History Scholars Write to UGC on Need to Radically Restructure NET

To:

The Chairman, University Grants Commission.

Dear Sir,

The University Grants Commission has mandated that an exam i.e. the National Eligibility Test, be passed as a requirement for the teaching of History at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels, except in the case where the candidate has a PhD. Those who score highly are given the Junior Research Fellowship which greatly strengthens their candidacy for the Ph.D. program.

We the undersigned, as teachers and researchers of History, believe that the NET exam as it exists does not measure competence in History as a discipline in any imaginable sense. The NET’s own understanding of History is fundamentally different from the practice of the discipline across the world. This understanding, as reflected in the question papers, holds History to lie solely in the memorization of facts. Therefore, in the NET’s version of History, the mechanical retention and retrieval of information appears to be the only competence required for the teaching of the subject. 

There has always been a rich and robust debate about the nature of History as a discipline; but historians are absolutely unanimous when it comes to distinguishing the mere retention of facts from the discipline of History. Historical understanding does make use of facts, but no historian will agree to it being identified with such facts. Facts when positioned within a narrative or an argument take on a meaning that is very different from their existence as isolated, discrete data. As discrete pieces of information they can be memorized and presented, but not taught or interpreted. Information can be found and reproduced, but not understood sui generis.

The format of the multiple choice question paper, even when there are questions that purportedly test causal linkages, in reality do not test anything more than mere facts. They do not require that a fact be “understood”, but only “known” mechanically, in the Pavlovian manner. History on the other hand, as a form of reasoning, preserves its kinship with rhetoric and logic. The documentation of events and the understanding of processes require intellectual rigour, careful judgement and precise expression. These are the qualities that define the teacher and researcher of history. We note with dismay that there is nothing in common between what is taught and researched and what is being tested in the NET exam. An unfortunate trend that we have noticed is that the NET’s conception of history and historical understanding is now determining the way history is taught and researched. This will have very unfortunate consequences not only for the study of history but for society at large.

Historical understanding takes various forms. An intellectual historian might study and analyze the State very differently from an economic historian. Differences in approach and method do not imply incommensurability. However, it does mean that what the intellectual and economic historian take to be their most basic material – “facts” – may not coincide. As an exam that focuses on facts and not historical understanding, the NET cannot but be inherently arbitrary. However, even on this account, errors have been made in the question papers and answer keys. This has been pointed out and placed in the public domain, in, among other places, the Economic and Political Weekly. Students have also brought our attention to such errors, and in this connection, we find it unfortunate and surprising that according to a recent notification brought out by the UGC, any grievance regarding the answer key of the exam would have to be accompanied by a Demand Draft of Rs. 5000, for the grievance to even be registered.

In our experience we have found that students with very poor historical understanding and no research aptitude whatsoever have not only cleared the NET exam but have also succeeded in getting Junior Research Fellowships. On the other hand, some of our very best students have consistently failed the exam. The fact that the exam now also awards certain points according to the UGC point system that forms the guidelines for teaching appointments is but a further unfortunate development in encouraging and inculcating an impoverished and potentially dangerous conception of history and historical understanding.

Only a deep seated ignorance of the historian’s work can conflate her discipline with the mere retention of data. This both reflects and contributes to the larger crisis that the humanities and the social sciences face. To say that human societies in their being and becoming are reducible to elementary and arbitrarily isolated pieces of information but reveals the unfortunate image of the human community that lies behind such a contention.

We the undersigned believe that the UGC should constitute a committee to look into the issues that have been raised above as soon as possible.

Delhi, 29.4.2014

Sd/[i]

 Seema Alavi, Department of History, University of Delhi

Shahid Amin, Department of History, University of Delhi

Saifuddin Ahmad, Department of History, University of Delhi

R.P. Bahuguna, Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia

Aparna Balachandran, Department of History, University of Delhi

Kunal Chakrabarti, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Dhirendra Datt Dangwal, Ambedkar University, Delhi

Anirudh Deshpande, Department of History, University of Delhi

Parul Pandya Dhar, Department of History, University of Delhi

Rajat Datta, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Amar Farooqui, Department of History, University of Delhi

Rahul Govind, Department of History, University of Delhi

Charu Gupta, Department of History, University of Delhi

Farhat Hasan, Department of History, University of Delhi

Indivar Kamtekar, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Tanuja Kothiyal, Ambedkar University, Delhi

Rajneesh Kumar, Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia

Sunil Kumar, Department of History, University of Delhi

Nayanjot Lahiri, Department of History, University of Delhi

Denys Leighton, Ambedkar University, Delhi

Anshu Malhotra, Department of History, University of Delhi

Salil Misra, Ambedkar University, Delhi

Sanghamitra Misra, Department of History, University of Delhi

Janaki Nair, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Joy Pachau, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Biswamoy Pati, Department of History, University of Delhi

Kumkum Roy, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Bhairabi Prasad Sahu, Department of History, University of Delhi

Sumit Sarkar, Formerly Head, Department of History, University of Delhi

Tanika Sarkar, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Amiya P. Sen, Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia

Sanjay Sharma, Ambedkar University, Delhi

Upinder Singh, Department of History, University of Delhi

Radhika Singha, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Yogesh Snehi, Ambedkar University, Delhi

Ravi Vasudevan, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

Kesavan Veluthat, Department of History, University of Delhi

Supriya Verma, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

David Zou, Department of History, University of Delhi

[i]These signatures have been electronically endorsed.

