Monday, March 28, 2011

Cry, Dear Friend, On the Death of a Noble Profession

[Note: This article was published in December-January 2010-11 issue of CRITIQUE, the magazine of NSI-Delhi University Chapter]

- Dr. Sanjay Kumar

Delhi University Teacher’s Association, one of the strongest union of university teachers in the country suffered a humiliating setback recently. On 15th November, Justice Manmohan of Delhi High Court ordered DUTA to call off its strike against semester system for science courses introduced by the administration this year. Teachers are back in lecture halls, students on benches are getting ready for examinations, administration has its writ running back in the university; all is quiet on the campus front. The new VC would have hardly expected a more docile environment to establish his authority. 

DUTA struggle was done in by the pincer movement of bureaucracy and judiciary. While the former remained adamant and did not come for any sort of negotiations, the latter determined teacher’s strike to be a blackmail. Indian judiciary in many recent judgements has held protest marches, hartals, strikes, etc. illegal. Its argument is that by disrupting regular social life these amount to taking hostage fundamental rights of citizens. Bureaucracy and judiciary are two important pillars of any liberal governing order. The former in its ideal Weberian type gives rational form to the operation of state power and class rule under liberalism. The main purpose of the latter is provision of argued justifications for the existing status quo, or to bring social reality back within rules if the deviations become too embarassing, as has happened with the 2-G spectrum scam recently. The reality of Indian bureaucracy and judiciary rarely matches with the liberal ideal. Our corrupt bureaucracy lords over citizens, brazenly and violently if they happen to be poor, dalit or adivasi. Our judiciary in many cases relies not on evidence and arguments but on sentiments and hearsay, as it did in the recent Babari Masjid title suit, or on ‘extraneous considerations’, as commented recently by the Supreme Court about the mess in Allahabad HC. The prime responsibility of the judiciary to ensure governance is abundantly manifest in the interim order of the Delhi High Court when it says ‘that in a democratic body polity, governance is the primary factor’, or when it claims that education results in a person becoming ‘disciplined, civilized and a man (sic) of compassion’ (emphasis added).
People protest not when they want more - for that negotiation is the best tactic. They rise up when some aspect of social life strikes them as unjustified. A survey of recent protests and strikes in the country will surely reveal that the majority of them were not for new demands, but in response to management, bureaucracy or state power breaking their earlier promises or violating existing rules. This clearly was the case with the Delhi University struggle where university bureaucracy flouted established norms to push the semester system. Liberatory ideologies from radical Gandhism to Marxism have held the right to protest, and protest in ways not pre-determined by powers that be (like a dharna at Jantar Mantar) but in ways that make rulers change their ways, fundamental to the social nature of humans. If the purpose of education is not to make humans disciplined subjects, but inquisitive and questioning beings in the Socratic sense, then it is obvious that education is implicated with protests. Asking questions involves finding answers. And in many cases of social injustice, protest, rather than negotiations, is the only way to arrive at justice. Going on strike, that is not doing what the social system requires one to do, is surely one way of protest. It is an assertion of the moral autonomy of protesting subjects, confronting which hegemonic powers often get baffled, as were the colonial British when faced with Gandhi led general Hartals, or Nehru on the boycott of his public meeting in Kohima by Nagas in 1953. If the injustice of powers that be, and protests and strikes against it are so integral to our life as conscious social beings, can higher education teaching remain aloof from them? When it is ordained to teachers ‘Thou shalt not strike’, no matter how much injustice you may see in university administration, against yourself, against students, against karamcharis, then something of the very moral basis of teaching is undercut. 

For once, Delhi University’s teachers’ struggle this time around was not for pay and promotion parity with higher bureaucracy. They were fighting against the semester system on matters of academic and administrative principles. On way to introducing this system the previous VC had flouted all democratic norms built in to university statutes. When his pet project could not be introduced through discussion and debate in Academic and Executive councils of the University, he used his emergency powers to force push it on university. Course committees were arbitrarily (de)formed by departmental HOD’s to make new syllabi. These are a hack job, cut and pasted from old annual mode syllabi. Semester systems have been around in the country for many years. IIT’s have always had them, and some of them are about fifty years old. All professional courses in the country are semester based. Most of the post graduate courses in basic sciences and humanities too are taught in this mode. If conceived, structured and offered properly, the modular nature of semester system provides students great freedom to choose courses and plan their own education. They do not need to submit to one groove decided right in the beginning when they join university. The shorter duration of semester system requires courses to be covered at a faster pace, but students are also evaluated continuously and internally, reducing the possibility of results depending only on rote learning, question paper guessing and selective preparation. In a properly implemented semester system teachers get greater freedom to select their own course readings. Internal evaluation frees them from the chore of preparing students for answering questions prepared by an anonymous paper setter. Virtues of semester system come to the fore when number of students is small, and all of them are doing a course taught by the same teacher. These conditions are obviously not met in University of Delhi, in which all the undergraduate teaching takes place in more than 80 affiliated colleges. The positive features of semester system are not what excite mandarins of the UGC and the HRD Ministry. They are taken in by the success of this system in professional courses like the MBAs, where its short duration modular nature permits quick learning of marketable skills. They want it because it gels better with the market demands of an expanding capitalist economy. Giving greater autonomy to students and teachers will compromise their power. 

