Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fresh Blood

"Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life." - Vivekananda

"I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think." - Socrates

If a faculty member like me lives longer than average, it might be due to the fact that we are injected with fresh blood every year :-) A new academic session begins. The campus welcomes new batch of students. All the undergrads are accompanied by their guardians. They too are moving around with their wards in market, in welcome session of the Dept.s, interacting with faculty members etc. The postgrads get settled easily as they already have hostel experience, an experience to stay away from home, taking care of themselves.

A part of our exercise in the Dept. welcome function was to interact with guardians of unndergrads - to remind them and us that the job is not finished yet. Stepping into IIT is a big step but only a step. It is important how the facilities, infrastructure, opportunities provided are put to use. Student, faculty, guardian need to act together to get the best out of it. 

The students may have a reason why they tend to lose grip over the situation once they are here. In this interaction, guardians were telling their pre IIT-JEE routine which used to be study, study and study; from early morning to late night ... with only one goal - to clear IIT-JEE. It is so tough an exam., most of them are not sure to 'crack' it and plan anything beyond IIT-JEE or set a higher goal. Once they clear the examination which they saw as a hurdle, for which they were asked to sacrifice their interest in sports, music, novel, travel - all that make life so beautiful, they feel an urge to make the most out of life. The pre IIT JEE days made them live in a high pressure, tense environment. Clearing the exam.  makes them believe that 'the goal has been achieved'. It is time to enjoy life and cry full volume "Jeene do, jeene do, bachpan to gaya ", to break the chain of bondage (not literally!) and breathe free, to go out and bathe in sunshine. The movie "3 Idiots" actually depicts the pressure situation to enter IIT and not what exists inside. Just regular attending of class and even fifty percent of the IIT-JEE preparation effort is more than enough to get a very, very good score here. This leaves another fifty percent or more for breathing purpose :-) but the students tend to overdo with their new found freedom and overplay the sense of security associated with being into IIT.

The IIT-JEE success may have another effect on young minds. The society looks at them with reverence. The junior students in the school or locality treat them as hero, asks advice from them. The guardians find that they now have special place in the larger family and relation. The fame, the glory associated, may make one desire that the euphoria continues as long as possible. Why not given the sacrifice made? And then comes the harsh landing. In IIT, you are competing with the very best. Gone are those MCQ mode preparation where correct answer is before you as one of the choices ... which you have to circle ... certain amount of intelligent guess or back calculation could be used as a trick in some cases. Now all questions are subjective type. Having good teachers in class who do not struggle with subjects, make lot of material covered every week with comfortable ease. Students who are yet to get rid of the hang over of the IIT-JEE success, is deceived by high self-esteem. Before the feet are set on ground, exam.s start knocking at door. And, I repeat, these are no more MCQ exam.s.

What next? It is but natural that someone who was worshiped few months before as hero, to find it difficult to accept poor performance, tell that to guardians. He starts disliking teachers and the subjects. And it starts its own vicious loop. Isn't IIT doing anything about it? Besides sensitizing students and guardians from the day they step into IIT system, there is Student Welfare Group volunteers (Link) who work under the guidance of professionals of Counselling Centre. Language could be an issue with many students. For them there is an initiative called Communique (Link) which provides a bouquet of soft skills. Gymkhana website advertizes various societies (Link) which helps a new comer to make friends and share both joys and sorrows. The other welcome function I attended for freshers, talked about this support system. The Vice President of Students Gymkhana, the highest position as student representative, started his speech giving emphasis on academics. He himself scored 9+ in many semesters and thus leads by example. The Prof.-in-Charge of sports profusely quoted Vivekananda and emphasized on all round development of character, that sports and games teach one team spirit, share and care, and most importantly how to accept defeat gracefully. Dean, SA talked about how to become responsible and asked students to make 'real' friends and not just 'virtual' friends on internet, hooked to computers. One point is to be noted here. In general, our students are cautious, careful and handle themselves very well. These words of advice are to those few who may get carried away by IIT-JEE success. We would like all students to reach their true potential and excel in life, make themselves and all of us proud.

The third introduction I attended was attended by 500+ UG freshers who are joining NSS program. This mostly talked about NSS activties. In each of these introductions, I tried to say that IIT-JEE success is past and it is a new beginning - one has to take fresh guard and be focused from day one to play a useful innings (in cricketing language).

[Added on July 30, 2012: It is worth noting what parents of an achiever say, for whom today's newspaper runs headlines like "India goes gaga over Gagan" (Times of India), the first medal winner for the country in London Olympics. The reporter asked the father Sri B. S. Narang what he would like to say his son at this moment. "Now, I will tell him to prepare for the next event, 'aur jeetna hai abhi' (There is more to win.)" Father was referring to upcoming events and advising son not to lose focus. Another news channel quotes him as "If he calls me, I will congratulate him and tell him to do well in the next two events. He still has two more events left on August 3 and 6 (50m Rifle 3-Position & 50m Rifle prone). He should concentrate on those two events". Earlier, the father told Gagan's teacher (shooting coach), "In the range (shooting range), you are the dad (father)". And this comes from the mother of our hero on pressure that comes from parents, "When he left for London, we just wished him 'All the best' and told him to give his best shot." (Link  Link)]

What went through my own mind when I cleared IIT-JEE? Suffice is to say that what I wrote above is not fiction. As soon as I heard that I cleared the exam. (I was never sure. Link ) from a friend, a sense of relief descended, that my father wouldn't be worried if I spent little more time on organization work (Link) with whom I was associated since Class III, and I was passionately attached to its activities. My father did enough to make me feel that there was still a long way to go. The hero-worship was curtailed. I understood that a good academic performance can give me more room and confidence to pursue extra-academic interest and live a fuller life. The lowest semester score I got was 9.28. The highest was what could be maximum i.e. 10. Every afternoon I played soccer and had more time for the organization activities. A balance can definitely be maintained. [Oh yes! I would like to say freshers that I was in N.C.C. and our camp was held in Chhatna, Bankura, and not in Campus. It was an abandoned army post of World War II, no doors or windows, no toillet. We had to face street dogs at night who used to look for the warmth of our blanket.]

