Saturday, December 6, 2014

column for The Chandigarh Tribune which was published today,

MUSINGS The Speaking Self Ratna Raman$largeimg05_Dec_2014_225300810.jpg . The human child sees herself/himself for the first time in a mirror and learns that she/he has a separate self. This is a magical moment. Subsequently, children respond to names and lisp them for indulgent adults delighting in baby prattle. Inching towards adulthood, post schooling, the young person is constantly required to introduce himself/herself, in public, in private, in professional capacity and sometimes over the telephone. The most flamboyant introduction ever is that popularised by England’s well-loved secret agent 007. ‘Bond, James Bond’, he says in a laid-back manner and dazzles everyone. Of course, Bond’s spectacular looks and gizmos add to the allure. Most of us have to introduce ourselves in the social sphere without the celluloid advantages available to James Bond. We must begin at ground zero by listing incorrect practice and steering clear of faux pas (false steps). At interviews, candidates often get off on the wrong foot. When introducing themselves, they incorrectly prefix the word ‘myself’ before the actual name. Far more males are guilty of this than females. Possibly, men have a stronger sense of self in patriarchal societies or perhaps there are far more men in the public sphere. For a correct formal introduction, it is sufficient to offer a name and a surname, eg, “My name is Jatin Das.” At an informal social gathering, it is enough to mention a first name. If the person being addressed seems reticent, maybe two half sentences would be most effective. The correct response would be: “I’m Subhash, and you are…..?” Or “My name is Nikhila, what’s yours?” Prefixes such as ‘myself, Dr, Mr, Mrs, Ms, etc., are best avoided. Inform someone that you have a doctorate if your pay scale depends on it. If it doesn’t, prefixing a degree to a name is pedantic. Only in case of a medical emergency is there a requirement for a doctor. In social gatherings, personal qualifications or marital status need to be revealed only when asked for. Look at how stilted and awkward conversation becomes with incorrect usage: “Myself Kamal Kumar ....and what about your good self….?” Or "What is your good name?” Sentences such as these are best expunged from memory. It is important to remember that preliminary introductions only permit the exchange of names. All names are chosen with care and must be presumed good. Only prolonged association enables the discovery of good and bad selves. Telephone callers often make strange statements such as , “Harish, this side,” leaving the listener curious as to whether numerous sides exist on a telephone line. The correct usage when speaking on the phone should be, “This is Harish or Rekha.” If it is not a personal call then the caller could say; “This is Harish Dhawan from Watercare. Could I speak to Mr. Sondhi? It is incorrect to dial a number and interrogate whoever responds with: “Who is speaking? (“Kaun bole raha hai?”) The exasperated reply can only be: “Why should I tell you?” Equally annoying are geographers enquiring: “Where are you speaking from? (“kahan se bol rahe ho?”) A friend who was woken up with this asinine query responded icily: “I speak from my mouth. What about you?” (“Mae mooh se bol raha hoon. Aap kidhar se bolte hain?”)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Open Letter To Delhi University's Vice Chancellor

