Thursday, August 16, 2012

Awry Academia

I am  back to undergraduate teaching after a hiatus of two years. It is a break that enabled me to read and write and think, which is what I would like to think I have been trained to do. Workspaces, even when  constituted by  fellow academics are not necessarily happy spaces and at present , functioning as we are under a far from perfect semesterization that has been thrust upon us, I can only see the ragged edges of communication spike unevenly  out of control as we try to make sense of the new system that we have to fit ourselves in.

The semester system at DU has meant a splitting across the centre, and a bifurcation of course content . All hundred mark papers will now be worth  two hundred marks and students will study the course content over two semesters instead of a full length academic year. India's premier central university, located In its capital city could have  certainly done far better for itself and for its students. However, were you to ask any of the members in the team of the present vice-chancellor or the previous one, you would be given to understand  that this illogically bifurcated syllabus  is  because of the resistance  of the undergraduate teachers to change. That reasoned and sustained opposition to introduction of the semester was snuffed out through high handed and devious use of the  academic council  which in any case only provides token  representation to undergraduate teachers, ( 24 elected representatives speak for the college teachers in a house which has a voting strength of over 150) has escaped them altogether.

 Now as they introduce  a meta-university which is to  benefit 20 students and discommode a possible 20000 and will  create new frankensteins of teaching, learning and administration, it might be a good idea to describe a micro -detail in this not yet meta university and this is going to be the first month or thereabouts t in an undergraduate college.  Sri Venkateswara  College is located in the upper rungs of the notional ladder of collegiate education at Delhi University. The first morning when our vice-chancellor was visiting Bhagini Nivedita and  disapproving entirely of its modus operandi,  at  Sri Venkateswara College   orientations for  droves of students  who had joined various courses were underway. We have a space crunch that has to be seen to be believed  and promises to be an unsurmountable problem in the days to come.

Classroom spaces for the humanities and languages  has dwindled in geometric proportions in the last three years.  Teachers are supposed to have a teaching workload of around  18 periods.  As a result of  making the university  OBC inclusive, numbers in the classroom have more than doubled. The University administration  assures us that this  calls for an increase in teaching posts by about 40 percent. No permanent appointments have been made in our department in the last four years. Our previous strength of 11 teachers has gone up by 1.74. Our academic planning committee  reinvents the wheel, and talks of giving us posts for teachers on the basis of  sanctioned strengths.  Although, each year, we admit an enormous number of students into each department, our workload  is never calculted on the basis of actual student strength. No upper limit is maintained for the number of students  attending each lecture.

With semesterization, the  duration of time to teach a text and the  number of classes to teach it in has shrunk. We need to fix extra classes  that do not form part of our official time table in order to do any justice to the course content. Meanwhile  tutorials, that should form the backbone of teaching pedagogy in the humanities are mostly viewed as an after thought in our institution. A weekly  tutorial class for Honours students  in optimal groups of 6-8 is mandatory. I have an English (Honours) first year  class of over sixty five students.  If tutorials are meant to serve their purpose, I would need  at least eight tutorials  with my  I yr class.  What I have been allotted officially (as per sanctioned strength) is five which I am to fix myself with the students, preferably after 3.p.m.  There is an absence of  tutorial rooms in college.

Classes for students begin at  8.45 in the morning. Our corridors and staircases, built forty years ago to accommodate one third of the number of students who throng it  achieve high decibels of noise and near stampede conditions every day.  On different days  of the week, students in first, second and third year  have a random off-day. In practice no department  can plan  any collective academic activity for  all its three years at one time. This ensures  that students  lead truncated lives and are hampered from growing or learning in any holistic manner. Classrooms burst at the seams and  students swell in number and taking roll call becomes a long time consuming activity.

The  issue of fixing modalities on the basis of  sanctioned strength and  ignoring  actual  numbers is one of the most insidious ways in which we cheat students and impoverish both teaching and learning spaces.  Higher education , with the crunch in space and the crush of numbers  and unethical practice  is moving into critical mass.  Unless such  issues are addressed on a war footing,, the pleasure of  learning and teaching will be substituted by the cacophony of impersonal assembly lines producing near imperfect  units.

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