Higher education teaching to students who are adults, and hence, morally and intellectually autonomous, is a very specific social setting. It is not an arena of public discussion between equals, because teacher student relationship is asymmetric; the teacher is the boss and she/he is the only one finally responsible for ensuring that suitable and adequate learning does take place in her/his class. Yet the very nature of what gets created in a class, i.e. new knowledge for students, demands that the power relationship between teacher and students in higher education is fundamentally different from that in management or bureaucracy. It is based on persuasion, and rational argumentation, rather than authority to punish; it is continuously interactive, rather than tied down in rules established once for all. Students in a class learn best when they have respect for teacher’s learning and moral standing, and every higher education teacher knows these can not be earned by command. In a way every class setting in higher education is unique, it results from a special relationship established between a teacher and students. Every higher education teacher is an employee, but an employee whose work takes place best when away from the monitoring gaze of the employer. A teacher not enjoying full respect from the system which employs her/him, can not teach. That is why best higher education administrators have long found that it is best to give full autonomy to higher education teachers in class. The full professional autonomy comes along with full responsibility for ensuring that students learn. Again, the very nature of learning in higher education means that the moment this responsibility is seen as burden the entire exercise collapses. A teacher of higher education has to enjoy her/his profession. That many, perhaps majority of higher education teachers do not reach this ideal is a fact. But that in no way detracts from the potentially very special place of higher education teaching in the world of professions. If the moral fiber of a society can be judged by the way it treats its weakest, something about it can also be said by the way it treats its teachers. And, signs from higher education in India are not at all positive in this regard. 

The ominous process of college teaching getting pushed to the margins of education system, of ceasing being a creditable profession, has been around for some time. Outside central universities like the DU, teachers of state colleges work under same conditions as the bureaucracy. Teachers of trust run colleges are treated little more than paid functionaries. They have little say in admissions and general administration of colleges. Majority of teachers of private professional colleges are temporary contract employees. They are considered mere providers of profitable skills. In the DU itself college teachers are marginal to the University administration which has so much of influence on their profession. The twenty three member EC has only two teacher representatives. More than one fifty member AC has only twenty six teacher representatives. Both these deliberative bodies are stuffed with University bureaucracy and faculty and departmental academic officials. Course committees are prerogatives of departmental HODs. Their meetings are sporadic and decisions pre-determined. An exercise most humiliating to college teachers takes place every year before results are prepared. A near secret committee of university, whose composition and working formulae are not public knowledge, sits down to ‘moderate’ the internal evaluation marks given by college teachers to the students they teach. This means that while asking college teachers to evaluate students on a continuous basis, university administration does not trust them and has kept within its prerogative to sit on judgment over what they in their much more interactive assessment of students have decided. University practice lacks even basic decency of human interaction. If evaluation given by a teacher has to be modified, then at least she/he should be informed, consulted and provided reasons for changes. 

It will be disingenuous to blame every body else but the teachers themselves for the current state of higher education profession. As a highly skilled worker, and especially after the VI Pay Commission, every higher education teacher earns an income in the upper two percentile in the country. As if the feudal and caste legacies of the profession were not enough, the emerging class character of upper middle classes in the country is undermining nobility of higher education teaching. The single minded focus on enjoying fruits of current capitalism, from consumerism of shopping malls, to moral smugness of media, to advertised social responsibility of the NGO sector, to supine deference before culturally hegemonic West, to the fundamentalist Hindutva virus, to the gung ho nationalist streak, all these real characters of the new Indian privilegentsia ensure that teachers of higher education in India are themselves complicit in the degradation of their profession. After all, what else could explain the indifference of DU college teachers to the plight of their students who were thrown out of their hostels so that Common Wealth Games mafiaoso could make some more money! Or, is it not a fact that one of the reasons DUTA strike fizzled so quickly was the threat of ‘no work no salary’ by the university administration.
Dr.Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St. Stephens College, Delhi University.


Post a Comment