School Is Cancelled!An Invitation to Deschooling Society

— The NotA Collective

Authored by a Croatian who at various times in his life was a Roman Catholic priest, a theologian-philosopher, and a social critic, the author of Deschooling Society comes out swinging and he isn’t pulling any punches:

“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom, nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.”1

After reading the above paragraph, excerpted from the book’s introduction, you might find yourself thinking that the pugilistic offerings of its author, Ivan Illich, are a poor fit for Notes on the Academy. We have, in our earlier articles, spent a lot of time trying to think of the many ways in which schools and colleges can be made better. If the above quote is anything to go by, Illich would much rather that we shut down the academy altogether. How does one approach a book whose rejection of institutionalised schooling is so vehement?

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No Pedagogy for the Oppressed: Caste (in) Academia

– Deepti Sreeram

An upper-caste Professor at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad once told me that EFLU would have been better off if it was still a private institution.“It wasn’t disruptive and crowded back then. The campus was peaceful,” the Professor told me.

He was referring to the political unrest on campus. Between 2010-12, the campus was in the middle of the Telangana movement1. Despite the absence of a fully recognised student union, organisations like the Telangana Students Association (TSA) and the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students Association (DABMSA) were at the forefront of various student-led agitations in Hyderabad. At one of the student protests at EFLU, the then acting Vice-Chancellor of EFLU had insulted a Dalit student leader for speaking in improper English. The leader graciously dismissed the remark even though there were legitimate grounds for public outcry.

When Rohith Vemula left us with a heart-breaking note, students across campuses protested against the ruling government. Left-wing student organisations included Jai Bhim in their slogans and held Ambedkar study groups. Academics across universities wrote articles, academic papers, think pieces and solidarity statements that critiqued the relationship between caste and academia and called for justice. None of these attempts made any discernible difference. The number of marginalised students forced to take their lives due to institutional apathy has only increased since then.

I recall these seemingly disconnected but pertinent events because of the changes that higher education in India has undergone in recent years. Public universities like UoH, JNU, Jamia Milia, DU and EFLU have experienced unprecedented levels of State-sponsored violence. Student activists who participated in agitations have been suspended or rusticated. Some of them were photographed2 and barred from taking the PhD entrance exam. Others were charged with the draconian UAPA3 for their protests against the State. At several public universities, reservation policies were flouted4 while research scholarships were delayed.5 This had a significant impact on the lives of marginalised students who attended these institutions. In the meantime, several new private universities flourished.They expanded their academic programmes, collaborated with international universities to create ‘institutions of excellence’ and become the preferred choice for Liberal Arts over public universities.

So what do these changes mean for the marginalised student?

Indian-style Ivy-leagues for the upper-castes

Until 2012, Public universities such as JNU, HCU, EFLU were the best universities offering social sciences and humanities in India, even with the proliferation of several small-scale private universities such as Amity, Christ etc. The progressive atmosphere, faculty, thriving student politics, reservation policy and the subsidised fee made these campuses an ideal space for liberal arts. In addition to this, students at public universities were more often at the helm of political movements. In 2000, when a special committee headed by Mukesh Ambani met the then government to discuss private investment in education, the committee described education as a “profitable market.”6 They also called for a ban on “any form of political activity on campuses… including student union activities.” Thus, in 2005, the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations (LCR)7 was implemented to ensure that political activities did not “disrupt education.” LCR ensured, among other things, that the university administration reserved the right to dissolve the union if circumstances warranted such a decision. The implementation of LCR and the coming of the new government in 2014 changed public universities for the worse.

The birth of ivy-league-like universities like Jindal, Ashoka and Krea (2012 onwards) during this period is significant. Unlike public institutions with poorly funded facilities, these universities have access to cutting-edge research and a liberal space where students can freely express their love and dissent as long as these ideas do not draw public attention.8 Students can also access networks of well-known authors, academics, business owners, and entrepreneurs and get mentored by them. Eventually, upon graduation, students get admitted to universities abroad or placed at well-paying companies.

