Going niche in college

Going niche in college


Varshini Murali revisits memories of time spent on the SOAS campus in London

UNASSUMING FACADE The main entrance to the School of African and Oriental  Studies .To be honest, I hadn’t heard of the School Of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, until my third year of law school, when a couple of my seniors headed off to this institution to pursue their LLMs.

A quick google search later, I came to understand that this college was very niche in its discipline. Just as the name indicates, SOAS focuses on subjects against the backdrop of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East.

After law school, I decided to study a media-related course; I had pretty much made up my mind that I would not pursue an entirely legal career, be it in the corporate sector or litigation. As I felt that journalism was a ‘subject’ I could pick up on the job and hone through practice,  I went after Media and Cultural studies, a theoretical course which I am able to test out the full extent of its applicability today.

Situated at the heart of Russell Square in London, with a second campus a little while away at Vernon Square, the main college building, at first sight, is bound to be a disappointment (especially if your previous college/university experience involved a sprawling campus). But you’ll only have to push through the large revolving door up front, to understand that you never should judge a book by its cover.

The course

The college offers a wide variety of courses in Humanities, and the degree of specialisation is rather mindboggling. In my year at this institution, I’ve gathered that SOAS is definitely known world over for its programme on Development Studies and its amazing knack for languages. On an interesting aside, the SOAS Language Centre even provides short courses for non-degree students on African and Asian languages, ranging from Swahili to Sanskrit.

There are a fair share of students in other disciplines as well. For instance, the law wing also takes up a good chunk of the yearly student inflow. The degrees offered under the broad spectrum of ‘South Asian Studies’, either at the undergraduate or the postgraduate level, also have a large number of takers.

The great thing about studying at SOAS is that studying a subject as an interdisciplinary study becomes inevitable. Even the course structure and modules are fashioned in such a manner that you could pick and choose a topic of study, based on your interest, and streamline your thought process so that it best reflects the nature of your course. For example, for my final dissertation thesis, I had an opportunity to analyse how the media examined and handled the Jessica Lal murder trial. From a cultural studies’ standpoint, I was able to bring in the aspect of dialogue, and how such dialogue helped initiate or speed up the process of justice. At the same time, as a lawyer, I was able to examine the same issue from another angle, wherein such dialogue, or excess dialogue, may have been an impediment in carrying out a fair legal trial, without any external influences.

My course was designed in a way that allowed students to understand media processes from a non-western point of view. Unlike other colleges, where Media Studies as a course is heavily based on a conception that is created in the US or UK, SOAS attempted to teach these theories and test the extent of its applicability, through our own chosen topics of study (as part of our essays, assignments, dissertation etc).

The infrastructure

The SOAS library is considered to be one of the most important academic libraries in the world, especially for studies related to Africa, Asia and the Middle East. With its vast volumes of books on anything and everything under the sun, and a newly-constructed study wing, which includes a language lab, it is by far my most favourite feature of this institution. I was a little surprised by the library’s sizeable DVD collection — a good chunk of it being Indian movies, particularly Bollywood – meant for aiding those in the media/film studies department.

Aside from this, SOAS even has a media lab, which was mostly used by those who had opted for the media production course.  And of course, during the weeklong filmmaking/editing crash-course workshops that occurred during the ‘reading weeks’; a week during term time is designated entirely for the student to catch up on all the readings that have been incomplete until then.

Not to mention, the SOAS Radio, an online radio station based out of the SOAS campus which collaborates with students, alumni, academicians to produce speech and music programmes for a wide audience, and help students “engage directly with the parts of the world they’re studying.”

Of course, I’ve only presented a sliver of the whole SOAS experience, and naturally, this will differ from person to person. However, my year of study at SOAS has inspired me to think outside the box, to avoid making assumptions based on ideas or notions that have been taken for granted. Most importantly, it has offered me a somewhat-workable solution towards clearing the chaotic clutter that usually echoes within my head.

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