Meet Our Students – Sai Diwan

Interested in what you can do with a degree in Asian Studies? In our Spotlight Interview Series, we ask our students, postdocs and alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Asian Studies and for any advice they would give to current students. Meet Sai Diwan, a current PhD candidate in the Department of Asian Studies. In this interview, Sai shares with us how her passion for reading stimulated her interests to study English Literature in her BA and MA, and later to pursue a PhD degree in Asian Studies at UBC. In her first foray into teaching this term (W2020 Term 2), she talks to us about her many “firsts” in teaching as a Sessional Lecturer and how she finds them valuable.

Tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you became interested in Asian Studies?

One of my distinct memories of my childhood is sitting in an oddly comfortable dice shaped chair in the library of the school my parents were hoping to enrol me in. I remember thinking that this could be a spot I’d like in the new school. I grew up in Mumbai, India with a love for reading and a love for libraries. I carried that interest through my years of schooling and this winding route through literature and media brought me to doing my PhD in Asian Studies at UBC. I did my BA and MA in English Literature and took a few courses in film studies at the University of Mumbai in India. I have always liked the idea of making sense of the world through stories and that was the loose framework I was working with when I decided to apply for a PhD. Asian Studies at UBC has the right blend of focused guidance and an interdisciplinary approach. In my research work in Asian Studies, I work with the stories and meaning making structures that people use to frame their activities and their identity.

Could you explain to a non-expert what you are researching and why it is significant?

I often joke that I watch a lot of Netflix and call it “work”. I study how audiences receive and respond to video streaming media in contemporary India and what that can help us understand about the social environment of the viewers. Video streaming is a popular leisure activity in India. What’s more interesting is that for a medium marketed as a platform for “solo watching” there is a lot of online chatter and interaction among the viewers and between the viewers and the platforms. My research looks at how and why viewers of digital Video on Demand (VOD) services interact with the VOD platforms and with other viewers. With limitations on fieldwork during the pandemic, I have turned to “digital fieldwork”. I study the YouTube channels of these VOD platforms in terms of the platforms’ interact with the viewers and the comments left by the viewers on the platforms’ videos. I study these interactions in terms of social identities to raise questions about the “digital everyday” in contemporary India.

Is this your first time teaching? Have you enjoyed your first foray into teaching being done via online learning, or would you have preferred it being in-person?

I encountered many “firsts” in teaching this term- the first time teaching an undergraduate course, the first time teaching in a blended synchronous-asynchronous online format and the first time teaching across multiple time zones.

This has been a valuable learning experience for me. In many ways, all the known structures of learning and teaching being torn down helped me to take a fresh approach to building and teaching this course. My supervisor, Dr Sunera Thobani, our Department Head, Dr Sharalyn Orbaugh and our Graduate Student Advisor, Dr Bruce Rusk provided timely advice and guidance through the term. It has been such a joy to explore various topics in this course with the students, and the students have put in commendable effort to beat screen fatigue and adapt to this new way of learning.

I think it is most effective to work with the situation and its tools and I appreciated the opportunity to adapt teaching techniques to the online environment. In terms of preference with respect to in person teaching and online teaching, my approach was to recognize both as distinct mediums set within their own range of possibilities. The digital classroom has pushed us to think about what more we can do to make learning accessible, to make learning participatory and to make learning collaborative. Of course, a Zoom Whiteboard has nothing on a classroom chalkboard- but when the time does come to pick up our chalks in the classroom, I am eager to bring what I have learned about adaptive teaching into our physical learning spaces.

What are some other interests you enjoy pursuing outside of your work?

Outside media research, one of my other big interests is higher education development. I enjoy reading blogs about teaching tools and learner-centered education. Who knew that rubrics could be so interesting? I do think that instructors are lifelong learners and reading about the how’s and why’s of learning practices moulds my approach to teaching.

Sometimes I miss my literature study days and like to bury myself in a good book. Words have a powerful way of structuring emotions. Over the last year, I have also been dabbling in painting and it has proved to be a soothing hobby.

A painting by Sai

A painting by Sai

Can you tell us something positive (whether related to your academic career or not) that 2020 produced for you?

I happened to find myself home in Mumbai in early March last year. So, when the initial panic of all the borders closing subsided, I realized that I would have time with my family like I hadn’t had before. I was very grateful to be able to spend time with my family, especially considering that it was a stressful period. I was also in the throes of my comprehensive exam last year. My PhD advisory committee was incredibly supportive and worked with me through the time difference and unusual circumstances. I was happy to enter 2021 as a PhD candidate.

What are you teaching within UBC’s Asian Studies department and anything particular about your course that you would like to share with students?

I currently teach “ASIA 304 – A Survey of South and Southeast Asian Performing Arts”. The course aims to live up to its title and provide students introductions to the rich cultures of performing arts in South and Southeast Asia. We have explored artforms such as Sadir & Bharatanatyam, Qawwali, Mua Roi Nuac (Water Puppetry), Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppetry) and Wayang Hip Hop. Performing arts are informative gateways to learn about topics such as social practices and methods of identity construction in a region. In the course, we also talk about the role of digital media and social media in popularizing traditional artforms and making art accessible during a time when social gatherings are not possible.