Dear Sir, Having been weighed down since the time you annexed our university and made it part of your extended private empire, I took the liberty of writing to you. Also, things are moving from hot to heated and worse in the month of June. Of course you are not sorry about the fact that thousands of young people and middle aged teachers are not taking a much needed break or reading something that would add to their lives. Instead they have spent the entire summer protesting in public spaces about how you have jeopardized lives and careers by violating Education Commission Guidelines and reducing higher education to a mere shadow of its once resplendent stature. I recall how you contributed to the destruction of the seasons at Delhi University. In the best teaching months of the year,November and December, you egged on students to take semester exams and then cool their heels at home in gorgeous weather. Since you rarely attended classes, or took them in the recent public past, you had little compunction about getting everybody to attend college and teach and learn well into hot April and then give exams in the excruciating heat of May and June, when scientifically productivity is at its lowest. No, we don't hold you responsible for Delhi's extreme weather, only for making the worst possible use of it, and "worst possible use" of everything conceivable has really been the high-point of your tenure as Vice Chancellor. Sidelining elected teacher representatives, pretending that the DUTA was an illegal, unofficial body was a misplaced move, on par with your sidelining of statutory decision making bodies such as the Academic and Executive Councils. The decision to design academic curriculum, instead of assisting and enabling through infrastructural support, which is really the role of university administration, was another frightful mistake. During this round, you incarcerated all departments rendering democratic teacher's general bodies in each department null and void. You took our subject specializations away from us and served show cause notices to any one who dared to dissent. We found ourselves out of an academic environment, neck deep in a rat-race, principals who had turned into FYUP salespersons supervising handpicked syllabi makers motivated by all sorts of incremental rewards. No vice chancellor can be a subject expert in every subject taught at the university. Setting up a new chain of command and getting handpicked teachers to report directly to you and frame syllabi is far removed from best practice. It qualifies as worst practice, as does your constant refrain that due process was observed in the Academic Council and the Executive council. You organized an academic congress and set up a task force to achieve your ends and this was distortion and manipulation of due process. Do keep your courtiers apprised of this small detail. They seem to have lost sight of this fact altogether. Possessing academic sovereignty as central university teachers in Independent India, we have never required a task force in university environs in peace-time.The truth was, you had waged war on everything the university stood for. The foundation courses you initiated compels belief that it was brought on because you studied under the older 8+3+3 scheme. If only you had done the 10+2+3 as many of us have, you could have studied in greater depth and detail some of the shabby compulsory foundation courses that you recently piled upon the heads of hapless students. These students studied all subjects and took exams in class X and then spent two years training for specializations they could opt for as undergraduates. It is also a great pity that the insights of political science after class VIII were denied to you. It might have enabled you to distinguish between state and university and led you to realize that they are constituted differently and subject to altogether different rules. As of now,seers Sibal, Tharoor and Pitroda, who sponsored your Trishanku-like ascent into the Upperworld have fled the scene. Even the worshipful secretaries and doting UGC officials(the only people whom you took into confidence while you conned us)have begun to look beyond your personal charisma and seriously examine paperwork,in many instances, possibly for the first time. Shouldn't you, in your own interest, listen to what the cosmos is telling you? Sabre-rattling and getting your meager troops together is unlikely to set any streets ablaze, even in this weather. This is worrying.. even more worrying than the elephant ride you undertook to the campus inaugural, unheeding of our antardhvani. Who rides elephants when they own feet and especially after luxury cars have been invented? Shouldn't we be done with all this now, your riding on elephants and riding roughshod over Delhi University? Let us not prolong this agony. We shall let bygones be bygones if you will allow us to believe that you too will soon be gone. It is going to need a lot of hard work to put Delhi University together again.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Delhi University's Autonomy

When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always. -Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) 

We need a quick recap of the events over the past several years at Delhi University.   One hot summer , Vice Chancellor Pental received responses  from Delhi University's eighty odd undergraduate colleges who had been asked about  the introduction of semesterization. Most colleges replied in detail after deliberations in staff councils that they were not in favor of semesterization. 
In any university with a fair measure of academic autonomy, the perspective of the teacher's collective should have prevailed. Pental persisted in making CDS listing the  pros and cons of semesterization and then quickly pushed this change through in the Academic Council. Arguably, Pental was getting his orders from elsewhere. Nevertheless, he succeeded  in destroying a very integral  component of Delhi University. 

In the 1980s, the optimal decade of the teachers movements,  the number of elected teacher representatives  in the AC was identical to the number in the AC that Pental presided over in 2007. Pental's coup reduced the elected  teacher representatives in the Academic Council  to a minority of numbers. For the first time in the university 's history, it became unnecessary to hear out elected teacher representatives.  The Vice chancellor's men and women would always outnumber elected teacher representatives  in the AC. This brinkmanship  was very ably exploited by Pental's successor Singh who learnt quickly under Pental's stewardship. Singh used his mathematical ability to create a whole set of numbers outside of the Academic Council. Pental's  opening gambit of riding rough shod over the interests of undergraduate teachers was used far more insidiously  by Singh, who set aside not merely  elected representatives but also Heads of Departments in his systemic disempowerment of the Academic Council. He set up special meetings and then instituted special empowered task forces and  committees at will, eroding the rights and  authority  invested in staff councils  and  duly constituted committees all over the university. 

