“The law is reason, free from passion” …. Aristotle
I started my stint as a teacher after leaving IIT B, quarreling with Aristotle and with a class of amazingly curious wide-eyed undergraduate technocrats who have possibly lived and breathed Eckert, Cerf, Shannon, Computer vision, Micro-controllers, fiber-optics, and TCP/IP . Today I look back upon my first anniversary as a teacher — and I celebrate 🙂 . As an individual transforming from the eternally defiant student to the other side of the table it was sudden and at times excruciating because of my set principles and comfortable casting zone in the cool role of a student.
Traveling over the past one year through the length and breadth of the country’s educational institutions has been an eye-opener — students are similar as well as extremely unique in their own ways. Only through teaching and interaction does one understand these similarities and uniqueness. As I review the past one year, it surprises me that I have lived and experienced three educational institutions — two of them being new IITs and one LNMIIT, Jaipur. Last July, when I started teaching a course in Indian Literature at LNMIIT, I circulated a poster with some pictures to make the course popular. I began with 3 students — no one wanted a new teacher and a course that might not give them adequate credits. Girls from 2nd year (I remember their names 🙂 ) came asking me: “what are you planning to do with us? How will you execute the course?” It instantly struck me as “WOW! I had not done this in my student days!” And thus started the journey…from 3 students, we moved to 12 in the first week, and finally the class got locked at 28.
Life for the past one year has taken such a dramatic turn that it is difficult to sometimes collate the theoretical and praxical aspects that it offers. Being a teacher has been perhaps the only thing that brought some degree of satisfaction in a chaotic, whirlwind, drama-queen kind of life that Anne chose through the last one year in an attempt to find her identity in the wilderness of brand IIT. Last time when I visited IIT B, some friends (PD in particular) mentioned that I should keep notes of my classes and the experiments that the entire class gets involved in, for posterity. However, that’s tough for a particularly lazy character. This blog post is a series of short experiential notes on my role as a teacher and the theoretical and praxical angles involved in teaching. There is a disclaimer attached here — this post is not a prescriptive model and I don’t claim through this post that i have been successful as a teacher. My experience in this field is far too short and the challenges are many.
My first class started with a quarrel with Aristotle’s quote cited at the beginning of this article. Actually, I must admit (citing my sources for my students) that I was inspired by the movie Legally Blonde and the movie had a deep impact on my psyche before I went for research 🙂 .Being a rule breaker myself, accepting Aristotle’s ideas has been tough. It was difficult to convince the class that Aristotle’s opinion might be just one among many opinions and that — “Law without passion is no law”. Law-makers of the world are perhaps (including the great Aristotle himself) the most passionate of professionals. Similarly, literature or technology without passion is neither literature nor technology in my opinion…. Questions were many from the class and the skepticism in the tone of the 28 proved that they were tough-nuts to crack. As students (including me) we take for granted that if someone is of the stature of Aristotle then he/she ‘MUST BE RIGHT’. The perils of passive acceptance are innumerable and questioning cliches and norms do not come easily to us who have been taught right from our childhood ‘NOT TO QUESTION ELDERS’ 🙂 . However, Aristotle made it sure that the entire semester was not going to be an easy run either for the teacher or the students. For the first time in my life, I was learning that multidisciplinary studies (which was my favourite dictum as a student) is easier said than done. Teaching literature to technologists is not a cake walk. If they are not interested then you are doomed, if they are interested then too you are doomed 🙂 . Parth had asked me the day I went for my job presentation, “Ma’am how does one write a novel?” I am still attempting to find an answer to that question :).The number of texts that we chose to read baffled us at the end of the semester. But there was a common element that kept us united as a class — PASSION to learn and drive to know. We explored the length and breadth of Indian literary history through the course of this semester.
There are a few interesting anecdotes that will always bring a smile — these anecdotes basically relate to the complete anesthetic feeling that modern educational systems insulated in boundaries of disciplines have inculcated in us. We live in the comfortable boundaries of disciplines created by our standardized egos — ‘I am a Humanities Person’, ‘I am a Computer Scientist’, I am a technocrat’. These students for the first time broke my own ego quotient as a humanities researcher. As a teacher, I observed that when these boundaries are suddenly broken, the impact is either that of a complete cultural shock or pure enlightenment ecstasy. For instance, the class was reading “Champak Blossoms” from Sarojini Naidu’s Golden Threshold. I was trying really hard to explain the joy of smelling the first blossoms of Champak flowers explored by Naidu in her poems. The joy of such an experience seemed a little far-fetched for these hardcore computer or electronics students, some of whom perhaps never have seen a Champak tree in their lives. The humdrum of labs and core-subject problems and before that the massive load of JEE entrances have made these young minds insulated to the subtle aspects of life. Nikhil immediately asked me: “Ma’am how does a Champak flower look like?” What was implied in his question is that “poets are boring to find pleasure in smelling and then writing about Champak flowers” 🙂 . We decided to search and look at the Champak flowers after the class. I knew that the champak blossoms were aplenty in the campus and it wasn’t difficult to find one near the academic area. The entire class after the class-hour stood by the corridor while Nikhil and I saw the Champak blossoms :D. Nikhil decided to pluck a few Champak blossoms and smell it. I and the others of the class were also presented some of these blossoms by Nikhil 🙂 . Suddenly the watchman came running after Nikhil, but he was extremely puzzled and nonplussed when he saw the rest of the class, including me standing and happily smelling the Champak blossoms in the corridor! 😀 The purpose was experiential learning — we tend to learn fast from experience. Probably, a lifetime of explaining Naidu wouldn’t have worked the wonders that smelling those Champak flowers did.
