Guest Post by Parnal Chirmuley
This is the complete version of the edited text published as “Learning Without Regimentation: On Compulsory Attendance” published in The Hindu on February 19, 2018
It may, at first glance, seem odd that students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, are pouring out in the thousands in angry protest against the administration’s move to enforce compuslory attendance. A leading national daily even misrepresents the boycott of this move by students and faculty as a struggle for the ‘right to not attend classes’, suggesting that they are angry over a triviality, which it is not. It is yet another assault by the present University admnistration against proven academic practices that choose not to infantilise students, and rely more on active learning and participation than on mere physical presence. It has been one among other important practices that has set this university apart. The nuances, therefore, of the anger among the students and faculty of JNU need to be fleshed out.
Any faculty member not recruited for prostrating themselves on the sodden brown floor of a gaushala will testify to the fact that classes in JNU are indeed overattended. Absenteeism has never been a problem. Students attend classes not only in their own departments, but across other disciplines. BA students complement their core disciplines by attending lectures in allied disciplines at the MA level, all because they want to learn, all the time, in and beyond the classroom. Students in a university that has, by the said editorial’s own admission, redefined what the nation knows about nationalism, and has an A+ in the State’s own ranking systems, should be given more credit than striking for the abstract ‘right to not attend classes’.
Then why are our students, out in the thousands, protesting this latest move by an administration that, let it be said, has absolutely no respect for learning, for research, for the well being of students? A quick list of reasons:
First, the present administration stands in gross violation of not only the statutes of this university, but also the law of the land, in its non-implementation of reservations, in its illegal slashing of seats, its arbitrary diktats issued without due discussion in the highest decision making bodies of the university. These firmaans also lie about amendments on agendas which have not even been tabled in meetings of the Academic Council. The circular announcing the introduction of compulsory attendance is one such lie. Compulsory attendance was never placed on any agenda for the Academic Council to discuss, and no Academic Council discussed this issue. Therefore, the administration is on the wrong foot in unilaterally announcing this measure.
Second, when students and faculty boycotted this laughable diktat, in its vindictiveness, the University administration decided to stop all fellowships forthwith. Students in this university come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, and need their fellowships for bare sustenance – they pay their mess bills, get materials photocopied, and save up to buy books. The administration, like an execrably bad parent, decided to literally starve these students.
Third, stipulated conditions for drawing fellowships do not require compulsory attendance. The administration’s new move, once again, stands outside of its own rules.
Fourth, almost all courses use other methods to encourage and ascertain that students participate in the process of learning: there are regular sessional exams, term papers, class presentations, and continuous assessment in the form of class participation. This is a holistic form of assessment, where students learn without regimentation, and faculty do not waste precious time marking attendance sheets, when students can take courses, or drop out by their choice, to choose some other course.
Fifth, this is a research university, not a kindergarten. Students go on field trips, attend conferences, go to libraries and archives outside campus and in other cities, as their research requires them to do. It is impossible for students in research programs to come to school offices every day to sign attendance sheets.
Amusingly sixth, even the student wing of the present dispensation is opposed to this proposal. Surely, if even they have been influenced by the creative pedagogies of this university, we should rethink the idiocy of compulsory attendance?
Moreover, even as students are on strike, they have requested faculty to take classes on the lawns. This says something about their commitment to the collective academic project. When this is the case, it becomes clear that compulsory attendance is neither a harebrained bureaucratic measure, nor a case of seemingly acute academic myopia. It is something far more sinister.
The question we need to ask is this: how has a university without compulsory attendance risen to being a premier research institution? The simple answer is, that this university follows the best global standards in academic research, is creative in its methods, and, most importantly, recognises that academic autonomy is the only way that can guarantee independent, thoughtful, and pathbreaking research. Given JNU’s track record, absolutely no argument in favour of compulsory attendance withstands the force of honest scrutiny. Besides, it adds absolutely no value to academics in JNU.
Why does none of this matter to our administration? Why does the Vice Chancellor, when he has not taught a single class in JNU, not supervised a single research student in JNU, never had an honest conversation with either the faculty or the student body despite repeated appeals, implement systems that are in place elsewhere, but so out of place here? The answer is, first, that bureaucratic centralisation is the hallmark of autocratic rule – the one-size-fits-all principle is the guarantee for disruption of well established, nuanced, and proven practices of academic heterogeneity and autonomy. Second, in the context of this wonderful research university, this measure ensures the effective suffocation of the freedom to think independently, destroying the space needed to chart research trajectories based on academic rigour than on clocking time.
That is why, when you try to fix something that is not broke, you need to be called out for having an agenda that lies outside the arena of academic values. You need to be called out for scheming to destroy an institution and for ruining young lives. Calling you out is what our students are doing. And they continue to read, go to the library, write, and attend classes on lawns.
Parnal Chirmuley is Associate Professor at the Center of German Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi