Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Short Note

I am sorry for the delay in posting but when you folks check back tomorrow morning, you shall find something really worthwhile here. Be sure to tell your friends about it.

Best wishes.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Idea: Using Social Networks to Further Teaching

I found a very interesting podcast, an audio discussion on how social networking sites could be used to further teaching. This is on a blog called EdTechTalk and the specific post is called Teachers Teaching Teachers #113 - Just-in-time, just-for-me reading - 07.16.08. You can read a summary and listen to the audio file by going to http://www.edtechtalk.com/node/3260

The audio file is 35:33 minutes long and discusses the use of Shelfari to build an online library. You can also read the complete transcript of the audio file at the same link.

Issue: Teaching in the Academia

Well, I am sure this is going to be quite a contentious issue and my colleagues might just rise in arms against me. But a very important issue is that of how professors fare as teachers. There is no training for professors. In fact, I read a very interesting post on another blog about the same issue.

This blog is by Jennifer Imazeki and she's from the Department of Economics at San Diego University in the United States. Reading her post which specifically focussed on how economics professors fare poorly as teachers, I was overwhelmed by a sense of ennui--wasn't it the same elsewhere? You can read her blog Professors as Teachers. In India, we don't have any training programme for professors. The moment you pass out from graduate school with either an M.Phil. or a Ph.D. degree or you pass out with a Masters and qualify a National Eligibility Test for Lecturers, you can start teaching.

So, the only models that you have are a variety of senior professors who might tell you 'things here and there'. Unfortunately, there are no mentors available in the profession, who might guide you. As a norm, most Indian professors that I have seen seem to be diffident or uncommunicative or unfriendly and certainly scared of student feedback.

Actual Curriculum

Let us look at the model curriculum discussed in the earlier post:

certain compositional skills in English required in various professions and activities in
India, e.g., letter-writing, précis or summary-writing, paragraph composition. This may extend to more specialized skills such as report-writing, copy-editing, copywriting,scriptwriting, translation etc.

It would really be an eye-opener if one collected the various General / Compulsory English curricula that are being taught at various places in India and checked how many of them had 'report-writing', 'copy-editing', 'copywriting', 'scriptwriting' and 'translation'. By and large, these items seem to be missing from the curricula which have been implemented at different places. Right now, we haven't even discussed the ways in which these curricula are being implemented at various places in these institutions of higher education.

Example: UGC Model Curriculum and Deviations

Let us again refer to the University Grants Commission. It is a body under the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, Government of India, and it is a regulatory body. But as India is a huge country with a number of educational institutions of higher learning, they too have a tough task on their hands.

I don't know if you are aware that they have a model curriculum for a number of subjects and areas. The model curriculum landing page can be seen here. The information contained in these pages is simply wonderful and if it is properly implemented, it should prove to be quite beneficial to the students.

I would like to take the English curriculum as a case study because I am an English teacher and most familiar with this terrain. The Draft Recommendations can be found in this PDF document. At the outset, the document lays out the difficulties inherent in the process. I quote:

To formulate a college or university curriculum in English poses a special challenge because at some level or other, virtually all students within the Indian university system study a certain amount of English. This is not the case with any other subject. Planning the curriculum thereby becomes a complex task with broader social implications beyond the academic ones. (page 1)
Now, if formulating a college or a university curriculum in English is a special challenge, then it would be a matter of even greater responsibility on part of the teachers themselves. This document lays out three conditions for the formulation of General / Compulsory English programmes. In the second point, it says that such programmes should ensure:

certain compositional skills in English required in various professions and activities in
India, e.g., letter-writing, précis or summary-writing, paragraph composition. This may extend to more specialized skills such as report-writing, copy-editing, copywriting, scriptwriting, translation etc. (page 1)

The first and the third points are also quite interesting and if you looked at the curriculum that is currently being taught to students in Indian universities, you would surely understand the areas in which they lack. Part of this problem also lies with the UGC because they always state that their recommendations are guidelines, which may be adjusted and modified by the universities / colleges according to their special needs.

There is no monitoring and no accountability in the system and it largely functions on objective principles put forth by the faculty, socio-cultural make-up of the faculty, whims of the faculty and board members. Once a Department formulates a curriculum, it goes through a Board of Studies meeting, where it is normally passed with or without minor modifications. Usually, none of the faculty have any training or formal understanding of curriculum development and following the UGC recommendation blindly is seen in a negative light.

After the Board of Studies, there are bodies such as the Faculty Committee and the Academic Council but usually people from other departments do not argue on the modalities of a curriculum framed by a particular department. This is a good practice but it has its pitfalls. It means that though academics from other departments would not interfere in areas which are not strictly their own, it also means that whatever is proposed by one department goes to the highest bodies unchecked and is adopted virtually without any vetting process.

