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.

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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] 

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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.

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On the Discourse Surrounding Mental Health

-The NotA Collective

The past year has witnessed a striking number of deaths by suicide at institutions of higher learning in India.1 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.

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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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Science: A Confusing Life

For a student of science life is confusing. When I started I always had a clear idea – the beauty in mathematical formalism, the joy in creating and understanding phenomenon in a lab, the pleasure of learning why something is the way it is, the fascination of reading about great minds of the past and the desire to unlock some unknown mystery of nature.

Gradually I reached an advanced stage in the process. I realized that science isn’t simply joy, it is also applying for PhDs and projects and after that for postdocs and faculty positions. It is about impressing people and making the right connections.

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Pandemic, Workers, and Responsibility of Public Academic Institutions

A Hamara Manch response to commonly held misconceptions

September 2021

Context

It has been 17 months since the first of a series of pandemic related lockdowns in the country, and working class livelihoods have yet to recover from its devastating consequences. Hamara Manch has come up with a series of reports on the conditions of campus workers during this period (all the reports, including the ones cited here, are available at: https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/). We have also reported that the conditions of workers have become qualitatively worse after the second wave, especially for those who work in the hostels.

  • In June this year, we brought out a report on the conditions of women mess workers, most of whom are the only earning member in their family and who have been practically without any work for 15 months. As the wages have stopped, so has the ESI support, leading to a severe medical crisis for the workers. As narrated in the report, one woman mess worker in her 20s, who is unlettered with two small children, has a husband whose both kidneys have failed. Without ESI support, she now needs to find Rs. 30,000 every month for just the dialysis.
  • One work that has been going on all along amidst the pandemic is construction. Some of these women mess workers tried to find work on a construction site, and from them, we came to know that all the women construction workers on one site were fired in July 2021. When Hamara Manch went to enquire about it to one of the residential sites of the construction workers, we found that they were living in containers that are generally used for shipping/transportation. Twenty persons were packed in each container in these times of ‘social distancing’! A young woman died on the same day due to a lack of access to any medical facility.
  • In August, over a thousand workers signed a letter addressed to the community seeking support for a dignified existence, mentioning that some of them do not even have the money to get the free government-provided rations milled.
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Issue #1

Click here to read issue #1 of Notes on the Academy, a magazine dedicated to a critical evaluation of academic institutions and culture.  As we mention in our manifesto, academia is a diseased community.  To diagnose this disease, we must both study its symptoms and analyse the sources of these symptoms.

To study the symptoms of the disease in any social community, we must listen to the stories of those most affected by it. So, we collect testimonials — anonymised accounts from people across the academy about their suffering. The present issue contains three testimonials. The first, “We Are No Longer Afraid,” is a document prepared by students at a prominent institute of higher education regarding the mishandling of the pandemic by their administration. The second and third, “The Subtle Problem of Exclusion” and “The Mine Field,” are the stories of individuals within academia.

To analyse the symptoms of the disease, it always helps to classify. Thus, we have chosen to include articles about casteism in our institutes. Since there is already a wealth of literature analysing this issue, our role here is merely to introduce you to this literature.

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And The Weak Suffer What They Must: A Critical View of the NCBS Retraction Scandal

This was the NotA Collective’s written submission to the webinar “The Epidemic of Scientific Misconduct in India” hosted by The Life of Science. We have updated the text slightly to comment on a report that was released after the webinar as well.

Introduction

The recent case of academic fraud at the National Center of Biological Sciences (NCBS) has made waves in Indian academia.1 By no means does this imply that fraud is unheard of or uncommon in Indian higher education — quite the contrary! And even though each member of the NotA Collective has spent less than a decade working at research institutions, it seems to us as though every few years fresh news of a more spectacular and brazen case of fraud barrels out of the campus gates and into the pages of newspapers.

The forms of fraud vary, of course, from the more common genera like plagiarism and undeclared conflicts-of-interest, to the uncommon and sinister, like data forgery, fabrication and manipulation. This problem is deemed significant enough that it has prompted the organisation of specialised conferences dedicated to the question of academic ethics.2 The Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India (currently headed by Prof. K. VijayRaghavan) has even drafted a National Policy on Academic Ethics.3 It would appear, on the face of it, that this is a problem that deeply concerns senior academics.

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Minority Reports: A Tragedy in Three Parts

The mess workers at IIT Kanpur have been completely abandoned by the administration of the institute, and they have been living at below subsistence levels, as they recently laid out in a heartbreaking letter. NotA has been circulating a petition in their support, and it has less than a hundred signatures as of publishing. In this article, we ask — yet again — how academics can be so heartless towards those who sustain our lives.

Part I: Institutional Stratification

Our story begins in 1945.

Anticipating a phase of rapid industrialisation, and cognisant of the need for a highly skilled workforce that would carry out the same, a committee was constituted by the Government of India under the leadership of the businessman and industrialist Nalini Ranjan Sarkar. Under his stewardship, the committee was tasked with reviewing the status of technical education in India with a view to the needs of the fledgling republic.

The recommendations of the Sarkar Committee, which included such prominent individuals as Dr. S. S. Bhatnagar (then Director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) and Dr. Jnan Chandra Ghosh (then Director of the Indian Institute of Science), are perhaps known to the reader: new institutions that would “integrate mathematics, science, and humanities with the specialized professional subjects” ought to be set up post haste, and the graduates of these Higher Technical Institutions would meet “the probable demands of industries for High Grade Technical personnel (executives, research workers, maintenance engineers, and teachers)”. Following independence, the Sarkar Committee’s recommendations were implemented, and this is how the IITs were born.1

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