9 thoughts on “History Scholars Write to UGC on Need to Radically Restructure NET”

  1. Highly true issue,in the year 1997 when i appeared NET I became confused to see the Q.in the Paper one.I observed that neither I have come across the topic in my entire syllabus nor I am able to find out any relationship with my subject i.e Art History.From that day I never appeared for NET again,I am a 1st class 1st Gold Medalist on the subject and now working with the National Art Akademi ie Lalit Kala Akademi.Today I know that it is very easy to crack the NET but Iwould not like to do so,There are lots of NET CRACKER around me but unfortunately they are totally rubbish in our education system.Debdutta Gupta

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    1. I think, JNU should first produce a one good historian all the government money spent on them or one top academics in any field before opposing completion and, in fact, giving free hand to incompetent Professor make PhD student selection on some basis other than merit. I believe, there should be review of their achievements every five years, and they should be fired if found subpar. Writing a blog in Kafila is should not be considered a publication, as it is far from being scholarly. And Ms. Menon should be questioned on spending more time on politicking than doing her academic work, and enjoying perks of an elite University. I am a Marxist from a financially deprived University, a world renowned scientist, and debate JNUs on politics and history any time openly, without their dictatorial power of moderation.

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      1. RDS – we are passing this comment only to highlight that this is in fact one of the more polite comments of the hundreds you routinely send to Kafila. Your long rambling comments are either completely off topic, or attack me personally. Once and for all, and this is the last time you will appear on Kafila – let me place on record that:
        If you must refer to me by name (having hidden your own, and claiming that you are a “world-renowned scientist”!), remember that I have a Ph.D and am a Professor with 25 years of teaching, research and experience. Don’t dare to address me patronizingly as Ms Menon.
        My Kafila posts in fact show up nowhere on my CV, but you might like to spend some of the vast amounts of time you apparently have to waste, in checking out what I have actually written and produced. And what I do to earn my salary.
        Finally, your earlier comments on this post about NET took off in rants against the teaching of History as such. You stated in those rants that you have taught yourself history by reading random books – you are hardly intellectually or academically equipped to decide whether JNU has produced “one good historian” or not – being a voluntarily anonymous (I wonder why) self-defined “scientist of world renown” yourself.
        For the record, here is the link to our comments policy which is available on our site.
        Kafila is meant for sincere and reflective debates, not for people to come and ride their own hobby horses and rant viciously about whatever takes their fancy.

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  2. This is germane to other disciplines too. And I speak for public health which is more amenable than history to a starvation of imagination. This form of examination brings the worst of students to the fore – as I believe has been shown to be true – Pulapre Blakrishnan cited this in a recent essay in the Hindu.

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  3. I do believe that similar issues exist in other disciplines as well. Since NET is all India would it not make sense to get non-Delhi scholars to endorse the letter.

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  4. Taking a ‘test’ for testing teachers? The UGC should definitely not interfere in that. The NET test disallows many competent researchers and would-be good teachers from joining the profession.

    The best judge of who can be a good teacher, a good researcher, is a good teacher and a good researcher. The UGC should allow them to use their judgement to make a responsible evaluation of those who want to join the profession as teachers/researchers. I hope historians from across the country come forward to endorse the view of the writers of this letter, all of whom seem to be Delhi based.

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  5. This is an issue i have always though about as a student and now a would be teacher……NET being used as a scale to judge our knowledge of our subject so that we can teach holds no point as it it is just memorization of facts that is being tested…and which you have so well penned down maam……i wish there could be more better ways to understand the potentiality of student rather than exams like NET……its my personal observation where i have witnessed many people who are incompetent and yet have cleared NET and are in a better position than the ones who deserve it but do not NET………this is unfair and i wish UGC could come out with better evaluation systems.

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  6. I Think this applies equally to the NET examination of Anthropology. Current format does not test our analytical ability at all. It’s all about mugging the name of the authors and their books!

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  7. This should also be applied to other subjects such as English Literature as asking only multiple choice questions in the subject shows that teachers of English have to do nothing other then memorising plots of various novels/plays etc. This just shows the fact that studying literature is only about memorising rather than what it actually means which is analysis and criticism of the text.

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