School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies alumnus, Shreeja Mandal. Shreeja is looking to the left of the frame and is smiling. In the background two people are situated in the right of the frame and are out of focus.

Shreeja Mandal

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your current career?

I am a teacher by profession with an affinity towards reading, research, music, cinema, theatre, politics and all things pop culture.  

I am currently employed as an IGCSE and AS/A Level English Language and Literature teacher at Head Start Educational Academy in Bengaluru, India. Since 2022, I have also been serving as the Head of the English department. This new role requires me to take on several additional managerial and administrative responsibilities – such as heading the curriculum development process, faculty hiring, student admissions and overall academic planning – besides my usual teaching responsibilities.

Aside from my full-time job, I am also involved in freelance editing work and community service.

Please tell us about any other roles you’ve had since graduating from Leeds.

Soon after graduating I worked as a research assistant to Dr Claudia Sternberg, my dissertation supervisor and tutor at the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, on her then-ongoing research on the centenary commemoration of World War I. My primary task was to help her access and comprehend some media literature in the Hindi and Punjabi languages in connection to the participation of Indian soldiers, specifically the Sikh regiment, serving in the British-Indian Army in World War I.

I have also conducted guest lectures on Functional English at Diamond Harbour Medical College and Hospital, Kolkata (2021), and on Ethical Consumption of Media at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Bengaluru (2023).

I have also been doing freelance editing work on academic writing for over five years now.

I rejoined my job as a high school English teacher at Head Start Educational Academy in May 2021, where I had worked previously from 2017–2019 before going to Leeds.    

How do you think the skills and knowledge you developed at Leeds helped with your career success?

I would say the biggest take away from my Leeds experience was seeing interdisciplinary learning in action. While the MA Critical and Cultural Theory course itself was interdisciplinary, the experience of studying it was made even more fascinating by having a cohort whose members came from a diverse range of humanities and social sciences background. ‘Interdisciplinary studies’ is the buzzword in academia now, and it was a refreshing change to actually get a taste of it rather than just talking about it.

I come from a country where the divide between science, commerce and humanities fields is still quite rigid and professions in the STEM fields are venerated in a way that others are not. Being an English Literature and Language teacher at the high school level in such an environment comes with its own set of challenges. Needless to say, proficiency in the English language is an indispensible social and cultural capital in today’s world. However, there is a persistent trend in the majority of the students treating the language and literature studies as a mere requirement to get into college (few exceptions aside) rather than a discipline with its own intrinsic academic and social value.

The interdisciplinary learning approach and diverse student cohort at Leeds have shown me the interconnectedness of different subjects and how they can be brought together to create a richer and more nuanced understanding of a topic. This interdisciplinary approach and understanding of the value of humanities helps me as a teacher as I strive to inspire my students to see beyond the traditional divide between science, commerce, and humanities fields, and to help them understand how studying literature and language can develop close reading, critical thinking, analytical skills, and empathy, which are crucial skills to have in any line of work they choose to pursue in the future.

Finally, studying in Leeds allowed me to broaden my horizons and gain a more global perspective. I was able to meet and interact with students and scholars from all over the world, which gave me a new appreciation for different cultures and ways of thinking. This experience has stayed with me and has influenced my academic, professional and personal interests ever since.

What made you want to apply to your course and to Leeds?

Wanting to apply to study MA Critical and Cultural Theory at the University of Leeds was quite a no-brainer for me, considering the university’s storied history with Cultural Studies as a discipline, the distinguished professors and lecturers in the Faculty, the extensive library resources, the vibrant, diverse academic community with a hefty population of international students, and the distinguished alumni that the university boasts of. The many extra-curricular opportunities offered by the university, and the consistently positive reviews of the course and the overall university life were also a big draw.

Apart from this, I was also attracted to the prospect of living in Yorkshire, hiking through Ilkley Moor, exploring the local food, culture and history, Leeds’ proximity to Scotland where I had friends studying, was another attraction for me. I am glad that I had the fortune and privilege to be a part of the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies and the University – it has left a lasting impression on me.

What aspects of the course did you enjoy the most?

My Leeds experience taught me the value of a supportive and inclusive academic community. The faculty and staff within my School were always willing to help and support students, and there was a real sense of camaraderie among the students on my course. This made the learning experience much more enjoyable and helped me to feel more confident in my abilities as a student and scholar.

The freedom to choose the topics of our academic writing without any strict corseting imposed by the professors was an aspect that stood out for me. The course was truly an unadulterated experience of what Culture Studies seeks to champion – a resistance to a specific theoretical paradigm, a space were a multiplicity of voices and perspectives can thrive.

I am very happy and grateful that my dissertation topic involving fanfiction and fandom studies was met with such positivity and enthusiasm – and supported through the entire writing process by Dr Sternberg with such keenness – considering that I had been quite apprehensive about proposing it thinking the topic might be seen as not serious or ‘academic’ enough (arising from previous experience).

On another occasion, I tried my hand at applying a theory from the Reading Sexual Difference course to the latest movie adaptation of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women, which was again met with keen interest and encouragement from the course leader Dr Eric Prenowitz. This openness and flexibility to let students experiment with their reading and writing and lending counsel and help wherever needed is the aspect of the course that I enjoyed the most.  

I hugely enjoyed sharing classroom space with my classmates who came from a diverse range of academic disciplines – from Literature and Fine Arts, to Music and Museum Studies! The kindness and support from my professors and mentors is also something that I have carried with me and cherish fondly from my time in Leeds.

Last but not the least, the course helped me find like-minded people with whom I developed friendships that have lived on beyond the university walls and continental boundaries.

What would you say about the learning and the support facilities in your School and at the University in general?

I graduated from the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies and the University at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even as the whole world grounded to a halt and there was a chaotic scrambling to adapt to new ways of functioning in the pandemic-struck world, the School was prompt in sending out communication and the assurance of a helping hand.

The understanding and generosity that I received from the Faculty and administrative staff in the School in those trying times, far away from home and my family, will stay with me in equal measure to the academic learning I took away from my University experience. I am especially grateful to Dr Sternberg for not only her scholarly guidance but also her kindness and empathy in seeing me through quite a few of my personal and circumstantial setbacks. The other professors, whom I took classes with, such as Dr Barbara Engh and Dr Eric Prenowitz, have also been steady pillars of support throughout the course and even beyond it, be it on the academic essays I was writing for them, or career advice or just talking about life in general.

Another support facility provided by the University that I am deeply grateful for was that of the Disability Services. I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder with joint inflammations that frequently hinders my basic motor functions and mobility. Before coming to Leeds, I was not aware that my condition warranted any help or support from any institution that I was a part of. I felt seen and understood by the University and the School as they extended a range of arrangements to accommodate my learning and wellbeing needs should the occasion arise.  

What would you say to anyone thinking of applying to your course?

If you have the means available at your disposal, go for it! It is an experience like no other. If I got a chance to do it all over again, I would.