I have been fortunate as a teacher — because I was given the liberty by the directors, colleagues, and the students especially who have been teaching me while learning from me. Tagore and Gitanjali is another such anecdote. Reading Tagore is not an easy job. I just barged into my director’s office and requested him to let me have open-air classes, outdoor classes — he was a bit puzzled for a second and then smiled said, “it is your class and your call” . Then on, Tagore happened in the lawns outside and I have never in my life enjoyed reading Gitanjali the way we did during those months of September-October in the slight drizzle and with the breeze blowing outside, creating an ambiance that perhaps Tagore himself might have had when he was composing these verses in the forests near Silaidaha. As a class we were rhythmically and collectively experiencing the joy of creativity that Tagore’s profound verses offer. I was myself taught Tagore within the boundaries of a classroom, but got a chance to experience Tagore as the eclectic philosopher-poet for the first time in so many years.
Nived, and some others came up with the title “Creatineers” for this small but extremely lit-savvy group. We organized RAP sessions in some evenings where we spent hours in the cabal mode talking, discussing, and listening to creative pieces either self-composed or else from famous poets and authors. Dheeraj would always run to the city to get cakes, pizza and goodies 🙂 . In fact, last time when I got a chance to visit Jaipur for a day we had our 5th RAP session the night before I left. We continued well unto midnight reading and listening — they made my gloomy evening lively and full of joy.
A few days ago I called up my thesis supervisor and joyfully informed him, “Sir, Naman and Tanjul’s papers have got accepted in an international conference! Sir, they are my 3rd year computer science students!” He was overjoyed, and said “My blessings to my academic grand-children Anne! I am their academic Taaa taaa” 🙂 . That day I realized the joy that he must have felt when my first paper got accepted in an international conference — hmmm, experiential learning.
Being a teacher for researchers has been a different experience altogether. We learn to question our needs through these sessions. The modes that researchers communicate in are unique and that’s what we have been trying to understand in a joint effort in the class. As a scholar myself (not very long ago), I understand the difficult job of “unlearning”. We have been collectively trying to unlearn in these classes. I won’t divulge anymore details about the research classes except the fact that no amount of theory can ever equate itself with ‘do it yourself’ mode.
Nostalgia is not a great virtue. However, I am continuously transported across time to my own student days and cannot resist narrating stories from those times. In the first year of my PG, a new faculty joined our department. That was his first class with us (well, he still remembers my defiant manners). He was teaching us “Metaphysical Poetry” (a favourite subject) and John Donne. I was chewing a gum and had an ancient copy of the “Metaphysical Poets” in my hand. The teacher saw the book on my desk while he was reciting the poem. Out of curiosity he asked me, “library copy?” I looked up and gave him a stubborn look and nodded. He was even more curious, “where did you borrow this from?” I looked back at him in slight contempt and slight defiance and replied dryly with the gum still in my mouth: “No I have INHERITED it! That’s my grandpa’s!” So soon have the wheels of time moved and the tables turned 🙂 ….
Time flies and I have realized that none of the teaching theories match with the moment when as a teacher you walk up to the teaching aisle and when you face the thirty odd eyes tearing you apart, questioning you, testing you, and eager to learn from you, and teach you.You have to really want to be there if you want to be there. Teaching is not for the fainthearted and again I would fight with Aristotle that “laws of teaching have to be free from passion” 🙂 . Without passion a teacher is only an instructor. One of these days Ajay was chatting with me on Facebook and he shared, “Ma’am if I ever become a teacher I am going to start my class with that quote from Aristotle” …. I consider that statement as my greatest reward ever.
It’s 2 am now and I am listening to an old favourite, a song of Bob Dylan that uncannily matches my post here, ‘Times they are a Changin'” :
“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’” — From Times They Are A Changin’
(This article is dedicated to my students at IIT Indore, LNMIIT, The Creatineers, and IIT Gandhinagar)