Saturday, January 31, 2009

The power of social media

I support Mr. K. Srinivasan's view that social media should be taught as part of the university curricula in India. It could be part of public relations and media studies programs. Moreover, social media and web writing could also be part of an English studies program, where it could be included as part of a compulsory English course. The US President Barack Obama has shown the great power inherent in social media. You would be amazed to know that his Facebook page has 4.2 million fans, which is much higher than the fans that the David Beckham or the Johnny Depp pages have. So, Mr. Obama has been uniquely and singularly successful in being able to harness the strength inherently present in social and new media. However, as I have been a part of the Indian academia, I am aware that such courses would be seen with disdain among 'purists'.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Social media as part of university curriculum

Mr. K Srinivasan, a well known public relations (PR) practitioner in India spoke to The Business Line, an Indian business daily, where he spoke about the need to include social media as part of the curriculum in colleges so that youngsters would not misuse it. He was speaking to students of an engineering college. He said that social networks such as Facebook, Myspace, Orkut and Linkedin had become the preferred mode of communication for young people and that these networks helped people hone their skills.

You can read the complete article here:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

More on methods of teaching

There is such great 'variety' between the teaching methods employed by university teachers in India that I am somewhat aghast when I think about it. For those who understand literary texts, I once knew of a teacher in some Indian university, who took one lecture (damn it, just one lecture and I wasn't the unfortunate student) to complete Henry Fielding's novel, Tom Jones.

I am not trying to state that all Indian teachers are bad. In fact, Indians are known as good teachers in many countries of the world.

One excellent teacher that I had heard of was P. Lal, the person who used to teach in Calcutta and who was singularly responsible for the publishing boom in Indian English writing. He started Writers Workshop, a publishing house. One of my father's friends studied under him and he used to tell me that when P. Lal taught in the 1960s, there used to be huge classes and even students, who did not have courses with him, would troop in. The interesting thing here is that there used to be silence in his classes and he never scolded anyone. He was certainly a great teacher, however, he was also a publishing pioneer and I am sure, he must have escaped the petty politics that plagues many of us, even if we don't want to be part of it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Teaching Practices

How do you teach university students? Are professors in a university trained to teach students? I don't think professors are ever trained to teach students either in the US or in India. In India, they are never trained to teach. Usually, professors pass out from graduate school with their dissertations, work for few years as adjunct (temporary / ad-hoc) faculty and then get full-time tenure. In the US, they have something called student feedback and I guess it is taken into consideration while keeping people on full-time tenure. In India, there is nothing like student feedback. So, one passes out from graduate school or college with an M.Phil. or Phd degree, clears something called the NET examination conducted by the University Grants Commission, and applies for an adjunct position. Meanwhile, one tries to get few papers or book reviews published. Sometimes, you don't even need a single publication if you are appearing for an adjunct position. The moment you get an adjunct position, you are the proverbial scapegoat because you are given a lot of work and you are not expected to speak at department meetings. Moreover, as an adjunct, you cannot choose the courses that you might teach.

After few years, the adjunct teacher is given a full time tenure as Assistant Professor. The faculty member is supposed to give answers to the questions asked in an interview, where the department chair, two experts, the vice-chancellor and a visitor's nominee are present. Usually, there are forty to fifty applicants for a single position and there is no guarantee that if a person has worked as an adjunct for the last few years, s/he might be absorbed there. In fact, getting into a full-time tenure does not depend on favorable student feedback or dedication to work. It depends on the composition of the commitee that selects you as well as some publications that you might have to show. However, I have known of people in the country, where they have been selected even without publications or the quality of publications can be quite varied and rather suspect.

However, no one is ever imparted training in how to be a good teacher. In the US, students pay a lot of money as fees and they are given lists of books to read at the beginning of the semester. They read those books and come to the classroom. There is a lot of internal assessment and students ask a lot of questions to the teacher. In India, one goes to the first lecture, tells the students about the books in the syllabus, then asks them to buy the book. After a week (which is usually being very optimistic), the students might have bought the books. There is certainly no guarantee that the students might have read those books. They read it slowly or rather a number of faculty try to spoonfeed them.

I have seen a number of faculty members all over the country spoonfeed students.It is a platter. The most popular faculty members are those who make it so simple for the students that sometimes might not need to read the books or might just read them later. Moreover, the examination system leaves a lot to be desired. Students can easily cram up questions asked in previous years and guess the questions. The entire system is such that it encourages mediocrity and punishes brilliance. It is in such settings that our Indian faculty members work and they often excel globally. You must salute the spirit of those Indian faculty members who excel in their professional work. They are quite rare.

The Structure of a University

I have taught for the last thirteen years at a well-known university in India. In the last thirteen years, I have seen a number of administrators at various levels including department as well as faculty administrators, deans, vice-chancellors and others. I have seen a number of developments on my campus. I can recollect developments such as a great improvement in the law and order situation on the campus, installation of the internet as well as the making of the university website. I have also seen removal of encroachments on university land by local people. I have also seen a great construction boom and I have seen various facilities being provided to academic departments being upgraded. Many faculty members got computers (but not all) and departments got photocopy machines and the university got a generator to save it from power cuts. However, I have never seen any great improvements in the actual state of the classrooms or those of the blackboards. I have not seen any move towards usage of better teaching aids. No LCD projectors in lecture halls. No generator support for classrooms. Nothing really to upgrade the teaching skills of the staff. No student feedback.

So, what really constitutes a university?

Now, I'm speaking about my experiences at a well-known Indian university and my comments are in a perfectly positive vein. I have known of a number of developments and I am happy about them. Interestingly, the state at other Indian universities that do not exist in big cities is rather abysmal.

More on the Academic World

I have known a number of people who got into other professions such as journalism or management and reached pretty high places. Some of my friends in school have successfully established businesses. When I would meet them, they would always be immensely pleased that I was an academic. In fact, one of my school pals, who is placed at a senior position in the corporate world, told me that he was impressed that 'I was a groovy professor'. Now, if you look at this school pal of mine and I passed out of school in 1988 and then went to college, it is indeed a pretty long time ago. This friend of mine is well-educated, holds a senior position, a position that is more senior than what I hold, earns more money and commands more people under him. So, socially, he is certainly at a higher scale compared to what I do in my life, most probably in every respect. However, he seems to have respect for the world of academia. Similarly, I have had a number of lay people (those who are qualified professionals but do not hail from the world of academics) tell me that they believe that 'teaching at a university is an easy job'--you go to the university, take lectures and come back home. In the popular perception, it is certainly easier than being a police officer, where you might be asked to report at night at the scene of crime.

Now, a number of such people also tell me that they believe that there is no workplace rivalry or politics in the world of academics because 'there are educated people in academia'. I understand that there are 'educated people' in academia, however, even for a moment, I refuse to believe that people who complete their Masters in Business Administration or hose who complete an MD, are any less competent or less educated. I have seen the seedy side of academics at close quarters and sometimes, I feel that I should script a movie on the subject. It might be the Slumdog Millionaire of the academic world!

The World of Academia

The world of academia can be quite different from the hallowed portals that most lay people think it is. It can be decidedly murky and can be full of intrigue and rivalry that characterizes other workplaces. In fact, speaking from personal experience and experiences of close friends, I believe that in Indian academia, rivalry at the workplace can be far bitter than at other workplaces in the country. I have seen a number of academics making it pretty big in the political scenario.