhibition hall. It dominated the massive glass cases that housed, incongruously it seemed to me, Inca pottery from South America, nineteenth-century farm implements from the U.S. Middle West, and totem poles from Northwest Coast Indian cultures. But oddest of all was the map. It was dominated by a jagged blue oval at center-right, something that I realized after a moment was the Pacific Ocean. High up on the left of that oval was a shape labeled Japan. To the far right, in what one might term the map’s “Far East,” I recognized North and South America. A massive land mass stretched across the left side of the map, ending on the top left with a kind of peninsula—Europe. Obviously, I was glimpsing a very different perspective on the world. All knowledge is local.

Kingston, Jamaica. Given an opportunity to teach a course at the University of the West Indies several years ago, I was assigned a survey on gender in the Caribbean. Colleagues in Jamaica sent me a copy of the syllabus, and I set off to the library to bone up on the readings, only to find that very few were available—either in book or journal form. This absence became my introduction to a flourishing academic publishing industry in the Caribbean that tends not to distribute widely in the U.S., and I quickly discovered that the opposite is true. Moreover, the scholarship that people in the Caribbean do on the Caribbean is slightly different—different questions asked, different emphases stressed—from that of scholars on the Caribbean who are based in the U.S. What is most interesting about this phenomenon is that scholars from the Caribbean based in U.S. universities tend to do work similar to that of U.S. scholars, while expatriates in Caribbean universities tend to do projects more in keeping with Caribbean priorities. Knowledge is not who you are but where you are.

Atlanta, USA. I mentioned the subject of this essay to a colleague who happens to be French, and he immediately told me a story of a new graduate student, an international student whose first language is English. Enrolled in my colleague’s graduate seminar, the student came to him after a few weeks to share his concern that he might not be intellectually prepared to do graduate work. He had no problems doing the reading and he was coming to class well prepared, he thought, but somehow he did not see in the material the things that the other students talked about. My French colleague immediately reassured the student that he had had the same experience when he first arrived in this country. We may be using English, but that doesn’t mean we’re speaking the same language.

So where does this leave us? For one, the phenomenon of globalization and the establishment of western-style universities around the world have resulted not in a homogenization of knowledge, but rather in a multiplicity of directions and interpretations. Chopra points out the dominance of the American academy in this, but I am not convinced that scholars everywhere see this dominance. Historians in Nigeria, for example, who debate the nature and relative importance of the ancient states of Nri and Ife are not focused on current American debates over empire and decolonization. One can argue that both sets of scholars are debating the present rather than the past, a point worth pursuing.

I would agree with Chopra that we do not inhabit something that Thomas Friedman would call a flat world. If nothing more, American academics have relatively greater access to resources for research, which allows us to produce more knowledge more readily and, more importantly, to set agendas for collaborative efforts. We Americans tend to be unaware of these differences from the rest of the world. Ironically, in struggles for racial and gender equity, and for social justice, we may have learned that people who assume they are the norm are notoriously insensitive to how the less advantaged perceive difference. So we need to pull ourselves up short, perhaps in front of a map of Japan, to remind ourselves that we live on a small globe with multiple research questions. Our approaches, and our questions, are not universal. In my own field, African studies, the American academy often seeks to employ African scholars. Tellingly, successful candidates who happen to be African most often were trained in the U.S. What seems to be wanting in others is not being up to date on the parochial debates that we’re following.

In defense of the American academy, it is well worth acknowledging that we do adopt or appropriate approaches from outside, albeit in forms that Chopra rightly labels “flavor of the month.” A generation ago the annales school of French history was influential, then a broad range of disciplines was deeply impacted by the work of French theorists, and recently subaltern studies from India has inspired American scholars. Interestingly, we tend to recognize such new directions only when they are thoroughly established, sometimes at the point when people who set them are reaching the end of their active careers.

So what, if anything, could we or should we do? For the long run, we might well remember that any perceived American academic hegemony, like any nation’s political power, is bound to shift over time. For the short run, I would argue that an important part of internationalization at Emory must be bringing the international here, not on our terms but on theirs. Thus we should encourage graduate students and faculty colleagues from abroad to talk about the differences they find. We need to bring in scholars on short-term appointments to teach. We would do well to build occasional seminars around competing visions of particular scholarly questions—and include readings or visits by scholars representing different schools of thought elsewhere.

Such efforts to incorporate diverse knowledges cannot but help broaden our overall vision—and hence we will have an opportunity to understand on a deeper level the factors that determine how we see. Despite efforts to work with scholars elsewhere, there will be gaps that will not go away. Moreover, the bridges that we build to link different knowledge systems cannot last, for knowledge everywhere and the means by which it is produced are always changing. These bridges to constantly shifting landscapes will work for a while and then will need to be reconstructed—but that is one of the pleasures of academic life. And through it all, we will do well to bear in mind the wonderful passage from Chakrabarty that Chopra quoted.