 Pursuing a cloak and dagger policy, Singh managed to bring all modes of   academic and democratic dissent within the university to a shuddering halt.  Pretending that the DUTA was  a defunct group of busybodies with no academic credentials , and serving show-cause notices to dissenting teachers, Singh set about reinventing university academic life with his own band of handpicked acolytes.  

The acolytes received  their brief and   accomplished Mission Demolition. Their work and the subsequent rewards  received are  all now in the public domain.   Discipline I courses were substantially diluted and Discipline II courses are to be rendered irrelevant. The compulsory Foundation and Application Courses were some sort of cruel joke  played upon academic life at the University
 We need to remember that  when  DU's Vice Chancellors' took University  autonomy in their own hands, wrung its neck and proceeded to do pretty much as they pleased, they received able assistance from Callous Kapil, Showstopper Shashi and Roving Rajus.
 A semesterization where annual courses were trimmed and bifurcated swung into action first for  science students and in the subsequent year for students of  humanities and commerce. Semesterization was the first body blow dealt to SOL in place of   sorting out the mess and making it a learner friendly institution, which would benefit those who had been contributing to the University coffers with minimal returns. The dual degree system was set in play, contravening statutes that deemed it obligatory for the university to  offer  a single degree.

Anomalies already  existed in the  laborious evaluation process  of a humongous number of student scripts. Individual  internal assessment marks from colleges needed to be factored in. In recent years, a mysterious moderation committee at the university inflated or deflated  internal assessment marks to everybody's chagrin, bolstered entirely by student inability to protest.
To this was added the punitive measure of centralizing exam corrections for  all undergraduate honours examinations. Teachers correcting MA scripts,  did so at home. Teachers evaluating undergraduate scripts did an  exaggerated prescribed minimum of twenty-five per day   at ghastly  correction centres  with little air and water and even less food and sanitation. 

Under the Dinesh regime exam reforms involved  the disbanding of the secrecy clause whereby college identities became public knowledge. An eleven digit roll number, a declaration of the student's date of birth and  the invigilating officer's  name and countersignature  became important examination totems  upgrading evaluation quotient This was followed up by a surreal three part correction  of every examination script whereby  holistic student welfare ceased to be anybody's responsibility.

 None of these issues: violation of due process, marginalization of  democratically constituted decision making bodies , death of pedagogy, systemic decay, review, debate and discussion and a total incineration of student well-being cut any ice with all the movers and shakers who were involved in  L'affaire University . While bureaucrats sighed over Singh's good looks, believing in the outdated adage that "handsome is as handsome does," the more dexterous politicians turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the unending erosion of university autonomy. Today, one year after FYUP has generated acute distress in every quarter of the university community, the writing is now  clearly visible on all possible walls. Those who now talk of the university's autonomy, after trampling it   underfoot for many years in succession only highlight the sycophancy and fear that remain sharp undercurrents in university life. Autonomy for Delhi University can never be equated with one political party's dictat replacing the excesses of another. Autonomy for Delhi University involves enabling it to set its house in order. Autonomy involves restoring to the Delhi University Teacher,Student and Karamchari community the rights and dreams enshrined in its statutes and ordinances. Autonomy for Delhi University means going back to an era when all authority was not concentrated in the hands of Vice chancellors while the rights of everyone else were simultaneously rescinded. Autonomy for Delhi University is allowing the University to function within the framework of guidelines outlined by a more liberal constitution and the guidelines of the Education Commission. Autonomy for Delhi University involves creating spaces for dialogue and welcoming dissent and debate. Autonomy for Delhi University involves a serious engagement with its teachers in all its duly constituted academic forums. Autonomy for Delhi University means a robust academic life for all its students and its teachers. In that  haven of hope and possibility, may Delhi University find itself.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The FYUP Scam

As  members of  a College Academic Planning Committee we were responsible for charting out the devolution of the four year plan in its second year. The number of roadblocks we encountered must be put down  in order to draw attention to the utterly student unfriendly educational program that  the University Administration has brazenly conjured up.
 Some known facts; the much touted Discipline I courses across the university have been diluted and mutilated.  Mindless foundation courses , compulsory in nature, with no seeming direction have been cobbled for students.  The same goes for the more ambitious  application courses, where student attendance and participation has been minimized in its entirety.

