Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Labouring To Undeceive

In July 2013 Delhi university plans to launch its four year program. This is scheduled to transform higher education as we know it. Instead of a three year undergraduate program which provided an optimal education that was also value for money, a time intensive and cost intensive education is now being introduced in its stead.   In fact, India is probably one of the very few countries in the world where a liberal university education did not until recently exacerbate student debt for a lifetime. All this is set to change for the worse when the gloves are pulled off and the four year undergraduate program is set into operation. The federal structure of the university will collapse and individual colleges will stand or fall by the wayside.  Higher education is now going to be of a longer duration and much much costlier.

Until this academic year, students could choose to study a range of disciplines and get a degree after three years, in science, commerce and humanities. Alternately, by opting for Honours in a specific subject alongside interdisciplinary credit courses that the university offered as part of syllabus revision, a student could go off into various career trajectories, ranging from post graduation, law civil services, management and so on. Students under the annual mode of examinations in the three year graduate program traveled far and wide and excelled in universities all over the world in post graduate studies.

 Suddenly, this system that had served us well for over 80 years, despite being plagued by systemic problems such as lack of infrastructure and overcrowding , is being disbanded and a four year program, ill-conceived and unprecedented in its violation of National Education Policy Guidelines  and academic procedures for syllabi making instituted at the university is being pushed into place. This has been masterminded by the current Vice Chancellor who is supported by the ruling party which is hurriedly divesting itself of its role in education both at the school level and at the level of the university. A large number of teachers have been left out the process of discussion and dissemination which should form an integral part of the academic life of the university. It is doubly disturbing when one recognizes that it is these teachers who are expected to carry the teaching burden of the four year system at the undergraduate colleges.

 For those parents and students who believe that teachers do not teach and shirk work, it is time to point out that  teachers are not  protesting over the increase in work or asking for better salaries.  In fact, the semester system has shrunk teaching time, over the last two three years. So those of us who take teaching seriously are really talking about a system that is unfriendly and will be a deterrent to teaching and learning.  At undergraduate colleges we are all grappling with overcrowding in the classrooms and lack of infrastructure in terms of rooms, laboratories, reading spaces in the library and so on. For the last few years, no permanent posts have been filled in the university. More than half of its teachers are employed in ad-hoc or guest lecturer capacity. This is true of every discipline taught at the university. Contract jobs in lieu of the stability of service conditions cannot be the carrots and sticks dangled before young people in search of a vocation or academic\career options.

 While doing very little to address all this, the university has embarked upon a four year program in which students no longer have the option of leaving the university at the end of three years, to pursue  life options. Instead the university is embarking upon subjecting them  to  compulsory foundation courses under the pretext of interdisciplinary learning. School education   under the 10+2 scheme has been geared to choosing disciplines and directing students towards their chosen streams. To suggest that students need mandatory foundation courses is to undermine India’s schooling systems in their entirety.  

Eighteen year olds who come to the university prepared to learn a subject or a discipline of their choice are being told that they are not ready for it. They have to take eleven compulsory foundation courses which are a far cry from the range of choices offered in American universities that the FYUP is pretending to model itself upon.  The university provided interdisciplinary credit courses to students even in the annual mode.  In place of these well researched and carefully worked out options, dumbed down, compulsory foundation courses  can contribute very little to developing  student interest.

Disturbingly, the FYUP  has indiscriminately hacked away at course content so that whatever Discipline I course the student does over four years,  s/he will know far less about the discipline when compared to students who  studied the same specialization under the three year program.  The truncation of syllabi across all Discipline I courses, the dumbing down of interdisciplinary courses  into scurrilously constituted foundation courses of  dubious pedagogy and the addition of one extra year at the university  now  ensures  four years with far less learning and teaching.  

 All the courses across the university report a drastic reduction and truncation of syllabus content. This incidentally is the feedback coming in from teachers who have been roped in to revise the syllabus.  No university in the world can hope to have a pedagogy which is not built upon the ferment of ideas and debates. To summon a few teachers and bulldoze them into fixing curriculum is an indication of intellectual and academic bankruptcy.  The only places where rules and procedures can be overlooked are within functions held privately inside of families. Unfortunately the university administration is behaving as if it is engaged in some elaborate marriage proceedings  which  authorize it to restrict the entry of invitees. What has been set in process is a  dilution and attenuation of academic standards  and integrity that  is deeply disrespectful of the  spaces  real teachers occupy.

Students who could  earlier join a Masters program at the end of three years after graduating with Honours  will now need to wait a fourth year for a baccalaureate with Honours to do a Masters Program at Delhi University. The FYUP is being touted as an opportunity  on par  with international systems for students who cannot afford to study abroad.  In fact, what it guarantees is a downsizing and down grading of all existing national standards.  It must be remembered that we are a poor country with a burgeoning student influx.  The proposed fourth year will be of little use to the student who does not wish to specialize in a particular subject in the first place. S/he has the option of leaving at the end of the third year.  What will be the value of this three year degree anywhere in the country or in the world? No answers are forthcoming on this. 
 Students need to analyse whether they need  such vocationalization at centres of liberal learning. Again, when most postgraduate courses  in Indian Universities  ask for a three year graduation program, exactly how does it benefit a student to do four years at Delhi University where the syllabi  itself has shrunk noticeably?