However, securing admission to one of these universities is not an easy task. Unlike small-scale private universities that insist on meeting admission numbers, these universities have a rigorous admission cycle that prioritises “quality over quantity.” Undergraduate students, for example, are required to take an aptitude test similar to the SATs or write the SATs and submit the scores at the time of admission. They should also write application essays that would showcase their reading and writing skills. These admission hurdles are similar to the policies adopted by universities abroad, especially those located in the US and the UK. Because private universities do not have a reservation policy, the founders are keen to provide fee waivers or scholarships under the diversity quota. Under this quota, recruiters select a handful of meritorious students from economically poor backgrounds. The emphasis on merit justifies scholarships/fee waivers provided to some students who would not have been able to afford an education at these universities otherwise. The outcome of these policies is the creation of a homogenous upper-caste student population across institutions. According to this study,9 at least 84% of the Young India Fellowship cohort from the 2018 Ashoka batch came from a four-wheeler vehicle-owning household. 40% come from families with an annual income of more than 30 lakhs, and an astounding 80% come from upper-caste families.

Who gets to read and write better?

I had to write a 3000-word academic paper at the end of my first semester of post-graduate studies at EFLU. I remember how this had intimidated me so much that I had switched disciplines – Linguistics over Literature- to avoid academic papers. Similarly, some of my Bahujan classmates who struggled with English chose courses from the English Language Education department, which was popularly understood as an easy department. These choices inevitably divided the batch into two groups. Students (predominantly Savarna) who took courses from the Culture Studies/Literature/Film studies department were seen as intellectual students while students who opted for other disciplines particularly English Language Education (ELE), were looked down upon. ELE has generally occupied a similar marginalised position compared to the other disciplines in India. It is often seen as a means to knowing English as opposed to a potential space that could help navigate the systemic differences in the university. University administrations would therefore never consider dedicating resources to having an English Language Teaching (ELT) centre and would rather appoint poorly trained faculty to teach English.

When I joined Ashoka as a writing tutor, I was amazed to see the scale and architecture of the writing pedagogy at the university. The university had an undergraduate writing programme (UWP), a centre dedicated to writing and communication and an English as a Second Language (ESL) programme specifically designed for students who struggle with English. Similar support systems are also available at other ivy league like universities such as Krea, Jindal, SNU and Flame. In contrast, public universities like JNU, EFLU, HCU and colleges under DU saw academic writing as a skill that students learned without training. Though there were a handful of workshops targeting research writing skills, these were hardly a match compared to what was on offer at the ivy-league like universities. This approach to academic writing was similar to what was taken towards ELT. There wasn’t a need to dedicate resources when the savarna student did not require it.

Since the establishment of universities like Ashoka, Jindal, Krea, academic writing has received attention as a discipline in Indian higher education. My colleagues who teach academic writing at these universities have argued10 that the new writing movement that emerged from these institutions will usher in a meaningful inclusive future in Indian academia. They also argued that a pedagogy of care is essential in the university classroom and how more care11 would have helped students like Rohith Vemula who experience alienation at the university.

As an Other Eligible Communities (OEC) student, I could pursue my higher education because of the subsidised fee structure and reservation policy at public universities. But these policies did not really make me stay at the university. My struggle with writing made me leave academia for good in 2014 and then it took me nearly six years to summon confidence, save money and apply for a PhD at a private university like Ashoka. This is when I was far more privileged than students like Rohith Vemula and Rajni Krish who had to work menial jobs and secure funds for their university expenses. How can then students like Rohith Vemula access care when it is only available at ivy-league like institutions?