 Sitting with five students to hear their presentation  in a makeshift classroom , a teacher  of foundation or Application courses can easily feel akin to a tattoo artist or some such skilled technician. The rest of the class don't want to hear their batch mates because they have other presentations to make and assignments to submit.  The VC's grandiloquent statements on the irrelevance of classroom teaching  have borne fruit through the ghastly courses that have been  put in place.

The course content is so gossamer and the learning so slight  that students feel they might as well as do other things with their time. Handing out excellence awards for innovative teaching of these courses is not going to improve them. After discrediting serious academics  and deriding classroom teaching as pedagogically flawed methodology, the university administration  has set out to ensure that students are academically damned  from their third semester altogether.

 Take for instance 125 students opting for Commerce as Discipline I. all of  whom opt for economics as Discipline II  in their third semester , which is when Discipline II courses are scheduled. If other students in college also ask for economics which is a popular subject, the  numbers can easily go up to 240 students. In this scenario, what can individual departments do? The Economics Department will have to run five sections. while other Departments will fall by the wayside as demand and supply chains meet.
 Alarmed  at this possibility, the Specially Empowered Group at DU handed every Principal a magic wand. " Go forth," they commanded, " Subject Options and availability are the prerogative of the college, and students will have the choice of complying with allotted courses."
 So with a wave of the magic wand student option forms were created.  Complementing the spirit of compulsory foundation courses, students were asked to fill up five  Discipline II options. in order  of preference.
 These were to be calibrated and then based on a merit list, some students would get their subject of choice, others would be miserable, but possibly no department would die out because down to the last unwilling student, each department would have the required minimum.
 While this will all be mathematically worked out, students need to pay attention to  the charade that is being staged before their very eyes. They need to understand that  no real choice has been made available to them at all.
  Earlier commerce graduates studied Economics as an integral part of their Honours course, FYUP has cheated them by making economics optional for them and by actually presenting Discipline II as rare  white goods that they have to stand  for in  lines since Economics will perforce be rationed to them
 The possibility of being a commerce graduate in four years with edited knowledge of  Commerce and none whatsoever  of economics  is very real. This is a pathetic prognosis for a program that promised "hands-on experience." The hands in question seem to be bent upon  wringing student futures.
 Imagine the state of the   student who does not get the  Discipline II Course  she\he opted for in the first place. They are for no fault of their own  in a course they do not want possibly for the second time.
 So by a clever  sleight of the hand and the wielding of the whip DU Administration continues to deny students the right to choose  the diluted courses they have set in motion, even in their second year at the university. This is very bad for student morale and remains a poor incentive to learning.
Bleaker truths will  continue to unfold for the poor FYUP ""guinea pigs". I mean no insult by this expression. This  term  was coined  to describe  freshmen\women by none other than the FYUP VC.
They were promised options of  two Discipline II Courses. This cannot happen since Discipline II courses have been graded semester wise  with ascending levels of specialization.
 Especially in the sciences a student studying  the first three units of one Discipline II course  in semester 3 4 and 5 and the last three units of another Discipline II Course in semester 6, 7 and 8 will be subject to  a  lopsided learning process. The shortage of rooms  and teaching staff will ensure  in all cases that no parallel classes can be run.
Those who will exit after semester four and semester six  remain of little significance  because according to DU administration these were after all  exit routes created to facilitate dropouts. We shall encounter  many muddled research paper writers  in the 7th and 8th semesters

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

E-co-xotic Greens?

This was a vegetable we grew up with. Then it was  available on and off  in the summer  season at  Delhi. It wasn't particularly memorable, and we ate it as part of our must-eat-green-vegetables program  for a host of reasons, after discarding the ones that had turned  reddish orange  in the heat. In any case,  our years of growing up were punctuated with our parents approximating to the comforts of a   middle class life. through  austerity and thrift and a long journey initially undertaken by my father from Cuddalore to New Delhi to earn a living.

