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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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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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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An Appeal by the Workers to the IITK Community

This is a letter from the mess workers at IIT Kanpur, originally published at Nirvaak. A petition is being circulated among the academic community at large. Please consider signing it, at https://forms.gle/RyjayGnewBoBwRD47.

Friends,

As you are aware, mess workers have been out of work since May 2020 because of the CORONA pandemic. In September 2020, when students began to come back to the campus, some of us started getting work. Over the last 16 months (from May 2020 to August 2021), mess workers have got on an average 30 to 40 days of work each over these 15 months. We also have received monetary support of Rs 18,400 (Rs 6400 in July, Rs 6000/- in September, and Rs 6000 in December 2020). And for this, we are grateful to the entire community (students, faculty members, alumni) who supported us in these hard times.

When the second wave of the pandemic hit the country in April 2021, the administration sent back all the students, and mess workers were again out of work. But this time, the Institute did not extend any support to mess workers. We are finding it very difficult to arrange food for the family, money for children’s education, house rent, medical bills, etc. Many of us are deep in debt. There is no work to be found anywhere, and we are unable to support our families. Our ESI benefits have also stopped, so our families are unable to get the medical treatment they require for chronic and severe illnesses.

The government has been providing 10 kgs of grains per member per family to every ration-card holding household during the pandemic. But this includes only rice and wheat. One cannot eat merely grain and survive. We need oil, spices, pulses, fuel, salt, vegetables, etc. too. Some of our fellow workers are so badly off that they cannot even afford to mill the wheat provided by ration shops; pulses and vegetables have completely disappeared from our plates.

We workers are in an extremely desperate state. We appeal to the Institute community to stand by us in these difficult times. We have only two demands of the Institute. We request your support in getting the Institute to consider our demands and acceding to them.

1. To provide us work for 26 days a month at minimum wages, including ESI and EPF benefits

2. And in case work cannot be provided to give us an allowance adequate to meet our families’ living expenses.

This we believe is our right; we too are humans, we too need nutritious food, water, and health care. The Institute says that there are no students, hence no work for us, hence no money to us. We would like to ask if there are no students what is the need of constructing so many new buildings during this period? Why is it necessary to pay full salaries to the professors?

Do we workers not deserve to eat proper food or have access to essentials for survival? The Institute did not deem it necessary to find out how our families and we have been surviving these past 16 months. They seem to believe that whenever there is work, we can be summoned, and we would report to duty. How long can this continue?

We hope that the Institute community will understand our situation and support us wholeheartedly.

Thank you,
Workers of IITK

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UGC’s Concept Document on “Blended” Learning — Centralisation in the Name of Efficiency

“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Groundxero is publishing Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is part two of the full critique.

CENTRALISATION IN THE NAME OF EFFICIENCY

The NEP 2020 has called for replacing the Executive and Academic Councils with regulatory bodies such as a centrally-appointed Board of Governors and Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The HEGC and National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC), National Accreditation Council (NAC) and General Education Council (GEC) increase the centralisation of control over universities, by taking control over governance, curriculum, research and finance while alienating immediate stakeholders including the teachers and hampering democratic, autonomous functioning of universities.

The UGC’s idea of autonomy is a financial one, in which each university is left to its own devices to raise funds by dipping into student’s pockets, while HEFA-like bodies provide loans. Academic autonomy and integrity are relevant only insofar as they can be clamped down on. The draft syllabi UGC recently prepared for BA History course plays up mythological aspects of “Indic” civilisation at the expense of established topics and norms of history. The syllabi also prescribe reading lists full of questionable scholarship. In June, texts by pro-establishment figures such as Yoga magnate Baba Ramdev and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht “Adityanath” were introduced at Chaudhary Charan Singh University on the recommendation of the Uttar Pradesh committee for implementation of NEP. These are only a few from the long list of instances in which academia is being sought to be saffronised in the country. The autonomy of the university and its faculty to decide coursework and material is actively being encroached upon, as is the space to dissent against such intrusions and overreach.

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UGC’s Concept Document on “Blended” Learning — Flip-Flop Policies And Political Flippancy

“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Groundxero is publishing Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is the final part of the full critique.

FLIP-FLOP POLICIES AND POLITICAL FLIPPANCY

The efforts of the UGC to allay the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic over the last year, which has thrown education into chaos, are even more disingenuous. Its refusal to systematically organise a plan of action for the semester and academic calendar, as well as to set up a process of evaluation, has systematically pushed students out of consideration of various flippant policy decisions, as they could not necessarily keep up with the conditions imposed by the contingencies and emergencies of the situation shaped by the pandemic.

  1. Delhi University is taking online exams starting from 7 July for final-year students. The Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) had asked the university to cancel these exams, but it only postponed them from May to June instead. ABEs (Assignment-Based Exams) could have been an option, as other universities such as Ambedkar University, have done.
  2. In July 2020, the Delhi High Court asked the University Grants Commission (UGC) to clarify if universities could conduct final-year examinations based on Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs), open choices, assignments and presentations, instead of long-form exams. The question came up after Delhi University contended that it was holding online OBE exams only because the UGC guidelines make it mandatory to hold final-year examinations. Legally, UGC’s guidelines are advisory and not binding on State institutions, yet the MHRD’s sanction made timed online exams during the pandemic a de facto compulsion. Expecting people caught in different circumstances to attempt the same exam is extremely unfair, as the Delhi High court observed.
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Decolonising Indian ecology

– Akshay and Grass Demon

As the world came to a standstill in the wake of the pandemic, and travel was abruptly restricted, long-term or ongoing field research suffered 1. Projects which involved local communities/researchers at the field site were able to continue their work with little loss of data, but those without strong local support were suspended indefinitely. Veteran ecologist Vojtech Novotny called it “a test [of] the rhetoric of ‘capacity building’ within tropical countries”. This reignited conversations around the involvement of local communities in field ecology by Western institutions, and associated ‘parachute science2 3 4. A recent paper by Trisos et al. 2021 5 furthered this conversation by providing a sharp look at the different, often unchallenged, ways in which colonial thought and practices pervade ecology, and provide concrete ways for ecologists to work towards decoloniality, the main points of which are summed up in the table below.

Before we begin, let us clarify for the uninitiated what decolonisation means, according to Trisios et al. In the first instance, it is “[r]ecognizing that colonialism led to Euro-American centricity, dispossession, racism and ongoing power imbalances in how ecological research is produced and used”. Following this recognition, decolonisation demands that we “actively [undo] those systems and ways of thinking”. – NotA

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UGC’s Concept Document on “Blended” Learning — Individualises and Privatises Learning and Education

“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Notes on the Academy will publish Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is part one of the full critique.

In consonance with the New Education Policy 2020, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has released its concept note on a “blended” model of teaching and learning, allowing for 40% of each course to be taught and assessed online (out of which over 40% SWAYAM courses are already online). Shockingly, the 40% conveyed in the UGC press note fails to convey that the actual desirable standard is to take online teaching and learning to 70% of the programme, as explained in the concept note.

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