Who Should Teach South Asian Studies?

The department has proliferated at U.S. universities. But the discipline’s professors aren’t always who you think.

south asian studies professors collage
South Asian Studies scholars (The Juggernaut)

Farah Akbar


March 28, 2024


9 min

In 2009, a professor of Bengali language and culture at the University of Washington passed away while biking to work. She had a Ph.D. in Bengali, a rarity in the U.S., and translated her favorite Baul musician’s poems into a 600-page anthology, City of Mirrors: Songs of Lālan Sai (2017). Before her death, she had lived in India and won a U.S. grant to develop Bengali teaching materials. 

Her name was Carol Goldberg Salomon. Her husband, Richard, was professor emeritus of Sanskrit. Though it might seem odd that a white couple contributed significantly to South Asian Studies, the Salomons are the norm. Edward Dimock introduced the study of Bengali to American academia in the 1960s. And the leading scholar on Bollywood is Rachel Dwyer

These individuals are part of wider South Asian underrepresentation in the discipline. A scan through the South Asian Studies faculty at Harvard, for example, shows that more than two-thirds of professors are non-South Asian. The president of the board of the South Asian Language Teachers Association isn’t South Asian, either. How did this come to be? More importantly, does it matter who teaches the subject?

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