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Us and Them

November 14, 2014

The unwanted divide

William Deresiewicz, essayist and literary critic created quite a stir recently by criticising Ivy League Universities for producing, from what he likes to describe the graduates as, excellent sheep. The article by William Deresiewicz paints a good picture of what college education should ideally be. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self. This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career.

During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them. Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.

Superficially, any student or faculty in general might not find anything missing or out of the regular. Yet, the differences are visibly jarring to any student or faculty member who have had a stint in other institutes. It is difficult to ascertain whether the blame lies on the students for their mere resume-building approach to college coupled with the lack of genuine curiosity in their core, or on the complacency on part of the professors. Mayhaps both augment the other. Watch Out! News Agency sets out to investigate the non existent student-faculty interactions and ascertain the why and how.

The Ordinary Classroom Experience

An ordinary lecture in any given ordinary day of an ordinary student at IIT R involves an hour long confrontation with audio and visual continuum of information. Truly, the rooms of Lecture Hall Complex are designed in the manner to support this advancement of technology. To professor’s dismay, this hasn’t helped with the hypnosis inducing effect of the powerpoint presentations. The kind of slides used in our lectures are nothing like the ones conceived to turn routine lectures into interesting demonstrations. There are, however, some professors who still have their faith intact in the old chalk to black-board approach. Many students find themselves more comfortable with the chalk-to-board method than the stale approach of powerpoint presentation. “Things get faster to grasp once the professors pick up a chalk and start explaining on the board” adds Aman Kedia, CSE 3rd year, “By that you get ample time to make notes and even feel free to ask a doubt in between.”

Even so, there is not much scope in terms of the pedagogy involved, as the student faculty ratio takes care of that. According to a report in a newspaper that appreciates the beauty of nature TOI, the government stipulates that the IITs must have a teacher-student ratio of 1:10. While the average is 1:15, IIT Roorkee has the largest student faculty ratio at 1:20. Since recruiting faculty is a rigorous process, only a limited number of faculty can be hired every year. Although efforts are being taken by the institute, it is envisaged to take about 10 years to reach the optimum student faculty ratio. There are a few exceptions to it. Passing the buck to the student faculty ratio will however not move us an inch towards a better classroom experience. Asst. Prof. Balasubramanian, Computer Science Department explains why. ”The students are hesitant to ask questions in the classroom initially,“ says Dr. Balasubramanian. ”They must be open with the teacher and ask questions whenever they have any doubt. In order to avoid any communication gap I have made myself accessible to students by email and a facebook group. Out of my 3 hour lecture class per week, I keep half and hour for interaction with the students.” Prof. Balasubramanian sets a great example on behalf of the faculty members, in ensuring that students don’t hesitate while studying their courses. Efforts in a similar vein in our institute will promise to improve the effectiveness of classroom education.

Bridging the Gap

A significant number of researches indicate that informal interaction of students with the faculty can go a long way. This interaction can play a substantial role in deciding the professional aspirations of the student along with several other academics related parameters. However cliched this piece of information may be, in a civilization like ours, our teachers play a dominant role in determining our identities.

“There is a small jump in the level of studies when someone begins with engineering. The system has evolved in such a way that it is necessary to understand the fundamentals of science before actual engineering starts” Prof. D.K. Nauriyal, the Dean of Students’ Welfare, remarked when asked about a certain disconnect of the students with academics. “It is very crucial for the students to remain patient through this period so as to become a good engineer.” According to Prof. Nauriyal, this is the same reason students start to lose interest in the studies from the very beginning.

Earlier this semester, Prof. Nauriyal mentioned in an interview with WONA that the institute is going to initiate, on a trial basis, a system of Faculty mentors for a small group of students. “We are going to monitor them closely and take weekly reports from the students and faculty about their performance. We will counsel them if they are still on the weaker side. Right now, we’re doing this for all the students who have a backlog and we’ll be extending this for all academically weak students later”, adds the DOSW. A group of 4-5 professors will mentor about 15-20 students each. However it is unclear on when the programme will be initiated. Even though, this idea may appear to be in its nascent stage, it is a step closer in the right direction. “A mentorship program should be initiated in accordance with the student-teacher ratio“ Dr. Jogendra Nayak, from Department Of Management Studies, remarks, ”Students are far away from their families. Role of the teachers is not only teaching, first is guidance. For a good counselling cell, from every department, one or two faculty members with adequate emotional quotient should be nominated.” WatchOut also believes that a formal programme for the first year undergraduate students can be envisioned where the students get a chance to know the professors from their departments. Once the ice is thawed, the students will be much more motivated to approach their professors for academic or non academic related queries.