In April, a video showing12 Seema Singh abusing students from marginalised backgrounds attending a preparatory English course, went viral. The course was primarily designed as a gateway course which would help students from Dalit, OBC and Adivasi backgrounds secure admission at IIT. It is inside this English language classroom that the Professor had unleashed abuses and threatened students. While the incident unleashed outrage from all quarters, excluding statements from alumni, no institution in India came forward with a statement condemning the incident. But consider this. When the BLM movement took off in the US, several writing centres,13 ELT programmes14 and universities published statements15 of solidarity. They professed their commitment to following an anti-race pedagogy and put up statements declaring the same. Though these may be dismissed as tokenistic, the absolute inability in acknowledging caste in our universities suggest that we are far far behind our contemporaries.The critical pedagogy that we promise or espouse is still designed for the cause of the savarna student and this is true for both public and private institutions. Until we overhaul this, there is no pedagogy and certainly no care given to the marginalised university student in India.


Deepti Sreeram is a first year PhD student at Ashoka University.


Footnotes
  1. EFLU students divided into two groups. (2010, December 24). The New Indian Express. https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/hyderabad/2010/dec/24/eflu-students-divided-into-two-groups-213634.html ↩︎

  2. Ragesh, G. (2017, February 20). EFLU doesn’t allow 2 Keralite girls to write entrance, their crime – seeking justice for Rohith Vemula. OnManorama. https://www.onmanorama.com/news/nation/eflu-keralite-girls-write-entrance-justice-rohith-vemula.html ↩︎

  3. Express Web Desk. (2020, August 25). JNU PhD scholar Sharjeel Imam now arrested for Delhi riots. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/northeast-delhi-riots-delhi-police-arrests-sharjeel-imam-6569530/ ↩︎

  4. Teja, C. (2020, October 18). The News Minute | Telangana. The News Minute. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/reservation-policy-being-subverted-uni-hyd-students-begin-relay-hunger-strike-135631 ↩︎

  5. rishna, A. (2021, April 26). COVID-19: Students struggle for months without fellowship during pandemic. Careers360.Com https://news.careers360.com/students-struggle-for-months-without-fellowship-during-pandemic ↩︎

  6. We have discusses this before at The NotA Collective. (2021, June 18). They Did Not Know We Were Grass. Notes on the Academy. https://notacademy.in/2021/06/18/they-did-not-know-we-were-grass/ ↩︎

  7. Sreeram, D. (2015, November 6). Right To Education: Denied. Tehelka. http://old.tehelka.com/right-to-education-denied/ ↩︎

  8. Chopra, R. (2017, January 28). Lone teacher to sign Kashmir petition quits Ashoka University. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/lone-teacher-to-sign-kashmir-petition-quits-ashoka-university-4495235/ ↩︎

  9. What We Know About Diversity at Ashoka: A Look at the YIF Programme – The Edict. (2019, March 12). The Edict. http://the-edict.in/index.php/2019/03/12/what-we-know-about-diversity-at-ashoka-a-look-at-the-yif-programme/ ↩︎

  10. Dasgupta, A., & Lohokhare, M. (2019, June 24). Guest-Editorial – Building the Boat While Sailing it: Writing Pedagogy in India. Café Dissensus. https://cafedissensus.com/2019/06/24/guest-editorial-building-the-boat-while-sailing-it-writing-pedagogy-in-india/ ↩︎

  11. Dasgupta, A. (2019, June 24). The Writing Self and the Work of Care in Critical Writing Pedagogy. Café Dissensus. https://cafedissensus.com/2019/06/24/the-writing-self-and-the-work-of-care-in-critical-writing-pedagogy/ ↩︎

  12. Shocking Incident in IIT Kharagpur where a Professor is openly abusing students on record. (2021, April 27). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaadRfl3xhQ ↩︎

  13. Anti-Racist Pedagogy in Action: First Steps. (n.d.). Columbia University Centre for Teaching and Learning. https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/anti-racist-pedagogy-2/ ↩︎

  14. Statement on Anti-Racism to Support Teaching and Learning. (2018, July 11). NCTE. https://ncte.org/statement/antiracisminteaching/ ↩︎

  15. Statement and Actions for Black Lives, Anti-Racist Commitment. (2021, February 11). CU Engage. https://www.colorado.edu/cuengage/statement-and-actions-black-lives-anti-racist-commitment ↩︎

A few thoughts on ceiling fans at IISc

– Pranav Minasandra

Trigger warning: suicide

This was originally published by the author on twitter. While the author focuses on IISc, this same “solution” has also been implemented or discussed in Kota and IIT Madras, and likely in many other places.

