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Students in Performing Migration participate in a cooking class via Zoom


Critical and Creative Approaches to the Storytelling of Migration at Heart of Interdisciplinary Doyle Seminar

By: Henry D. Brill

July 28, 2021

Students combined critical and creative thinking to explore the storytelling of migration as part of Performing Migration, a Doyle Seminar taught by Devika Ranjan (SFS’17) in spring 2021.

Doyle Seminars are small, upper-level classes that foster dialogue on diversity and difference through student research and co-curricular learning. The seminars are sponsored by the Doyle Engaging Difference Program at Georgetown University. 

“This class was really great for me because it was so aligned with how I want to talk about and study migration and mobility,” says student Amina Sadural (SFS’22). “It was interdisciplinary, embracing different critical theories, and very grounded in real-world application.”

Centering the Migrant

The Doyle Seminar centered migrant narratives to explore the interface between borders, nationalism, and security in contemporary society. 

“In a world where borders are highly securitized, migration is much easier for some,” explains Ranjan, resident director at Albany Park Theater Project. “This course intends to think about migration from the perspective of the migrant and the performances that the migrant has to do to try to surmount those barriers—from visa interviews to airport screenings.” 

In the first half of the semester, students discussed a wide variety of critical theories to consider the power dynamics—and resulting ethical complexities—behind the storytelling of migration.

“It was really challenging and engaging to talk about the politics of performance and the power dynamics of telling stories that are not your own,” says Sadural, a culture and politics major. Telling stories that are not your own is going to become inevitable, so how do we do it ethically?

Critical Creativity

Performing Migration also engaged difference through the ethos of the class, where students did hands-on performance work, ranging from verbatim theater to letter-writing, in small groups during the second half of the semester. 

“Creating work in a laboratory setting that is iterative—not expecting perfection and not expecting finality, but having the courage and the drive to be creating in multiple ways—was one part of the process,” Ranjan explained. 

Students would then watch and respond to other performances produced by classmates in a weekly blog post, exploring the connection between practice and theory. It was this inclusive approach to learning that Sadural appreciated.

“Having multiple ways for students to show up, in recognition of the fact that intelligence and engagement do not look the same in everybody—all classrooms should be like that,” she says. 

In-class work set the stage for the semester-long research project, where each student conducted an oral history interview of a migrant and created a performance to tell their story of migration. 

Savory Storytelling

For her final project, Sadural created a performance inspired by Bollywood Kitchen—an interactive cooking production which students attended virtually as part of the course—to explore the migration story of her Filipino grandmother. 

“When you actively try to make these conversations feel very grounded in something as universal as food, it suddenly becomes clear how ubiquitous the themes of racism, colonialism, and power dynamics are,” says Sadural.

Performing Migration placed a special emphasis on food as a way to understand the complex social dynamics behind modern-day mobility, and as part of the seminar, students participated in an Indian cooking lesson. 

“I think about food as an incredible storytelling course for migration,” Ranjan says. We often use food as a way to get to know other cultures or feel familiar with other cultures, and we also think about food as something that is so central to ourselves.

In the cooking lesson, the instructor and her mother, Shilpi Ranjan, who teaches cooking classes professionally, guided students through making a meal, exploring the process of cooking Indian food in the United States as a story of migration. 

Coming Home

Teaching a Doyle Seminar was a sort of homecoming for Ranjan, who was a Doyle Undergraduate Fellow during the 2014-2015 academic year. It was then when she submitted a winning proposal on disturbance art as a way to engage difference on campus. 

Ranjan presented her proposal at Riggs Library as part of the 2015 Doyle Symposium, which called for student projects to support the common good at Georgetown. 

“The night before, I got this idea to create a performance at Riggs with a bunch of my friends, and we ended up creating this mini-performance in the middle of my speech,” recalls Ranjan, whose performance included spoken word and live music. 

She sees the 2015 Doyle performance as an important part of her Georgetown education, which has influenced her current work at the intersection of theater and ethnography to explore pressing social and political issues. 

“At Georgetown, I learned it was possible to combine theater and ethnography—to tell true stories with an understanding that storytelling can bring about justice, community-building, or awareness,” Ranjan says.