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Academia: A Glass Painting

All graduate students spend a significant amount of their life at grad schools, for me it has been a quarter of my life to be exact. This time significantly changed me and my thoughts on how academia (or at least a part of academia) works. When I joined graduate school I was jubilant to escape my undergraduate institute. The graduate school I am in is considered one of the premier institutes in India. If you are an outsider, the look of the institute itself is enough to convince you to join. I had read and heard stories of great scientists who were and are working here, the passion these great scientists have for science and the extraordinary intelligence they carried in their big brains. Eventually I started my work in a theoretical field. I had my ideas of what I am going to do, as every naive person has; how I was going to understand all the beautiful ideas that existed, how I would learn science beyond my stream, and how I was going to think about deep problems and come up with new ideas. It was a beautiful glass painting. This glass painting developed so many cracks over the years that I don’t recognise it any more. 

End Casteism in IITs: A Statement by APPSC IIT Bombay

A few days ago, a couple of videos surfaced from a preparatory English course (conducted for SC/ST and PD candidates) hosted by IIT Kharagpur. In these videos, Dr. Seema Singh, an associate professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences was seen verbally abusing students in the class. The videos, the links to which are given below, show the brazen nature of the act and the impunity which the professor seems to enjoy in the IIT ecosystem.

Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) IIT Bombay has issued the following statement regarding this incident, with demands for actions against Dr Seema Singh as well as for institutional reforms to rid IITs and other similar institutions of their savarna bubbles. We, as a collective, display full solidarity with the statement and the demands stated herein.

Summer Internships, Academic Success, And My Self-Worth

We were told that summer internships help us improve our research skills and know how research is done, and we believed summer internships are just that. However, what is kept hidden is that it is a resume-building endeavor – the better places we go to, the sooner we start, the higher are our chances of excelling in academia. But, how to get into those great places is left for us to figure out. And this is where I didn’t understand what the hell was going on.

None of this is told explicitly in the orientations, and no teacher talks about summer internships in class. All we are told is that we need to do a summer internship, and it doesn’t matter if we do it in our institute or a more elite place than our own. In principle, yes, it should not, but then why do “successful people” go abroad or to a more elite University for their internships and are often encouraged to do so? Much of this is not spoken aloud. Further, the entire process is assumed to be known by all – the subtle art of writing emails, when to write, interacting with faculties, and requesting recommendation letters (this is an article in itself. Perhaps for a later time). These skills are believed to be inherited, like height and hair color. Or, did I forget that they are, in fact, inherited by the Brahmin and allied upper caste students? So, naturally, we don’t hear back from the professors, or if we get a reply, it is often negative.

Making Sense of the Present Moment of ‘Onlinisation’ of Teaching

Along with COVID 19 and its associated terminology, we are currently being educated in a new jargon regarding one of the oldest occupations, namely, teaching. We now are told of online learning, e-teaching, edtech, edutech, smartphones in the new role of teacher, and so on and so forth. Some think that, though the pandemic forced it upon us, this development opens up new possibilities and realms for education; others consider this a temporary phase, after which things would go back to ‘normal’.

Breaking Away

I don’t remember the last time I sat down, with nothing to do, and stared blankly at the evening sky. I often find myself casting about for something to do, which is to say I often find myself without work, but this is not the strange part. And I do occasionally look up at the evening sky, but it hasn’t ever been this deliberate.

I wondered then why it had been so long since I sat down and stared at the sky. Why did it seem like the last time I allowed myself to sit idle was as a child? I guess I could say I had always been busy, but I’d feel like an idiot saying that. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way, either. I work at a research institute in India, not too far from an invigorating stretch of shoreline. Brisk winds beat against the coast in the early evenings, occasionally shepherding in the tides, and at other times encouraging waves to jostle and lap against the breakwater that hugs the shore. I’ve been a postdoctoral fellow there for over two years now, and I’ve really only been to the beach fewer than a dozen times. Everyone I know says the same thing: “It gets old quickly.” I accept that this is true, and I say the same thing to my visitors, but I feel stupid about it: how could the sea get old?

Contract Workers at IITK: A Response to Commonly Held Misconceptions

We at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK henceforth) today are dependent upon contingent workforce for most of the work and services and a large amount of such work has been contracted out. Today the campus, where close to 10,000 of us work and stay, is almost completely dependent on contract workers, whether for cleaning, horticulture, security, messing, civil & electrical maintenance, construction, laying cables, research assistance, the list can go on. By reliable estimates, as the institute has no system to keep consolidated records of such workers, the contingent workforce can be as high as 3,000 1. Given such a large workforce and given the fact that they work without any framework of rights and responsibilities, we keep hearing of arbitrary hiring and firings, accidents, grievances, signature campaigns, office orders, reports, and so on relating to the contingent workforce, and yet we do not seem to be any closer to addressing the ‘problem’. The present write-up is based on my 2 interaction with various constituencies on the issue during the last 15 years. Over these years of my stay in the campus I have primarily endeavoured to understand the problem from ‘below’ by interacting fairly closely with various kinds of workers. In the process I have also engaged with different constituencies on the issue – students, staff, faculty colleagues, authorities at various levels, contractors and have also been involved with minimum wage monitoring, handling worker grievances officially, etc. In this brief piece I am attempting to understand various aspects of the problem and what can be the possible ways of addressing them as I have understood personally with all its biases and limitations.

Pay five-months salary or we stop work: JNU sanitation workers

For the last five days, sanitation workers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been protesting the non-payment of their salaries. They have not been paid in the last five months, reported Dalit Camera.

Tired of being sent from one department to another, All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) members demanded a concrete resolution to the problem of pending wages. Workers warned that if their demands were not accepted in coming days, every sanitation employee will stop work inside campus.

The Mine Field

It was a very hot summer. As part of the unwritten curriculum, as undergraduate students, we were expected to do summer internships- for the long period of 3 months outside our parent institute. As a naive second year, who hadn’t done an internship in the first year- I eagerly sent mails to many professors all over the country. Amidst the pile of rejection emails – a positive reply set my spirit high, and I committed the first mistake in ‘Mistakes in Academia 101’- stepping into the lion’s den without noticing the pile of bones behind the rock

Critical Comments on the Mehta Affair

Last week, the trustees of Ashoka University, a private liberal arts college in Sonipat, extracted a resignation from the political scientist and public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta which, soon after, prompted the resignation of Arvind Subramanian. The discourse surrounding the Mehta Affair is fraught with confusion, so we at Notes on the Academy thought it would be worthwhile to jot down a few loosely related thoughts. Before we begin, we’d like to clarify: the purpose of this article is not to provide a defense of Mehta or his politics, with which we have significant disagreement. Nor is the purpose of this article to rehabilitate the image of Ashoka University, which is no stranger to the accusation that the liberal ideals it champions do not reflect in the actual functioning of the university.

This is not an article about Mehta or Ashoka University — it is an article about everything in this episode but them.

I Am Now the Perfect Academic

I’ve found myself spending a lot of time staring very closely at things recently. There’s a moment in the movie Blue, a lyrical piece about a woman coming to grips with the death of her husband, when she slowly dips a sugar cube into her coffee and she watches the coffee as it diffuses layer by layer into the cube, always getting ever so slightly higher in the cube than in the air. My partner, my lover, she’s still alive, but I also am facing the prospect of losing her, even if only for a few years.

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