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Did you know that Professor John Caldwell is writing his dissertation whilst forming the backbone of our Hindi-Urdu program here in DAMES? It’s true! Check out my recent interview below with Professor Caldwell about his dissertation, his process, and how his research ties in with his teaching and his work in the local community.

1) Can you give us a “nutshell” version of your dissertation?

“Songs from the Other Side: Listening to Pakistani Voices in India”

India and Pakistan have been two separate nations only since 1947, but more often than not in history political agents have raised barriers to cultural exchange between them. Most recently, in 2016 a ban was imposed on the Indian entertainment industries prohibiting Pakistani actors and musicians from working in India. I explore a series of case studies in which Pakistani singing voices crossed these boundaries, and their songs became embedded in the Indian songscape. This musical exchange was driven by a variety of “vectors” that operated at the intersection of gender, religion, politics, and taste.

2) What inspired you to pursue research on this topic in particular? And for our students who might be interested in writing their own dissertations someday, what is your research process like/how would you recommend getting started?
First, I’ve always known that if I ever was to do a Ph.D., it would have to be in Music/Musicology. Music has been my lifelong passion and hobby. Doing music, and especially playing in ensembles, keeps me sane and centered. Although I’m not a musical omnivore, I have fairly diverse interests and experience, including directing the UNC Gamelan Ensemble, playing bassoon with the Raleigh and Durham Symphonies, and playing the Indian harmonium with local vocalists. I came to my particular dissertation topic through my many years of experience with music and musicians from both India and Pakistan. It was always fascinating to me to discover which songs were shared, and how music can transcend political enmity.

My dissertation process has been somewhat slow because of teaching full time, but I’m on track to finish early next year. I have enjoyed it throughout, and I may be one of the few dissertators who can say that I’m still excited by my topic. I think if you want to do a dissertation you have to find a great program (e.g. UNC) and a great advisor. The great thing about Asian Studies in general is that we get to do “field work,” i.e. spend a semester or a year somewhere in Asia doing research. I had a Fulbright-Nehru Dissertation Grant to live in India in Spring-Summer 2017 and it was wonderful.

3) How has COVID impacted your dissertation and research, if at all?
Luckily I was mostly done with my research when COVID arrived, but I have many colleagues who have had to revise or postpone research plans this year. Funding agencies have been largely cooperative, but it’s still a shame. I also know that for many it has been hard to keep momentum going, but since I’m still enjoying writing, my dissertation is a welcome distraction to the stress and anxiety of the pandemic.

4) Is it difficult to write a dissertation/conduct your research process while teaching classes for DAMES?
It’s not difficult, but it does require some careful time management. My schedule this semester is crazy for a number of reasons, but I’ve managed to squeeze in writing here and there. I once told one of my seminar professors (when asking for an extension) that “I didn’t underestimate the amount of time it would take me to write my seminar paper, but I did underestimate the number of interruptions and distractions I would experience.” The same thing has been true of the dissertation writing process.

5) Do you ever incorporate your dissertation topics into the classes you teach? How much overlap is there? 
Definitely, in my Music of South Asia class (ASIA 164). But I also include lots of songs in my language teaching, and the “unit of analysis” in my dissertation is the individual song. Music is such a great resource in language teaching, as many of my DAMES colleagues can testify.

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