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Class Acts - Nikhil Deb

Nikhil Deb Cal PolyNikhil Deb / Social Sciences Department

Specialty Area: International political economy, development, the environment, resistance, theory, and the Global South

What is/has been your favorite class to teach?
I enjoy the classes that allow me and my students to exercise and promote critical thinking. Students, in my view, want critical thinking insofar as they believe critical thinking is a productive and progressive activity. My favorite classes hence pertain to the following topics: global political economy, environmental and social justice, resistance, and theory. I love teaching these issues not only because I have expertise in these areas but because my background (growing up as a religious minority without electricity in Bangladesh) has uniquely positioned me to bring insights into these topics. 

If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring one book, what would it be?
This is difficult—one potential answer: "Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology."  

How/why did you choose to work at Cal Poly?
There are several reasons why I decided to join the Cal Poly community. Let me highlight a few.

First, as a sociologist, researcher, and teacher of many contemporary issues, such as development and environmental and climate justice in the Global South, I find Cal Poly’s core philosophy of “Learn by Doing” is of paramount importance. It is a pedagogical imperative to prepare ourselves and future generations to apply the knowledge we acquire to solve the barrage of issues facing the world, from climate change to the global pandemic.

Second and a bit personal, the “Learn by Doing” philosophy resonates with so many struggles I endured with fortitude. As a first-generation college student and immigrant, I learned almost everything by doing. What has further enthused me to work at Cal Poly is the global outlook of the Social Sciences Department (and CLA in general), where an incredible group of scholar-teachers brings far-reaching insights into current social problems worldwide.

Finally, my research, mainly field-based, feeds my teaching, which I take very seriously because I believe well-informed educators can bring lasting benefits to society. What better place than Cal Poly, where real-world experience is entwined with knowledge production? I look forward to becoming a productive member of this vibrant community. 

What are your research/scholarly pursuits?
My research broadly examines how political and economic activities typically favor some human groups at the expense of other existing or future human groups or the environment, focusing on Bangladesh and India.

Recently, I researched and published on how a neoliberal change in the governance of India played a crucial role in the production of many lingering consequences affecting marginalized populations in Bhopal, India, more than three decades after the initial 1984 disaster.

Additionally, I am currently researching how neoliberal adaptation to climate change in Bangladesh relegates many land-dependent agrarian communities to hunger and lifelong poverty. I believe that emphasizing the socio-historical context of a particular location is vital to parse out how the global political economy operates in the remote region of the global South.

I have published in several peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. I am currently co-editing a forthcoming book entitled Social Justice in the Global South (Edward Elgar, 2023) while preparing my book manuscript that I plan to publish in the near future. I look forward to continuing my research while strengthening Cal Poly’s commitment to a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.  

What is your favorite class/student moment?
I have taught for over a decade in two different cultural and educational systems, Bangladesh and the USA. My teaching is thus replete with many lovely moments. The one that always makes me incredibly happy is seeing the exuberance among those students who take a class with me as part of their GE requirement, and it eventually becomes their favorite class ever taken! In other words, I am very excited when I see my students cheering for a challenging idea they came across while taking my class. What else does a teacher need to love their job? 

Are there any scholars or individuals that have inspired you?
Like anybody in academia, my scholarship stands on the shoulders of giants, ranging from 19th-century classical social philosophers such as Karl Marx to anticolonial, antiracist thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and W.E.B. Du Bois to several contemporary scholars whose work predominantly focuses on the critique of political economy in the context of the unequal relationship between the global North and the South. Moreover, it may sound a little unconventional, but scholars such as Amartya Sen, Rabindranath Tagore (the first non-European to win a Nobel prize in literature), Chinua Achebe (Nigerian novelist), and Serajul Islam Choudhury (a Bangladeshi intellectual) — whose work may not have direct nexus with what I do — also unequivocally influenced my thinking.  

What is one thing you wish your students knew about you?
I enjoy interacting with my students so much that if I have several emails sitting unread in my inbox, I prioritize those coming from the students! I want my students to know that I always have time for them! I get excited when students interact with me or ask me questions. Relatedly, I never deride my students. 

What are your hobbies/extracurricular activities?
I relish the opportunity to spend time with my family. I also enjoy swimming and watching soccer occasionally. Besides, I like to stare in amazement at where the ocean meets the mountains, which I believe reveals a sublime spectacle in nature! The Central Coast seems to be a perfect place for this.

Do you have a favorite getaway location?
The town of Rangamati in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, home to several Indigenous groups, is perhaps my favorite getaway location. The region is known for its beautiful landscape, surrounded by mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. I am also excited to enjoy different scenic spots in beautiful California.  

What is a fact about you that few know?
I used to write poems and have even published a poetry book (in Bangla) long ago. Do I still write? Yes, mainly when I cannot express myself in any other way! 

What is/are your guilty pleasure(s)?
I don’t have many. One of my guilty pleasures is my past indulgence in topics (e.g., atheism) that I don’t care about anymore. Another guilty pleasure may be watching a TV show twice, knowing it will squander my time.  


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