The Dark Side of “Excellence”

দেবদত্ত পাল। Debdutta Paul

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), which takes pride in being India’s top-ranked institution, has recently been in the news for a spate of deaths by suicide of students.[1] The stark difference between the reality of ranks and the grim reality of lives lost at IISc prompted me to take a closer look at the ground. I spoke to three students from IISc, aiming to decipher the causative patterns of poor mental health. In accordance with their wishes, their identities have been withheld.

During the national lockdown of 2020, students in IISc faced massive policing on the campus. “I suffered a tough time mentally, and I am happy to have come back home and work remotely,” said Z, a PhD scholar at IISc.

The rules and policies governing life on campus were changed without any consultation and were enforced rigorously, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, alleged Y, another PhD scholar. The rules severely restricted the movements of students and limited them from interacting with others, isolating them. The rules were not relaxed until much after the worst effects of the pandemic were over.

So, was the global pandemic the causative agent?

“The pandemic has made us lonelier, but it is not the root cause,” said X, another PhD scholar.

Statement Against IIT Kanpur Report on UP Model

 (To endorse this statement, please complete this form. This statement is meant to be read in conjunction with a detailed critique of the IIT Kanpur report prepared by IITK Citizen’s Forum and Hamara Manch IITK, which can be found here.)

A purportedly scientific study by IIT Kanpur titled Covid War, UP Model: Strategies, Tactics, Impact has, over the past few weeks, been widely circulated, discussed, and reported on in the media. The report’s author and chief editor is Prof. Manindra Agrawal, a faculty member at IIT Kanpur and one of the principal architects of the so-called ‘SUTRA Model’, a compartmental model of infectious diseases.

The SUTRA Model is effectively an exercise in curve fitting with little predictive power or scientific merit. Indeed, the model has been empirically falsified multiple times and Agrawal et al. have repeatedly made incorrect public pronouncements based on it. For example, on 9 March, Agrawal announced on Twitter that “there will be no “second wave” in India.”[1] On 30 January, Agrawal et al. lauded the central government’s policies in a scientific paper and claimed that “it is easy to establish why the decisions taken have led to the avoidance of multiple peaks.”[2] 

Expansion of the Scope of NotA

Notes on the Academy has now been in operation for a little over a year. We have tried, during this period, to bring you a perspective on academia that is both honest and hopeful. 

Why did we start this project? All too often, honest criticism of academia that is offered in good-faith is either blunted to begin with, or ignored entirely. Talking about academia can be very confusing: form is routinely confused for essence, process is almost always mistaken for substance, and a forensic dissection of petty intrigues is what passes for structural criticism. Matters are confused further by groups within academia that actively disorganise and scuttle any meaningful resistance. We wanted to change the way certain conversations are had. Every new crisis reminds us that our work is far from done and, happily, that there is much to learn in the process. 

With this in mind, we feel the moment is ripe for an expansion in our activities. Starting soon, Notes on the Academy will have two brand new sections.

On the Discourse Surrounding Mental Health

The past year has witnessed a striking number of deaths by suicide at institutions of higher learning in India. It is often difficult to talk about these events, tragic and inexplicable as they are. Harder still is the task of navigating the discourse surrounding suicide and its prevention that inevitably follows. A reliable pattern of response has now been established, to which all concerned parties hew closely:

  • University press offices rush out statements, careful to distance themselves of all blame. Committees will be formed, which in a few weeks or months will invariably find that although it was all really very tragic, the only effective mitigation strategy is to spread “awareness”.
  • Tenured professors on Twitter will bemoan the loss of young, talented academics, and remind their followers of the importance of mental health and “getting help” in a timely and responsible fashion. They assure us that they too appreciate the pressures of being a young academic, having also been young academics once. For their part, students on Twitter will retweet these exhortations; most of them will do so mechanically but a few will do so with anger and passion that inspires hope.
  • Journalists interfacing with academia will mutter words like “systemic” and “structural” and quote tweet university press handles, focusing their criticism on how sentences are phrased. Some will commission articles on the ballooning crisis of mental health in academia, informed by what passes for progressive senior academics, and occasionally counsellors with experience treating mental illness.
  • Most of the above parties will congratulate each other on a job well done. Any differences that arise in this churning are buried, or left unaddressed.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

We believe that, like us, our readers are inundated with and sick of mental health advisories, op-eds, and press releases. Instead, we’re going to try and understand this crisis of mental health as an inevitable outcome of the way academia is organised.

A Critical Look at Inventa

– Anashku

This article is a compilation of my thoughts, mostly disagreement and criticism (or rather a myriad of questions I have) of Inventa – the endeavor started by a group of students from various elite science institutes (IISERs, NISER, CEBS & IISc) to communicate science.

On their website, they say, “As students of science, we believe it to be of utmost importance to be able to communicate the fruit of our [scientific] work, to the masses” (emphasis mine). As agreed by many fellow researchers, it is our responsibility to communicate our science to a broader audience. But, my question is, who are the masses?

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