Lunch at New Delhi was traditionally rice with a combination of  vegetables and  kozhumbus and our favourite was usually urulakayangu  kari (aloo roast)  with kutti  vengaya(small onions) sambhar.
 Kovakkai (the tamil name) or kundru (hindi variant)  we tolerated and ate our mandatory shares of. We rarely fought over the last serving or  tried to get a ladleful more on our plate. Over potatoes we  fought and tried to pull the  advantage of rank to get a larger serving than the sibling lower in the pecking order.
 So possibly the good thing about the kundru was that it did not excite or inflame the passions and allowed for the peaceful ingestion of  meals. Only when I ran my own kitchen and began reading up different ways to cook vegetables did I stumble on to the fact that there were many ways of making the kundru and that it had many health benefits.
 I read a recipe for the kundru which involved cutting it along its length into tiny  roundels, stirring in salt, chilli powder and asafoetida and drying it in the sun, to be stored as crisps, which could be eventually eaten  deep fried, much in the manner of wadis with rice and daal. Apparently this was the way  housewives in maharashtra  dealt with the tindori as they called it. While it was delicious, the time spent in waiting for the vegetable to dry and the subsequent high oil submersion to  bring it back on the food platter seemed excessive, so I experimented with the offered recipe further.
 Greasing the tindori with oil and chilli powder and asafoetida and then spreading out the little circlets on a greased baking dish was my first attempt. This trick seemed to work  and  crisp kundru vegetable bits were obtained with far less oil, and were readily devoured, although  the potato continued to occupy  first place in the preferential vegetable list.

Eventually I settled for making the  tindori  on a shallow iron griddle. They could be cut into roundels or simply smashed whole, after being set aside for half an hour with chilli powder, asafoetida and salt. Next , a small tadka in gingelly oil  and mustard seeds provided the base onto which the whole or diced kundru could be dropped. Slow cooking on the griddle for twenty minutes allowed for delectable kundru. Occasionally,  a garnish of freshly grated coconut before serving made for a memorable meal, but even without, the kundru has a delicious enough flavour. It is also a great store house of nutritional benefits. Kundru seems to have been created in nature as a scrouge for  the  debilitating ailment of diabetes that modern lifestyles have  begun to steadily incorporate. Regular consumption of  Kundru  is credited with the lowering of   blood sugar and supplementing the beta-carotene stores in the body . My mom  recalls using the seedy gel like insides of the kundru to wipe down slates (personal black boards) that were a mandatory everyday  part of their early schooling.   This versatile vegetable  from the gourd family,  referred to as the ivy gourd is also quixotically identified as "gentlemen's toes". This name possibly compensates for the okra being known as ladies' finger in English parlance. It must be acknowledged that  there are many reasons why the  kundru  deserves  special mention in all our kitchen affairs.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Blueprint of Application for Excellence in Foundation Course Teaching Fellowship under FYUP.

I  rushed home after an afternoon tutorial.  Most mornings begin at 8.45 am and  newspaper reading in the morning has been one of many casualties in this extend-the-workhours -regime.  I learnt  later in the day about the new carrot policy in the morning  paper, whereby  "able academics"  could alter   their academic-life conditions almost instantly.  
The  second round of shake ups in the university academic system   have begun. New golden  apples are steadily being dislodged from the viceregal chambers for the  dexterous Jasons of the university to run after and capture. Yet again , an act of  largesse was in place, an undeserved opportunity for those of us who had been Left behind.
 In retrospect,  objecting  to violation of  procedure and policy was short-sighted.  Being loyal to time tested teaching practice  and believing in academia as a place for dissent, brainstorming, dialogue and collective growth  was a strategic mistake. Demanding transparency and dialogue were tantamount to tilting at windmills. Weary of chasing mirages, I  decided to plunge myself  heroically into this new opportunity  and re-invent myself.

 I  fixed an appointment with  the  head of More Perfect Relations, assuredly the best PR company in the world (  this is  Goebbelspeak   which first  requires the articulation of  a fiction that must be consistently  reiterated  to  prove its  veracity.) Reaching the MPR office  posthaste I began  work to eliminate the competition. Illustrating  my innovative abilities, I am submitting a blue print for the  proposed production.

