Rie Debabrata: M.A Social and Economic Development (1998), Ph.D. Sociology (2002)

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I would like to thank Ken Plummer for inviting me to share my memories of Essex. I was Ken’s Teaching Assistant in 1998-1999 and 2000-2001, and to say that I was completely blown away by the vitality and incredible lucidity of his lectures – would be such an understatement. Listening to him (SOC 101: Introduction to Sociology) made me wish that I had learned from him as an undergraduate.

Besides Ken, some of the inspiring professors that I had the privilege to study and interact with, both during my Masters, and later PhD, were — Miriam Glucksmann (my PhD supervisor), Ted Benton, Lydia Morris (PhD examiner), Pam Cox, Jane Hindley, to name a few.

I came to Essex in 1997 to pursue a MA in Social and Economic Development (an inter-disciplinary course between the Departments of Sociology and Economics), which I understand is no longer offered. I had graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor’s degree in Economic (Honours) from the University of Delhi, India, but had chosen to pursue the inter-disciplinary course at Essex mainly because I had always been fascinated by Sociology (knew very little about it, though). It was also because at the end of my 3-year bachelor’s degree, I could not visualize myself pursuing a career in Economics. I had found it to be very econometric-centred, something that did not sit well with me. I was interested in Development Economics – or as my late-grandfather used to put it – the kind of economics that Amartya Sen (a fellow-Bengali and an acquaintance of my grandfather’s) teaches. The fact that Essex offered a course that combined both Development Economics and Sociology seemed like a win-win.

The academic environment at Essex was so vibrant – there we so many lectures, seminars and colloquiums to attend, constantly expanding one’s intellectual horizons. Up until then, I had mainly studied within the Indian academic system (except for a brief stint at the University of California, Berkeley, where I took a course on Women’s Studies). The Indian educational system places a premium on learning by rote (it still does, although changes are afoot), and I do not recall being encouraged or trained to critique the material in any way. Lectures were often a one-sided affair, with students memorizing the lectures/notes and readings, and there was very little space for genuine debate or reflection. Learning by rote was something that I was quite good at during my school years, but I simply could not sustain that by the time I entered University for my undergraduate degree. So much of what I was studying either did not make sense to me, or seemed at odds with my politics – and yet there was no avenue for expressing that. As a result, I retreated and did not engage with the material or attempt to genuinely learn from it. By the time I had arrived at Essex, therefore, I was craving an interactive and intellectually stimulating environment. And my, did Essex deliver!

Even though I was new to Sociology, I did not feel like an outsider for too long. I encountered a department full of professors, administrators (Brenda Corti, Helen Hannick, Diane Allison, Mary Girling, Sue Aylott) and peers that were unfailingly warm, accommodating and engaging. As a result, I developed some wonderful friendships, some of which continue till today, despite the distance.

Some snapshots from my time at Essex:

–        Introductory conference for new students, followed by a welcome dinner at Wivenhoe’s Tandoori Hut: a first glimpse into a fiercely talented and charmingly quirky community that was going to be home for the next, almost 4 years.

–        Lecture by George Ritzer on ‘McDonaldization’: a very engaging discourse on a fascinating concept, which was followed by Ted Benton’s equally incisive query along the lines of “where/how does class fit into all of this?” It confirmed Ted’s status as one of my intellectual heroes!

–        Fuller Scholarship: I was grinning like a Cheshire cat (for what felt like days) when I received news of having been awarded the scholarship. This ensured that I would stay on at Essex for my PhD. I can still recall Tony Woodiwiss’ (then HOD) warm smile as he informed me of the Department’s decision and congratulated me.

–        Mentorship and guidance: I was never more convinced that I had chosen the right PhD supervisor in Miriam, than when I would receive very pragmatic and consistently supportive messages from her while in the midst of my field research – this was a challenging year spent travelling to remote villages and towns in India. Miriam also did not hold back on her criticism, as she did when she quite bluntly warned me that I would not complete my PhD if I took a break during my third-year to commence a consultancy with the United Nations. While I was initially taken aback (Miriam later gleefully confided that she had overdone it a bit to ensure that I would listen!), it did force me to refocus my priorities and to persuade my future employers to wait until I had submitted my thesis.

–        ‘Ruth Cavendish’: I have always been terribly impressed by the fact that Miriam, as the pseudonymous Ruth Cavendish, wrote “Women on the Assembly Line” – a groundbreaking ethnographic study. I recall having mentioned this several years later to my husband, Bernard (we were newly dating then), and even though he’s a political scientist, he knew of this study – needless to say, he scored big points.

Before arriving at Essex, I had worked with several civil society organisations and NGOs including the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (which provides micro-credit loans to rural women). I grew up within the ‘NGO-world’ in many ways, owing in a large part to my parents’ political and social activism in India.

After leaving Essex, I worked (very briefly) with the Asian Development Bank (posted in Manila, Philippines), and then with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where I have been since 2002. My work with UNDP has taken me to some exciting destinations – I was in Lao PDR for 2.5 years as the Assistant Country Director (I headed a team that worked on poverty eradication, HIV/AIDS prevention, gender empowerment, private sector development, and UNDP’s flagship ‘Human Development Report’). I also worked with UNDP’s regional programme on HIV/AIDS for South and Northeast Asia, specializing in anti-trafficking and migration issues. I have been posted in New York since 2006, where I am currently working as Donor Relations Adviser with UNDP’s External Relations Bureau. My team works on resource mobilization and maintaining partnerships with a variety of actors, including ‘donors’ to UNDP, such as the Nordic countries, Canada, UK, US, Australia, etc. A career with the UN certainly has its ups and downs. While it is hugely satisfying professionally, the pace of work and constant pressure to travel does take a toll on family life. Bernard and I have a young daughter and we find ourselves, as do many others, constantly trying to find that elusive work-life ‘balance’!

Looking back, I can quite confidently say that being at Essex was in so many ways a life-changing experience. I could not have asked for a better intellectual ‘home’. Even though I have not pursued an academic career since completing my PhD, the training that I have received here has held me in good stead!

Dr. Rie Debabrata Tamas

Donor Relations Adviser, Resources Partnerships Cluster, Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy,
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), One United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017

Photo: Miriam Glucksmann with Rie Debabrata Tamas (6 months pregnant!) and Bernard Debabrata Tamas in New York, October 2009

Rie and Miriam

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