A World Without Alito

I was first introduced to Prof Alito by Dale, to speak on a panel at Goa University discussing the language conflict in Goa. Though the panel never happened, I was enrolled in the long list of mentees that Alito chose to mentor voluntarily. I was never his student but that hardly mattered. Upon almost all my longer vacation spent in Goa, a meeting with Alito, at his residence was almost always fixed. However, it was never an easy conversation with Alito. He, unlike many academics of his age and repute, would not bombard you with his intellectual prowess. Rather, the onus of continuing the conversation was on you and he subtly played the devil’s advocate, often to provoke you. And he didn’t do it out of some spite, though it took me a while to get used to his manner of conversation. Notwithstanding some acute differences of opinion with him, Alito was always forthcoming in helping in all possible ways he can. He wrote me my first recommendation letter, for the DD Kosambi fellowship. He asked me to speak to his batch of sociology students and work with them on improving their dissertations when I had barely finished writing mine.

But, the most endearing thing about Alito was his persistent activism that manifested in various forms inside as well as outside his classes. He guided several students from marginalized backgrounds, helped them get fellowships, jobs and even fought to get them tenured lecturer posts through the reservation, even at the cost of his job. One could always have a grudge against Alito for not producing academic papers given that his command over Goa’s socio-cultural world was rare and impeccable. But he (over)compensated this lack of writing on his part by investing all his energy into his students. In a way, Alito wrote people, helping them to find ‘their’ voice.

Towards the phase in his career that I knew him, he was challenging the very methods of producing academic scholarship. After early retirement from his teaching obligation, he was engaged in thinking through pedagogic practices of teaching sociology and the challenges of negotiating the social stratifications of caste, gender, religion, or language that find their ways in the classroom. And I guess that is a crucial point for us to think for the future. How we approach and understand the very idea of knowledge. We live in a society where not just the right to produce knowledge, but the authenticity of it and its ability to propagate itself rests heavily on social stratifications that we come to inherit. In other words, knowledge is a function of caste. If there’s one takeaway from Alito’s illustrious career as a teacher of sociology, it is his persistent effort to democratize the access to producing knowledge, not merely consuming it. Academia has a robust gatekeeping system that keeps a check on what kind of knowledge gets produced in university spaces. And it is not only the market forces that influence this, but also a certain brand of academic feudalism that still wants to keep people away from producing knowledge. Alito not only challenged this feudalism but also explored diverse forms of producing knowledge that was not necessarily considered academic.

As we transition into a world without Alito, we need to bear this in mind. That knowledge comes in forms. Knowledge is an experience. And it can be experienced. It is not merely text that can be reproduced in a journal for market gains. It has a function to play. To empower the one who is creating it.  If and when we become pedagogues, how can we ensure to create an environment in our classrooms where such an understanding of knowledge finds adequate space to thrive and sustain? That would be a fitting and long-lasting tribute to Alito’s career as an academic.

Reads old newspapers and researches on Goan History.

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