To Research and beyond

Research is one of the key areas where any institute’s contribution to the society can be measured. One of the certain ways to measure the quality of research in any Institute is to look at what the numbers have to say. According to Professor Anand Bulusu, sponsored research in our institute is 1/8th of the average of IITB, IITK, IITM and IITKGP. In terms of number of research papers the numbers stand par with the the older IITs. Even though the number of Ph.D. students have increased substantially in the institute in the past few years, the state of undergraduate research remains an area where all the IITs face challenges.

Many students are eager to engage in research but it is a case where expectations belie reality. Professor Anand Bulusu, ECE Department shines some light to this aspect. ”Undergraduate Research requires patience and time to build background. Students often lose interest and stop research abruptly. “ says Prof. Bulusu, ”As a consequence, Professors become highly selective in handing out research projects. A program like URA (IITB) needs to be implemented here too wherein the students are academically awarded for their research efforts.” To those who are not aware, Society for Promotion of Undergraduate Research (SPUR) of IIT Bombay is the organization that has smoothened out the whole process for interested students. Undergraduate research programme (URA) in IIT Bombay. It consists of three categories of awards: URA 01 : It is a non-credit project that can be undertaken before the fourth year. It gets further reflected on a student’s resume. URA 02 : Awarded for B Tech Projects (BTP). Bonus 6 credits are also awarded. URA 03 : Awarded for Dual Degree Project (DDP). Bonus 6 credits are also awarded.

The quality and quantity of research projects under faculty members would increase substantially if something like this is initiated in IIT Roorkee. Some appreciation and a pat in the back would not be amiss in case of the students achieving something significant in research inspite of a demanding curriculum.

The Great Debate

The debate on the significance of 75% attendance rule has been going on for a long time. Since its inception, arguments, both for and against, have been laid down and battled upon on all the possible student forums. The rule still stands tall in IITR and also lays the foundation of a lot of possible disciplinary actions against students. Needless to say, proxy is the second most popular word in IITR after chapo.

Prof. P. Sateesh Kumar, head of ACM-IIT Roorkee Chapter, has another view on the whole debate. “Classroom provides the best platform for interaction and it is this interaction that gives depth to an engineer’s mind. Students should not miss classes at any cost.” In general, it is observed that irregularity on behalf of the students in lectures, gives a negative feedback to the teacher in question. It further gets reflected in the grading process and hence hampers the overall performance for the students. Most importantly, it destroys the understanding between the teacher and students and further increases the distrust.
Some students might give arguments against the rule, pertaining to the nature of the subject, personal interest and methods of teaching adopted by teacher. The effect of their words, sadly, gets neglected due to a few cases of insincerity on behalf of certain students. “In many cases we see the students themselves are reluctant to indulge into studies”, counters Supratim Dey, 3rd Year, GT. “There are students who do not ask doubts or attend classes for that matter in a class, even after a professor’s motivation. We cannot simply blame it on the teacher.” Whatever the conclusion of this debate may be, the 75% attendance rule is a reality. Its implementation, however, remains subject to the professor in question. As a consequence, at the end of a semester, a substantial number of students can be found pestering the profs for leniency in this rule to prevent a back.

Conclusion

Criticism can never be an approach to tackle any problem. To put things in perspective, our institute is a great place with a myriad congregation of individuals (be it professors, students or alumni). The interactions between them leads to exchange of powerful ideas on which an institution such as ours stand. The disciplines of science and engineering have evolved through this very process of discourse. We have tried to address the underlying issues that creates distrust between the teachers and students. This distrust is highly unacceptable as it gets reflected in activities that are beyond academics and demand an understanding between the students and the professors. Deresiewicz’s idea of college education may be too utopian for IITR’s taste, but with efforts from both the sides, we can make a better environment for learning and excellence here.