There is no process where the UGC vets the curriculum framed by any university department or college in the country. Now, it is a good thing for the institutions of higher education to be autonomous but in the absence of any other check, it becomes all the more important for faculty members involved to take it with the utmost seriousness that it deserves. But sadly, this is what doesn't always happen.

Interestingly, there is no body at the university level that could function as a check on the curriculum of a particular department once it is passed / approved. Once a curriculum is approved, then it is taught for a number of years without really making any effort to ascertain its impact on the students. Moreover, there is no system in the Indian situation, where feedback from the students is given any priority. There is no student feedback for the faculty (which is a very contentious and sensitive issue) and there is no provision for feedback from the students for any curriculum in practice. There also exists no system where people from the large civil society institutions and other reputed educationists could be involved in obtaining such feedback.

I hope my post would lead to some soul searching.

Issues Relating to Higher Education

In India, we have a body called the University Grants Commission, or the UGC as it is popularly known, that supposedly 'monitors' what various colleges and universities do in the country. Salaries for public universities and colleges are given by the UGC and the appointments made in these public institutions have to be ratified by the UGC. Any other institution of higher learning which has been recognized by the UGC also should follow their guidelines.

So, if the UGC monitors these various colleges and universities in the country and they also have a 'fake universities alert', then what is it that ails higher education in India? I think this is a pertinent question, which has a number of multifaceted answers, all of which cannot be provided in the course of a single post. The problems are various and in a huge country like India, these issues can become very sensitive. I could be wrong but from my experience in life, I feel that Indian academics tend to take things personally more and they rarely see things in the best interests of the profession.

We need to really ponder over a large number of issues that afflict the profession in India. These are really serious issues and they should be given due consideration, especially when the country is posting excellent economic growth and expects to be one of the great economies of the world. So, what kind of a developed country is India going to become if there isn't a lot of focus on higher education? There are initiatives which are required both at the governmental as well as level of various stakeholders.

It is higher education that would provide the much-needed qualitative human capital, which is sorely needed in India. So, we should not take it lightly.

Experience in Academics: Personal Note

In October 2008, I would complete thirteen years as an academic. I joined in October 1995 as an adjunct faculty and got my tenure in February 2002. But as I was serving as an adjunct faculty from November 2000 without a single day's break in service, my service was counted from 2000 onwards.

In India, there are three types of adjunct faculty, guest faculty, ad-hoc faculty and faculty on leave vacancy. Sometimes, guest faculty and ad-hoc faculty are also used synonymously in Indian conditions. I first served as ad-hoc faculty but my designation was 'Part Time Lecturer in English', where obviously I did 'full-time' work. This lasted from October 1995 to May 1996. Then I served as faculty on leave vacancy, where one was selected through the same Selection Committee that selected faculty on full time tenure but one was offered the adjunct position because no full time positions were available. I served on this position from September 1996 till 2002. Interestingly, though I always had the job but I was without job about three times in these six years for periods which were around ten to fifteen days.

This is normal practice in most Indian institutions that I have known and anyone who has spent some time in the Indian academia would be aware of such realities. In India, in the administrative jargon, it is known as 'a forced break'. You work as a faculty on leave vacancy, when you are kept on an adjunct position because a full time tenured professor is on leave and they need someone to fill up the position. So, suppose, you work against someone's position from August 2008 till September 2009, when the person is supposed to rejoin. But during that period, someone else has proceeded on leave from June 2009 and so the institution can easily absorb the same person against the new position that has fallen vacant or else keep someone who is better, if the present incumbent weren't performing well. But if the present incumbent weren't performing well, s/he could always be thrown out.

Now, when this person's term ends in September 2009 and the teaching session has already begun but the interviews for the new position are scheduled to be held on October 8th, 2009. The new position would be available till December 2010. Meanwhile, the earlier person who was on full time tenure has joined on October 1, 2008. So, this gentleman who was working originally from August 2008 gets an eight day break in service and obviously no salary for that period. But it isn't really the loss of salary that is important. The more important loss for this person is the break in service, including service conditions, leave that is due to him/her and loss of annual increments in salary.

This was a good example of what is known as a 'forced break'. It is a perfect administrative mechanism against which you cannot expect the adjunct faculty to protest because if the faculty protests, the institution can always hold out the stick of replacing him/her with another person.

So, there is a pretty long journey that one traverses from adjunct faculty to full time tenured faculty in India. These are important issues relating to the profession and I have not seen any thought being given to them. If senior tenured faculty gave thought to these practices, they would be able to find more committed adjunct faculty and really help the profession grow more.

Welcome to Issues in Academics

This is a specialized blog, which would only focus on issues that rage in the world of academia. It would therefore deal with a varied and myriad number of issues that relate to teaching, the practice of pedagogy, the difficulties and nuances of student-teacher relationship, the exigencies and the practice of fraudulent and genuine scholarship as well as anything that relates to this profession.