Yes, I never expected that I would write something with that title, but then, here we are. Recently, the administration of the Indian Institute of Science decided to combat the rising wave of student suicides they faced…by replacing ceiling fans with wall-mounted ones. Several faculty and students presented this as a nuanced decision that will save lives, a well-reasoned method of means restriction.1

With the disclaimer that I know next to nothing about this subject, I make the following points.

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Discrimination In Higher Education; Need For A United Struggle To Save Social Justice

This statement by a united front of student organisations in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, was shared on social media. We are republishing it here, with permission.

Student organizations of JNU and JNUSU have received a massive number of complaints from candidates from SC/ST/OBC/PwD categories and minority communities who appeared for viva-voce examinations for PhD admission this year. These candidates have received extremely low and undignified marks for the viva resulting in their automatic exclusion from JNU. Despite scoring well in the written examinations, they have been unable to secure admission simply because they have been awarded marks as low as 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

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De-Recognition of SC/ST/OBC National Fellowships: An Interview with Arunesh X About Systematic Exclusion and Inclusivity in Indian Campuses

In 2020, Pondicherry University (PU) suddenly restricted the number of ways PhD candidates could gain admission to various departments. The admission routes cut out were precisely the ones designed to increase inclusion of various marginalised communities — the National Fellowships for Scheduled Castes (NFSC), Scheduled Tribes (NFST) and Other Backward Classes (NFOBC). They were challenged in court by Arunesh X, a member of the department of English at the time and a member of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA-PU). NotA interviewed him about this case, his activist work, and campus politics generally.

About the Case

NotA: Can we start with what the NFSC/NFST/NFOBC is and what role it plays in equitable access to education?

Arunesh: Before going into NFST/SC/OBC, we need to talk about JRF, UGC-NET, etc. In India, if people want to take up research, they need a research fellowship. For example, the IITs and other places offer institute fellowships. But central universities don’t always offer fellowships, and we are asked to take up an examination called National Eligibility Test (NET). Based on the cut-off, a person will be given a fellowship or lectureship. For example, for general category the cutoff for JRF would be 60/100 and for NET lectureship, it will be 50 or 55. This is the normal procedure.

The second thing is that based on the quota/reservation percentages, those who score the greatest marks in every category are allotted JRF/NET. A lot of people miss the UGC’s JRF cutoff by .5% or 1% mark, like last time I missed the JRF cutoff by 0.54%. So to level the field, the Ministry of Social Justice created this fellowship – previously it was called Rajiv Gandhi fellowship, and now it is called National Fellowship for Scheduled Caste (NFSC)/Scheduled Tribe (NFST)/Other Backward Castes (NFOBC). And it is also there for persons with disabilities. There are also other fellowships like Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) for Muslims students. Around like 2000 students are given this fellowship every year.

The process is the same as for general quota; we need to write the NET and then based on that [these fellowships are} offered to people who miss the UGC’s SC/ST/OBC cutoff by fractions of a percentage. So the question of merit, which is often put forth by other people, does not apply here.

NotA: Can you describe how Pondicherry University tried to evade the NFSC policies and your attempts to fight this?

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On the Farmers’ Protests

— The NotA Collective

The fascist BJP government has finally given in and agreed to repeal the three anti-people farm laws.1 We at NotA bow our heads in admiration to all the farmers, agricultural labourers, and other activists who have come together over the past year to keep this historic protest going and deal the first major defeat to the BJP since 2014. We hope that this victory2 gives the broader anti-fascist movement (including not only the farmers’ protests but also other movements like the anti-CAA protests, migrant workers protests and the adviasis’ anti-mining protests) in the country even more energy and leads to the downfall of both Hindu fascism and the anti-people “development” agenda it is supporting. The war is far from over, but this battle has been won.

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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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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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