Though Dr. Aman Luthra has not been teaching at Kalamazoo College for long, he already knows one of the faculty secrets.
“The closer to the end of the quarter it gets, for the students, it always gets tougher … but for the professor, it gets easier,” he said. “As the quarter goes on, I look progressively more forward to things.”
There is certainly a lot to look forward to. As a native of Delhi, Luthra has traveled a long and winding road to get to where he is today. After obtaining a scholarship to study in the U.S., he earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Maine at Machias with intent to become a marine ecologist, before ultimately deciding that he was “more interested in people.” He went on to complete a master’s in geography at Syracuse University, and then another in public administration. After working in Washington D.C. for eight years to obtain a Green Card, he earned his Ph.D. in geography and environmental engineering from John Hopkins University.
Since then, he and his partner have lived in both India and Guatemala before finally settling in Kalamazoo — at least for the time being.
“You’ll notice this recurring theme in my life where I’m always indecisive about what I want to do,” he said, laughing.
But if there is one thing Luthra is sure of, it is his chosen field. Though K technically categorizes him as part of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Luthra considers himself to be a professor of geography, a subject which he has immense respect for.
“It allows for a certain level of promiscuity … geography allows you to study pretty much everything with any kind of method you want to use,” he said. “There’s a level of theoretical freedom as well … it makes you free to think about problems in a different way than other disciplines, which are much more restricted by what they can and cannot do.”
It was this methodological and theoretical freedom that lead to Luthra’s dissertation — his focus since 2011 — on the “waste pickers” of India, whom he describes as “folks who scavenge in landfills or collect waste from doorsteps.”
“I wanted to understand how that economy works. I looked at the narrative about urban India being really dirty and the fact that the recycling economy was incredibly efficient … and wanted to see why these two things were not matching,” he explained. “Basically, it’s because everything that cannot be recycled is still on the streets. It’s primarily an infrastructural problem that belies all of this, but the public often blames the dirtiness on the people who are, in fact, cleaning the city.”
Luthra has devoted more than five years to studying this topic, but is unsure how it will look in the future — “Who knows?” he said. “Probably for the rest of my life.”
He does not regret this, however, arguing that “as you study more and more, things become more complex.”
“You would think they become simpler, but it never happens,” he said. “They become more and more complex, but also more and more interesting.”
When he’s not teaching or working on his dissertation, Luthra calls “mindless” TV his biggest hobby. He cites Modern Family and How to Get Away With Murder as prime examples, admitting that, “I intentionally watch [them] without thinking consciously about it, because all I want to do is have a beer and not think about anything else.”
Though Luthra also likes to hike, he said he has not had the time to do so ever since the arrival of his new eight-month-old puppy, Bibi, who named after both the Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi term for “matriarch” as well as for the season one winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race — another “mindless” favorite of her owner’s. Luthra describes Bibi as both “irresistible” and “a terrorist.” His puppy has yet to make an appearance in one of his classes — Luthra claimed the school “wouldn’t let him” bring a puppy in. “Otherwise, I would,” he said. “That would be the best!”