By Aritro Sarkar, UG’21 Content Warning – This article has mentions of sexual harassment/abuse, CASH, victim-blaming.
‘Overseas Conversations’ is a series by the Edict wherein we invite students on Semester Abroad program to give the Ashoka community a peek in their various stimulating conversations across borders.
In Part 1 of the series, Aaina Singh writes to us from the University of Pennsylvania about her fascinating exchange with Professor Deena Skolnick Weisberg.
Aaina Singh, Batch of 2018
I sigh as I settle for this title to describe my little tete-a-tete with Deena Skolnick Weisberg, a Senior Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (who also happens to be my favourite professor here).
When the Edict team reached out to me and told me that they planned on doing a series wherein Ashokans studying abroad would chat with their professors and write about the conversations, I was super excited. I imagined sitting with professor Weisberg over dinner at a quaint little restaurant. The aromas of warm food wafting all around us while we laugh and talk about education at this Ivy League. “Dinner with Deena”, I had the perfect title in mind too.
Alas, just as soon as I painted that beautiful picture in my mind, I glanced at my wallet and realized that The Edict was a student-run newspaper and nobody would fund this dinner for us. Quickly abandoning this delightful daydream I fixed a time to chat with professor Weisberg, which happened to be right after my hour and a half long class on the “Psychology of Imagination” with Deena herself.
The weather was being unkind to us as professor Weisberg and I looked for a quiet place to sit on that chilly Wednesday afternoon. We settled for (and sunk straight into) a couple of soft sofas at the entrance of Claudia Cohen Hall, one of the oldest buildings at Penn. With its green serpentine stone walls and historic feel, Cohen Hall was probably the best substitute for my quaint restaurant.
As soon as we sat down, I, in my typical bubbly and enthusiastic manner started telling her about Ashoka and The Edict and why I had requested to chat with her. As I flailed my arms about and explained everything, Professor sat patiently, dressed in her characteristic formal yet chic fashion, topped with a delicate necklace. Once I was done animatedly explaining everything, we delved straight into a conversation about Professor Weisberg’s main research interest — the development of Imaginative Cognition.
Over the course of the semester she had completely changed my limited initial view that imagination was either child’s play or a leisure activity reserved for the artists of the world. Her classes had made me realise that imagination is involved in everything ranging from the “what-ifs” (counterfactual thought) that we constantly catch ourselves indulging in, to the strange paradox of experiencing real sadness (read: sobbing uncontrollably) from fictional stories or performances. It was precisely in order to share the realisation that imagination is actually an important aspect of planning, reasoning, and rational thought and is constantly at play in almost everything we do in our daily lives that I had wanted to interview her for this article.
Once we expressed our woes about how my initial view of imagination is what a large chunk of the world continues to believe, we went on to talk about how as a child Deena was an avid reader and wanted to be a writer. She told me that she started her education off with a question of how and why imagination works and it was this question that lead her to transition from a linguistics major to a computer programmer and finally into a developmental psychologist. When I probed her on how that journey came about she said it was simply because she was trying to “find the tools” to answer her question. This reinstated my faith that as a liberal arts student I too will one day find my path (since selling fries and flipping burgers at McDonalds in Delhi is not even an option anymore).
Once our conversation was in full swing I shared a little story with professor about how when I had told one of my friends I was doing a course on the psychology of imagination she had asked me if I planned on being high throughout it. After we laughed sheepishly at that I mustered up the courage to ask her what her opinion on the use of drugs to stimulate imagination and creativity was, and she responded saying she didn’t know much about that (it was still worth asking).
The last thing I asked Deena before I ran off to my next class was her opinion on education at the Ivy Leagues. Since she had earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University, received postdoctoral training at Rutgers University and Temple University, and was now teaching at UPenn, I figured she was the perfect candidate to give an insight on what sets an Ivy League apart from other universities. To this she responded that the Ivy Leagues are overrated and basically what sets them apart is that “they have a lot of money”. Of course she said this with the caveat that this was purely her own opinion.
As she said that I found myself dwelling on what I had felt about an Ivy League education over the past three months, particularly in comparison to Ashoka. I realised that Ashoka had equipped me with the skills that made it extremely easy for me to find my footing at Penn. At both universities, the classes were mostly discussion based, the grading system was the same, the nature and requirements of the assignments were pretty much identical, and the expectations from the professors were also similar.
The two things (in my opinion) that did set Penn apart from Ashoka, however, were its rich and long legacy, and the sheer grandeur of being such a massive institution brimming with diversity. But both these things take time to achieve and therefore my optimism about Ashoka’s future remains valid.
I smiled with those thoughts in my head and my conversation with professor Weisberg ended on a positive note as we spoke about the future of psychology and the need for more cross cultural research (which is a hint to the psychology department at Ashoka that we could create opportunities to conduct research in collaboration with Penn in the future).