I would like to repeat here what I told to a small section of freshers and guardians at the end of Dept. welcome function. Please do not maintain distance with faculty members. This is one of the friendliest campus, may be 'far from metro' character has an ashram like effect, nothing else to do than live with, live within IIT. My request to freshers and guardians not to allow any problem to grow. Share it. Some of the students may feel homesick being out of family environment for the first time. They or any student are welcome to visit us any evening during 5:30-7:30 PM. It could be just plain adda, knowing each other. Or it could be helping to work out a plan for future, if non-existent. It could be a discussion on how to excel in IIT life. We owe our existence to you. You inject fresh bloods into us every year, keep us live and strong. The job we do to evaluate your performance in a subject is another and a specific role. Your assessment will be no different from us if you yourself objectively evaluate your own answer-script. Let that role not undermine a bigger role, part superceeding the whole.

This post is not complete if I do not acknowledge the fact that we too learn a lot from our young students and it is not that we are here only to 'teach' them. In yesterday's NSS introduction, I gave the example of a fresher in last year's NSS camp. There was one student volunteer who was the best among the roti makers and served kitchen everyday. In NSS, IIT Kharagpur Camp, part of the kitchen responsibility is taken up by young students themselves. Even after three hours of laborious physical work of road laying, (Link) he used to join the kitchen team and start making roti for fellow NSS volunteers. During the final day feedback session, he talked about his motivation, "I used think that I am serving those who are serving the nation." Let me, before calling myself a teacher, imbibe this spirit which my student has taught me. Let me feel in my thoughts and deeds, "I am serving those who are to serve nation"; As new academic session begins, let me remind myself that I belong to that institute which is "dedicated to the service of the nation."

Updated on Aug. 26, 2012

The following excerpts from New Indian Express (Link1  Link2) are self-explanatory and shows where we fail to act. The student, parents, teachers, friend circle, relatives need to cooperate with each other as the student acclimatizes with new environment, new system. It is a sad story of a boy named Vadithya Nehru. His farm worker father, Vadithya Ramana was inspired by then Prime Minister, Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru who visited their village during inauguration of Nagarjunsagar dam and named him Nehru. 

Despite struggling to make ends meet as a farm labourer, Ramana somehow managed to save money for Nehru’s education.
He wanted the boy to be an engineer. “I saved money for his studies and whenever he asked for more, I arranged it somehow,” says Ramana, sitting under the shade of a tree outside the Osmania General Hospital mortuary.
The suicide of Vadithya Nehru (20), a student of Indian Institue of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, on Thursday is a reminder that the real test begins after the students enter the hallowed portals of premier institutions.
Despite scoring an All- India rank of 6193 in the general category, Nehru found the course challenging and performed poorly in his first and second semester EE examinations, following which his admission was terminated.
Educationists blame the objective-type pattern of questions for lowering the IIT-JEE threshold. “The trend of multiple choice questions has led to corporate colleges adapting a package form of education where students have to rote the answers. Even the standards of question papers have changed as now there are repetitions, a feature which was uncommon in the tests a few years ago. The IIT faculty I meet now say the quality of students from AP has gone down as students expect notes and ready-made answers rather than thinking creatively,” educationist Chukka Ramaiah said, who was credited with the earliest coaching institute in the city for IIT aspirants.
The decision of letting a student go should be preceded by counselling and getting them prepared to explore available options. “Students have to realise that academics is not the be-all and end-all of their lives. In IITs, it is a crowd of toppers of respective schools but students have to realize that there can only be one topper in a given stream. As their sense of self-worth and selfesteem is linked to their academic performance, failing expectations often leads to social withdrawal and depression,” student advisor at the Counselling Cell of IIT-H Madhu Chadda said. She added that a majority of students from rural areas not having requisite language skills hinders their progress.
IIT-K is a big thing anywhere, but in Narlaga tanda, it was huge. The boy was seen as something special even in childhood. Says his childhood friend Muni, “He always spoke of getting a big job and returning to Narlaga to do something. Maybe we expected too much from him.”

IBNLive reports today (Link) how IIT Kanpur tried to help all such students. Except Nehru all twenty three availed the service.

Fate being a cruel tease, it came to light Saturday that Vadithya Nehru, the IIT-Kanpur student who took his own life Thursday upon being rusticated by his institute, would have been reinstated if only he had asked to be.
 The dean of student affairs at IIT-Kanpur, A K Ghose, told Express on the telephone that Nehru had been one of 24 students who were struck from the rolls for failing to show a satisfactory performance in their first year.  All of them volunteered for counselling and sought readmission.  And they were readmitted with corrective recommendatons.  All except Nehru.
 Ghose said, “We give a chance to terminated students to apply again to resume their courses.  All the terminated students came back with their parents and applied for readmission.  We gave them counselling and recommended yoga classes to them.  They are all back in class, except Nehru.  I don’t know what happened to him. His brother came to campus and took him away.

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