Students explore "India's Identities" during travel-study course

Jan. 3, 2013
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications

In a country of roughly 1.2 billion people, the 23 students from Maryville College and Elon University (N.C.) who are touring India this month aren’t likely to be noticed by many, but that’s OK.

They and their two instructors are traveling abroad for intensive and in-depth cross-cultural education - not publicity.

“India’s Identities: Religion, Caste & Gender in Contemporary South India” is the title of the January Term course organized and led by professors and husband-and-wife team Dr. Brian Pennington and Dr. Amy Allocco.

Each professor has more than 15 years of expertise in Indian culture and society and has developed long-standing contacts in the South Asian country. Pennington is a professor of religion at Maryville College who has published books on the modern history of Hinduism and on religious violence. Allocco, assistant professor of religious studies at Elon, is completing a book on Hindu women’s rituals in South India.

“This partnership between Maryville College and Elon University accomplishes a number of things,” Pennington explained prior to the group’s departure on Jan. 2. “Most importantly, it allows a pooling of our institutions’ resources to create a travel-study course of a quality that would be hard to find anywhere else in the country.”

Interdisciplinary in nature, the course draws from the fields of religious studies, women’s and gender studies, history and anthropology, among others. The students participating represent a range of majors and have been preparing for the trip through reading and writing assignments.

Among the course objectives are developing an understanding of India’s current social, economic and political systems and exploring the diversity of and interactions between Indian religious traditions, especially Hinduism and Islam, but also Christianity, Judaism and Jainism.

“Those who will lecture to our students include academics as well as laborers, slum-dwellers, middle-class folks and even a human rights attorney in the Chennai High Court, who have worked with Professor Allocco over the years of her own research,” Pennington added. “We’ll be looking at the cultural expectations attached to gender, seeing to what degree caste matters in modern India, and analyzing the complex interactions of tradition and modernity in the world’s largest democracy.”

The students will spend approximately 20 days in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, two states in Southern India. Among the sites on the itinerary are the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, an ancient religious center; Cochin, a colonial capital for the Dutch; and Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, which is known for its elephant and tiger populations. The group will spend several days in Chennai (formerly Madras), the sixth largest city in India and a center of business process outsourcing.

Daily reflection and analysis are on the itinerary, as well. Students are blogging as they travel from city to city, allowing friends and relatives back in the States to experience India’s identities, as well.

“Our course is designed to expose students to real Indian lives and spaces. We are confident these students will have their own moments of real discovery — of themselves, of the world outside their experience, and of their own culture and society — that they might never have had without an opportunity like this one,” Pennington wrote in one of the first blog posts. "It is because Elon University and Maryville College believe so strongly in the importance of international study and have many decades of experience working with students abroad that they design courses like this one.”

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,198.