Director MPR :  You want to produce a DVD demonstrating your excellence as an innovative teacher? My firm  provides publicity for filmstars, politicians and sportspersons. Surely academic awards are bound by some well-defined academic criteria?  Are you sure you are in the right place  ma'am?
Me: Yes! The university no longer has the time for  evaluating academic excellence. We are in a hurry and must therefore forgo all  extant sane academic  procedures because they are depressingly accurate. Academic worth is now to be measured by TRP ratings. So we have a point system in place and both quantity and volume of visible noise are essential qualifications. Academics must produce these special effects or be for ever fallen!

Director MPR: Well, we are in the visibility business. So how do we go about it?
Me: I need to make a ten minute video  showcasing my excellence as a teacher  transforming  the lives of hapless students  by  teaching  ill-conceived and illogical courses that  are smashing the foundations of  serious academic disciplines.

Director MPR: Ten minutes is very little
Me: It is a lot.  Fiinely calibrated mathematical  calculations from cellphone smses have  revealed that  student attention spans  last only a few seconds. Also new protocols from American universities demand brevity as nine continuous  minutes are  now the stipulated information-absorption  norm. We actually have a surplus of one whole extra minute.!
DirectorMPR:  What will we be focusing on?
 Me: Well I need an able film maker who will work pro bono  for me. I need him to focus on my best profile and since I am overweight, he must have good photo-shopping skills.  I was thinking  close focus on my left profile with my hands raised to the sky. This will be an iconic  inspirational pose reaching out to a grand Indian narrative.... and then  the camera must quick shift to  faces of students looking both awed and inspired.

 Director MPR: Is there any audio content.?
Me: I was coming to that.  The need of the day is  a unifying anthem ( our university has plans for one). I am in the process of writing  a small poem celebrating my attributes, in the tradition of the suprabhatams. I will  get the students to recite it. That would show collective growth, me being praised and them doing the praising.

DIrector MPR:  How will that bring out  your   excellent creative skills and provide proof of  the students as learning from your  considerable expertise?.
Me:  I have it all worked out. I teach an Application Course in Translation. My basic discipline is English Literature, Nobody is more qualified to write a hagiographic poem on me. I shall write this poem in Ottava Rima  or the far more compact  Tetrameter. My students will  memorize and recite it in English. This will be part of their presentation. Then I will get them to translate it into Hindi and other regional languages. Actually it doesnt matter that our students have minimal knowledge of other regional languages. We also have no  translation laboratories or equipment to assist students.  All this is irrelevant as we have complete leeway to do anything we want.
We have an exciting component  called project work, which will be useful  for  outsourcing  translations.
 Once this is on camera, the DVD can be outsourced for dubbing into various languages. (a minimum of ten)
 This way,  I will  have created a text, provided for inter-textuality, created a link between the various languages of India and also put myself on the national map with at least sixty unknown scholar-translators per semester.
 I shall also acknowledge my  sources(even though this is a practice that the university is beginning to frown upon) I need everyone to know that my  inspiration is global.  The Ceausescus Of  Romania  rewrote themselves into  their  nation's  school  curriculum.  Surely university teachers  are better  qualified to direct   higher education?
Taking a  a leaf out of Chinese Olympic Inauguration protocol  the camera must focus on the good looking and photogenic students for best visual appeal.   They must  be choreographed  looking rapturous. Don't worry about discrimination. The ones with good handwriting will write  me glowing feedback about how they had never understood the potential of  teaching till they attended my lectures.

Director MPR :  You must be a fantastic teacher to generate such  student response!
Me: Actually, teaching is the least of it. I  control their marks. The Carrot policy is as effective at the bottom of the pyramid..   It works well for me too. Every student clears my course with distinction.  This is in keeping with  our new output based national  educational policy where we record an annual  increase in the  numbers of outstanding  scholars. How else in the absence of infrastructural facilities and indifference to quality do you think education is being upgraded.? Education is expanding  in geometric proportions inside of our own heads. All we  are required to do  is to manufacture  the data to support it. I am first  and foremost a patriot!

 Director MPR:  This is a brilliant innovative project.
Me: Yes, It  should merit a one year fellowship to China or maybe Romania,  and recharge me.  On my return, I shall contact a recording company and hire playback singers, maybe train  the next translation batch to sing in  many languages. My first video will also be immediately updated and submitted for the next round of  awards. Hurrah for innovation and  diversification in the  business of higher education.