Guest Post by JANAKI NAIR
In an interview to the journal Frontline on February 16, 2016, just 11 days before he took over one of India’s most prestigious universities, Prof Jagadesh Kumar had this to say:
I am a defender of free expression of thought in a democratic set-up and students are free to question me or challenge my views. I believe in constructive criticism, and as long as it is done peacefully and within the boundaries of the law, there is no problem.
Declaring his two top priorities, of which one was the redressal of infrastructural shortcomings, he desired
to improve the learning environment by making it more student-centric. Some of the faculty are great researchers, but they do not have much understanding of teaching. What I want to do requires cooperation from faculty members.
These words, which Prof Kumar has thus far not refuted or denied, should be recalled today, more than three months after his takeover, the most tumultous months the University has ever known. It is too early to judge the VC on his infrastructure promise, as some of us continue to make bone rattling journeys on cycles over the most rutted roads on the campus.
But Professor Kumar has certainly attempted to redefine the very meaning of the University, and begun his task of “educating the educators”.
The new “understanding of teaching” that Prof Kumar hoped to introduce is taking shape. From his blog modestly entitled “About Myself” we learn about how he has become an outstanding teacher of large classes: powerpoints on multiple screens can enhance teaching, along with biometric fingerprint devices, punishments of late lateefs/lateefas by making them stand through a 90 minute lecture, running 10 quizzes and multiple tests in every course and other assorted inflictions. Those at JNU may not be quite convinced about the pedagogic effects of accosting and bringing back a truant student (another of his teaching accomplishments).
But we have had very instructive lessons from his actions over the past three months.
Consider the “takeaways” from some of his recent actions:
- The virtues of silence: A Vice Chanceller must remain COMPLETELY SILENT when faculty and students, the entire JNU community in short, have gained undeserved national notoriety through relentless and unsubstantiated charges made by politicians, media personnel, some fellow teachers and students themselves, and officials of the Ministry of Human Resource Development.
- The importance of stonewalling questions: Prof Kumar touts, quite rightly, as a lively classroom method, the asking of questions to students, and answering theirs. But as a Vice Chancellor it is NOT necessary to answer a single one of the questions that teachers and students have been asking for the past three months.
- The necessity of infantilising students: It is important to INFANTILISE the student population by writing complaints to parents about their political activity on the campus. This cannot but be in continuation of the Honourable Minister for Education calling Rohith Vemula “a child.”
- The Imperative of being Unreliable: It is necessary to CONSTANTLY ALTER the commitments that you make, not only to teachers and students, but above all to your own administration committees, preferably on an hourly basis.
- The urgency of ignoring/avoiding the Social Sciences: This will impact not just JNU but the university system across the length and breadth of this country. The Social Sciences and Humanities are AVOIDABLE KNOWLEDGE for they encourage some of the most dangerous activities on the campus, namely critical thinking. Professor Kumar has thought fit not to invite a single teacher from the Social Sciences in his administrative appointments so far.
Are the three School of Social Sciences buildings at JNU a formidable Marxist redoubt, as is widely believed? Why is this a dangerously mistaken notion? Professor Kumar need only trawl through course outlines and reading lists to realise that this school is defiantly diverse. He will find, to his dismay and horror, a very wide range of conflicting ideas and concepts, views and critiques that are introduced to students on a daily basis. Classes and seminars encourage and treasure originality of thinking, new interpretations supported by rigorous evidence and sharp critique. And yes, JNU teachers also attend to the craft and passion of fine writing and presenting (it may be no coincidence that IIT, not JNU, produced Chetan Bhagat!). There are teachers in JNU who are conceited and humble, innovative and hide bound, draconian and compassionate, radical and conservative, but it is this heady and unpredictable mix that has earned JNU its pride of place in producing diplomats, bureaucrats, economists, writers, journalists, politicians, and above all legions of teachers in universities and colleges across India.
The distrust of scientists and technologists for the methods and ways of social sciences and humanities (which have been seen as entirely dispensible in many parts of the country and the world) is legion. Within this larger setting, Professor Kumar’s political masters train their guns – quite literally, as everyone learned early on in this struggle — on purported “card holders”, in order to transform them into “flag bearers” who will be worshipful: profess love of country, obedience, discipline, vegetarianism, sexual continence and every other kind of ideal that is cherished by those who wish to push the social toothpaste back into the tube. Not much will be gained by way of intellection.
Professor Kumar could have begun with greater humility: to learn from, as much as he wanted to teach, the 600 plus teachers of JNU. He could have learned that a book discussion cannot be done with PowerPoint; that ideas take root in constant but non judgmental feedback of teacher to student; that despite attendance not being compulsory in JNU, the classes of most teachers are well attended; that tutorial systems and synopsis presentations with enhanced face-time are enabled because of lower teacher-student ratios. He could have revelled in a culture of teaching/learning that is reproduceable.
Instead, his actions have belied his words. As a result, the relationship between his administration and the two most important constituents of any university, teachers and students, has more or less broken down.
His words on abiding by the law are unexceptionable: his actions reveal how he has conveniently shrunk the “lawful” so as to place everything he does not agree with beyond its limits and everything else within it. Thus, to go on hunger strike is unlawful, but to malign the teaching/student body in public forums and in dossiers, and call publicly for teachers to be condemned as “Pakistani agents” remains legally acceptable.
Did Professor Kumar seriously misjudge the capacity of the JNU community to resist this onslaught? The unfortunate chain of events has led to the most creative flowering of new repertoires of protest and resistance, from art and music, to writing and performing, with newly forged solidarities within and beyond India that have given the students and faculty of JNU the strength with which to address the crisis.
For Professor Kumar, the courageous and unprecedented collective struggle of the JNU students and teachers is no more than an auditory and visual nuisance. But even a highly decorated teacher such as Professor Kumar will be hard pressed to explain the pedagogic value of retaining on the website for nearly three months the photograph of retired Indian generals who met him in February. An education, or a warning?
Janaki Nair is Professor at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.