Fresh Faculty: Nusrat Chowdhury
Issue   |   Wed, 11/28/2012 - 02:12

Anthropology Prof. Nusrat Chowdhury was born in Bangladesh and studied there through high school. She started going to university there, but then came to the U.S. and graduated from Univ. of Michigan at Ann Arbor with a undergraduate degree in anthropology and French. She then returned to Bangladesh and worked as a research associate for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) for about two years. She then completed her M.A. in anthropology at the Univ. of Texas at Austin before completing her Ph.D. in anthropology at the Univ. of Chicago. She taught at Northwestern Univ. for two quarters before coming to the College.

Q: How did begin studying anthropology and what made you decide to pursue it?

A: Ah, it was so long ago. I don’t think I exactly knew what anthropology was until I started taking classes in anthropology. I mean, I’m very glad because I know now that this is what I always wanted to do. I think I had this vague idea, which ended up being correct, that anthropology draws from a lot of other disciplines including the humanistic ones, which is something that speaks to the way that I think about the world. And, of course, to reiterate a cliché, anthropology, as they say, makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange, which is something that as a person I am inclined to do anyway. So, anthropology gives me the tools to do that.

Q: Why did you decide to teach at Amherst?

A: Well for obvious reasons. Amherst College is one of the best liberal arts colleges and has one of the most vibrant anthropology departments among all the liberal arts colleges. And, of course, I got the job! I was very happy to accept it.

Q: What is you research on and how did you become interested in it?

A: I work in Bangladesh, that’s where I’m from. When I went to do my fieldwork in 2007-2008 I actually wanted to work on a different project which was on the middle class and domestic labor. But then this movement that I ended up studying kind of erupted. In the north of Bangladesh they found a lot of high quality coal and they wanted to do this open pit coal mining which would relocate more than 100,000 people, and there was a lot of corruption in both the mining company and the government. This was the first popular movement that ended up being successful in ousting a foreign mining company. The event brought to the forefront a lot of discussions about energy crisis and political crisis in Bangladesh. So, I basically changed my topic, decided to do research on questions that seemed very urgent at the time.

Q: What were those questions?

A: Well, energy crisis, which is something that we, whether you live in Bangladesh or the U.S. or Amherst or whatever, are experiencing everyday. You read the newspaper and there is a lot of discussion and anxiety about oil, coal and climate. My larger question is about the intersection between energy crisis and political crisis, so how in a lot of countries in the global south, energy becomes a political issue. I mean, energy is political everywhere, but in these countries there are many times corrupt governments and they don’t have as much political power to shield themselves from multinational capital. I think to do an ethnographic study of what people on the ground are saying and how they’re resisting is important. Though the ethnography is based in Bangladesh I think it can help us answer questions about what is happening in the contemporary world in other places.

Q: Are you currently working on publishing anything, or have you published anything before?

A: I have actually published something, years ago, that has nothing to do with what I do now. I was working for an NGO in Bangladesh, which was one of the largest NGOs in the world, and I worked on food insecurity. I did some research there and published it in the Journal of Nutrition. Recently, I have a book review that came out in The Political and Legal Anthropology Review, and I have a couple of things that are under review in Cultural Anthropology and in Social Text which are two prominent journals in my field.

Q: What classes are you teaching this semester? What classes are you teaching next semester? What are they about?

A: I’m teaching one South Asia focused course, which is called South Asia Now, in which we are reading contemporary anthropological writing on South Asia. The other course is called Anthropology of Natural Wealth. It asks a lot of the questions that I am asking in my own research about the so-called “resource curse” of various countries in the global south, how to understand commodity fetishism by looking at natural commodities like coal, oil, sugar, bananas. That is what we are doing this semester.
Next semester, I am teaching Contemporary Topics in Anthropology this is a course for majors, although other people can take it as well. It’s basically to highlight what is being debated in the field of anthropology at the moment. I am also teaching another regional class in anthropology called Muslim Lives in South Asia to understand the cultural diversity of Muslims in that region.

Q: What aspects of Amherst do you like so far?

A: I like the students, and I’m not saying that just because I am being interviewed by one. I think it’s the students that make the classes so interesting and so much fun to teach. I’m really appreciating the kind of intimacy that students and professors share here, which is something that I didn’t see in grad school because I went to a big, research university. And of course, the area is so beautiful. I have never lived in this kind of landscape with so many beautiful trees and foliage and all that. I am enjoying both the scenery and the people.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to Amherst during your time here?

A: I want to keep on teaching courses that the students find interesting and rewarding. That’s one of the major ways I can contribute. I want to publish so that the College gains from that kind of exposure. I want to be a part of campus life in ways that the students want me to. I’m still new, so I’m not sure exactly what that contribution will look like, but I’m ready to dedicate myself.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: Spare time? Is there such a thing? I guess I like to watch good movies. I’ve been frequenting Amherst Cinema quite a bit, and I like that. I like hanging out with friends a lot. I already have a couple of friends from Chicago who also got jobs here, one in history and one in anthropology at Smith, and I have made a bunch of new friends, who are colleagues. I really like that kind of intellectual engagement when I’m socializing with people. So, I guess watching movies, hanging out with friends and playing with my cat.

Q: Any favorite movies you’ve seen recently?

A: The Master. It’s really, really wonderfully done. I loved it.