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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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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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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The Mine Field

Prologue:

It was a very hot summer. As part of the unwritten curriculum, we undergraduate students 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, i.e., choosing my professor without approaching people who had already worked under them. In my defense, they had no doctoral fellows or postdocs, not that I would have done that.

Let the first professor be ‘Prof. X’. Prof. X did all the formalities for me to be accommodated in their institute. And thus I set out, to a far off land, a place where the heat can claim you. We met, and they were put off since I seemed inadequate as I hadn’t had the relevant courses so that they could pose a problem and expect me to solve it. So they said, let it be a reading project, and suggested a book. After reading the portions they had suggested, they gave me another topic to read. This continued for quite some time-the changing of topics-they had no clue as to what I should be doing, and kept giving me random topics. Then they went away for an academic conference.

No guide, no friends. The people there spoke a different tongue. I was lost. During my brief stay there, another Professor there, who took interest in me, since we spoke the same language, suggested a book. So, I decided to settle on the book, read, and make a report about what I read from the book. Since I knew MATLAB, I made graphs of surfaces and curves, and added them to the report. I sent Prof. X an email, telling them that I was reading that book. Days passed, and I had to leave. My guide hadn’t returned yet, so I sent another email, asking when they would come back.

 This is the reply I got:

 “U take the sign of (another Prof) and leave the (institute) today itself. In case u r not doing any work and just gossiping around.

I don’t have time to answer your nonsense emails which are driven by other influences.”

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The Subtle Problem of Exclusion

My story is a collection of my experiences and some “subtle” issues that I faced during my PhD. I intentionally call these issues “subtle” because for a lot of people, the things which bothered me wouldn’t even be noticed. When I used to share these with people around me, the reactions I got were more like

“These are not real problems!”

“This happens to everybody, so it’s normal and you are supposed to face this!”

“You should ignore it!” 

“People face much bigger issues, compared to those your life is very good. You should appreciate that!” 

I do agree that some of these are valid points and some of these are probably an attempt to make me feel better but none of these helped me. Instead, they caused me more discomfort and self-doubt.

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