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From Arkansas to the streets of Kanpur: An IU Ph.D. student’s international journey

Mar 13, 2024

This story highlights one of the students who made Indiana University Bloomington a top producer of Fulbright Students for the ninth consecutive year.

The seed for Brock DeMark’s Ph.D. of history thesis was planted during his morning commute while studying abroad as an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas. As he walked to classes each day in Brighton, he passed the Royal Pavilion, an elaborate building on the southern coast of England that seemed more at home with the Taj Mahal than the other more famous sights of the U.K. This was DeMark’s first taste of how British architecture and city design could be influenced by colonization.

Brock DeMark, a history Ph.D. candidate at IU Bloomington, is carrying out his Fulbright Nehru Student Research award in Kanpur, India. Brock DeMark, a history Ph.D. candidate at IU Bloomington, is carrying out his Fulbright Nehru Student Research award in Kanpur, India. Photo courtesy of Brock DeMark

As he added a history minor to his English degree and graduated, the lasting impact the British Empire had not just on the physical structures but on the intangible systems and the people of a city stuck with him. He decided to take a look at that impact from outside the U.K. after speaking to other Indiana University graduate students and hearing about the breadth of resources available through the Dhar India Studies Program and the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History.

“It wasn’t really until I got to IU that I developed this interest in India, so it was a very late sort of interest,” he said. “I thought I wanted to do something with colonial cities, so I was interested in the 19th century, but through the Dhar India Studies program on campus I started taking Hindi classes right away.”

As DeMark progressed through his master’s and Ph.D. coursework at IU, he focused on a single city in India: Kanpur. In northern India a few hundred miles south and east of New Delhi, Kanpur was and is a major industrial center. During the height of the British Empire, it was a military and economic hub, manufacturing most uniforms worn by British troops in World War I.

He first encountered Kanpur — the city where he is currently carrying out his Fulbright Nehru Student Research award — in a series of colonial photographs he found incidentally in a Lilly Library archive.

“It’s a city that has not been written about in comparison to other big cities in India like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai,” DeMark said “And yet it’s a deeply global city. It was this place that manufactured clothes, and it continues to be a major manufacturing center that’s producing goods and sending them all over the world. And yet it’s somehow a blind spot.”

DeMark hopes to fill in that blind spot with his research. The same systems, economics, politics and influences that made Kanpur a center of global industry also have given it one of the highest unemployment rates in India and the title of the World Health Organization’s most polluted city of 2018. Those abstract forces and impersonal systems that worked to create the modern world and the urban landscape that grew across the country are not unique to India; you can find them in the sprawling urbanization of every country.

“What I’m trying to understand is how a city like Kanpur is also a major part of the modern world we live in,” DeMark said. “It’s not just the gleaming spectacle of London or New York City. It’s digging into a particular place to try to understand the rapidly urbanizing and interconnected world that that we share.”

A mural painted on a wall says I love Kanpur During the height of the British Empire, Kanpur was a military and economic hub, manufacturing most uniforms worn by British troops in World War I. Photo courtesy of Brock DeMark

In 2007, more people lived in cities than in rural areas for the first time in known human history, making it even more imperative to study how these urban areas came to be. However, understanding Kanpur itself requires a deep knowledge of not just the colonial systems that built it but also the people who populate it today.

The language and cultural immersion provided by his Hindi courses with the Dhar India Studies program allowed him to engage more deeply with the historical archives and the living language and community of modern India. DeMark was awarded a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship not once but twice. After spending one summer virtually learning Hindi and another limited to the city of Jaipur, DeMark still had not had the opportunity to visit the city his dissertation increasingly focused on.

As he was preparing to defend his proposal, he finally got that chance, thanks to IU Global’s Summer Pre-Dissertation Travel Grant and additional funding from both the Department of History and Dhar India Studies program. For six weeks in the summer of 2023, DeMark gained access to critical archives only available to specialized academics, connected with mentors who would provide references for his successful Fulbright application and, most importantly, observed the modern impact of the colonial and industrial decision-making he was researching in Kanpur.

“Some of the things I cited in my proposal I just wouldn’t have had access to if I hadn’t gone there,” DeMark said. “Things like Hindi language pamphlets, a newspaper special and a few short Hindi language histories of Kanpur made my proposal more rooted in the actual place and maybe less rooted in the official archives that are thousands of miles away, and still, in some ways, contributing to inequalities in the present moment.”

He credits his successful application to the Fulbright-Nehru Student Research grant to the relationships he was able to build and the research he started during that pre-dissertation trip. Because he had already registered with the Prime Ministers Memorial Library and Museum in Delhi — a key source of primary sources from the British colonial period including transcripts of oral records from contemporary Indians — he was able to dive into deep research immediately upon arriving in India in January.

Over the next five months, DeMark will continue to connect with the people and places that he first encountered in the Lilly Library Archives all those years ago.

Although he is only in the third of his eight-month fellowship, he said he feels extraordinarily lucky to study at such a supportive university with global connections.

“From the time I was an undergraduate to the time I started at IU through my master’s degree before I advanced to a Ph.D., my research has been shaped through going abroad and being very fortunate to have the support and funding to do that,” DeMark said.

He also has a message for other graduate students who may not see a connection between their research and international travel:

“Don’t be afraid to apply,” he said. “Realize that these experiences will change you. Let them, because it’s going to open up new paths and new ideas that you didn’t think would ever be open to you or a possibility you could pursue.”

Author

IU Global

Marielle Petranoff

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