Alienating serious teachers in the workspace and undercutting serious teaching methodologies can benefit neither  teaching  nor learning.  Small classrooms crammed with enormous numbers of young adults with no real choices cannot be the future that is being promised to India’s young students.   Instead of ensuring a nationwide debate, the MHRD  has ministers making public proclamations to the effect that they are going to stand by and watch the university collapse in order to facilitate self-financing in higher education.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Yellow and Green

I remember summer vacations in  my maternal grandparents' home at Sripuram, in the Madras of yore.  Early mornings were quiet, interrupted by bird calls at the mango tree and around the coconut palms. The women in the house bustled around, cooking the first full course  meal of the day. By nine am we all sat down to a splendid repast, that even the gods had partaken of. There was abundant hot rice, a little paruppu( thick cooked dal) and ghee,  followed by sambaar, rasam and two kinds of vegetables.   This would be enhanced by pickles and appalams(papads) and  followed by curd  . Some mornings we would have buttermilk and  vadaams(fryums) and fresh  thayir pachdis, (vegetables grated or ground into curd) but invariably there would be a dry vegetable; potatoes or finely chopped beans garnished with coconut. However,  greens were mandatory consumption in the daily routine.

Somedays it was ara-keerai or spinach leaves cooked alone into a thoran, or with  moong and arhar lentils. Other days it could be amaranth, red or green. There was also the paruppu-keerai that is called kulfa in North India that paati made, often with moong dal. One of us would be handed a small bowl of steamed kulfa and moong that we quickly ground on the stone-grinder in the backyard, while she tempered a hot oil garnish of  whole red chilly, mustard seeds , urad and asafoetida. The kulfa had a gooey texture and the raw leaves had a slight sour taste, " Remember to eat a portion of greens everyday," Paati would instruct us, while we hurried in and out of the kitchen carrying out the odd chore.

 This was an instruction that we took seriously, since she was a culinary expert extraordinary. It is over fourteen years since she died and well over twenty-five since she dispensed with daily cooking, but  I can never pass a line-up of greens without  stopping to gaze at the fresh green leaves tied into compact bundles. I also end up buying them, experimenting with  varieties like arugula and bok-choy which were outside of Paati's repertoire.

 Last week at the local friday bazaar I stopped in front of a large pile of greens and found kulfa, which comes in quietly and leaves with out much fanfare and bought some. I tried to recreate the version my grandmother used to make, and also experimented with a new tamarind version, Both versions were consumed by the family with varying degrees of acceptance.  In the middle of my reminiscence about the  smells and flavours emanating from my grandmother's kitchen, my next door neighbor telephoned. She turns out great food and in the early years she made her own ketchup and jams, bottles and bottles of them, to say nothing of endless pickles, kanji and cake.

She had called however to discuss kulfa, which she too had picked up from the local market. She confided that this was something her mother used to  make with bengal gram dal all through her childhood and she had  wanted to run the idea by me before recreating it after many years. Her mother had died a few years ago, and  she  too was cooking up a storm of memories. We have shared the odd culinary experience and encouraged each other through the odd  cooking experiment for over a decade now. I egged her on to make the chana dal  kulfa version and she promised to bring me some later in the day, when she was done.

The moong dal version  is very light with the coconut and toasted black gram garnish adding  to the subtle  summer-is-in-the-air flavour. It would please  Shikha Sharma both  for freshness and lightness of taste while it would be therapeutic for all those with weak stomachs. The tamarind version is a great pick-me-up and goes rather well with both rice and dosas. It can be easily  modified into  kulfa sambaar if pigeon pea lentils (arhar dal)  and whole little onions were added to it.  Chopped kulfa leaves and stems  added  to adais(thick lentil dosas) make them delectable.  I tried out  the chana-kulfa that Rita brought me with both rice and chapppatis. This is a dish, worthy of a permanent  seat at any wedding repast. It is rich, creamy and aromatic and could even double up as a  winter broth.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Holy Intoxication

Holi arrived in  late March  in the middle of the week  and was almost overlooked by the pleasant  weather which showed little signs of  allowing the hot season to take over. Mornings remain cool and nippy even a week after and late night weather continues to remains pleasant.  The change in climatic conditions in the last few years has resulted in everyone relying entirely on the moon based Indian calendar  to quickly tabulate the specific day for revelry. Oddly, as we grow older, festivals usher in nuances that we never attributed to them  at a callow age. This year, a friend's father who  had been admitted to the ICU, passed away on  the morning of Holi. This was a festival he loved  and he had lived a glorious life, both private and public and was dearly loved, valued, revered and mourned. We  went to pay our respects, driving through the still sleepy streets of  New Delhi in the direction of the ridge.

There wasn't much traffic and we paused at the  check posts put in place by the Delhi Police who peered alertly  into car windows which slowed down,  checking for possible  criminals.  This is a drill we are familiar with and in recent times, apologies  printed on the yellow barriers assuage  the less patient among us by explaining that although these metal barriers slow us down they are for our  general safety.
 In the week preceding Diwali, we had been flagged down by the  cops while returning home late in the night. One cop on duty  asked  for the driver's window to be lowered down. The spouse did the needful and the cop  put in his head, moving his face so close to the spouse's mouth, that all of us constrainedly speculated  as to whether the cop had designs upon him. Fortunately, that was not the case. Sniffing pointedly, the cop drew back his head from the car window and  waved us away. Relieved, the spouse exclaimed that he had aced the breathalyzer test and  been certified  as NDUI ( not driving under intoxication)

So this time when the cops flagged down the car in front of us, smiling warmly at us as we waited in the wings, we thought we knew what was in store. However, we had  underestimated the improvisational  skills that our cops multi-task with, in lieu of material resources.
 This cop  thrust his cupped left palm  in front of the mouth of the man in the driving seat and asked him to breathe into it. The man, perhaps another veteran, complied. The cop withdrew his hand, now  a portable  fist, brought it towards his nose and  inhaled deeply of the trapped air.  The breathalyzer check had been completed, the driver was NDUI and therefore dismissed. Grinning at us, who  were witness to  this first sighting, he proceeded to wave us away cheerily without subjecting us to this novel technique of assessment. Possibly our incredulous expression confirmed to him that we were definitively  NDUI !