The Division of Arts & Humanities at UC Berkeley is pleased to announce Professor Poulomi Saha as the new co-director of the Critical Theory program at UC Berkeley, effective July 1, 2023.
Poulomi is a professor in the Department of English and a faculty member of the Critical Theory designated emphasis, as well as affiliated faculty in the Programs of Gender and Women’s Studies and Folklore; the LGBT Citizenship Cluster at the Othering and Belonging Institute; the Center for Race & Gender; Asian American Research Center; and the Institute for South Asia Studies.
Berkeley’s Program in Critical Theory was launched between 2005—2006 by professors Judith Butler and Martin Jay and admitted its first 15 students in 2006 with the intention of providing graduate students the opportunity to work in a truly interdisciplinary way while encouraging a contemporary expansion of what Critical Theory is beyond its European roots. The program now includes 75 affiliate faculty members and nearly 100 enrolled Ph.D. students.
Poulomi will continue the Critical Theory program’s 17-year legacy of fostering interdisciplinarity, social and academic critique, and the cultivation of Critical Theory research and teaching at Berkeley. While continuing the extraordinary work of their predecessors, Poulomi looks forward to increasing the visibility of Berkeley faculty contributions to the field of Critical Theory, creating opportunities to support graduate student research, and opening up new avenues for undergraduate students to engage the field. One of their main objectives is to expand access to the program in order to engage UC Berkeley students in research to understand the complexity of today’s most pressing issues, such as social justice and political change. This is, they say, the goal of Critical Theory — to go beyond simply understanding social structures and towards transforming them.
In their own work, Poulomi engages postcolonial studies, ethnic American literature, and gender and sexuality theory — from the late 19th century decline of British colonial rule in the Indian Ocean to the rise of American global power. Their undergraduate class on Cults in Popular Culture enrolls hundreds of students across campus each year and has inspired them to introduce the study of Critical Theory to their classes at earlier stages of their academic careers.
“Students often come to my classes with a hunger for ‘big ideas’-- they want to tackle the major philosophical and ethical questions that confront us and yet, they also want to know how to change the world.” They said, “For many, no single field of study– whether in the humanities or social sciences– seems adequate to the task. This is where Critical Theory comes in and is often revolutionary for their thinking. Because it is fundamentally interdisciplinary and is invested in the question of how what we do in a university produces, and therefore can change, the conditions of life in society.”
The Critical Theory program is situated within the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry and the Division of Arts & Humanities and offers a Designated Emphasis (DE) in Critical Theory to current PhD students. The DE trains graduate students in the lineages of Critical Theory– from foundation eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophies of critique to the mid-twentieth-century establishment of the Frankfurt School– and its contemporary forms, including structuralism and poststructuralism, critical race theory, postcolonialism, feminist and queer theory, and psychoanalysis.
Reflecting on their vision for the program, Poulomi hopes for broader engagement and community building post-pandemic within the campus, local, and global critical theory communities. “Coming back to in-person events and programs, our goal is to capitalize on the extraordinary community that Critical Theory already has of faculty and graduate student affiliates, as well as alums. There’s an exciting slate of programs and collaborations planned within the university as well as with other institutions nationally and internationally.” They said, “Expanding our reach will be a new Course Threads in the spring, to enable undergraduates to develop a program of study in Critical Theory for the first time. Our new ADA-accessible website (launching August 2023) will have news of these events and initiatives, to which we hope many people invested in or curious about Critical Theory will come.”
Poulomi is currently at work on two new projects — a book entitled Fascination about America’s long obsession with its own invented visions of Indian spirituality and why so often those groups and communities come to be called cults– and Bengal to Berkeley, which looks at conspiracy as a legal, philosophical, and political concept to understand the rise of the surveillance of “bad” racial and sexual subjects in the early 20th century.
Poulomi will be co-director alongside Sharad Chari (Geography) for the Critical Theory program for three years following outgoing director Dan Blanton.