Re-imagining the University

A PhD student goes back to the drawing board to figure out ways in which we can transform the university space in India

In 2008, I dropped out of an engineering college to pursue a degree in English. The choice was inevitably romanticised in my head, and in my dominant caste-class Bengali milieu. Yes, I was forsaking the technocratic dream, but only to segue into the elusive wonders of a liberal arts education. A few weeks into class, I passively morphed into a disaffected student, forced to acquire the linguistic gimmicks employed to ace exams. A few more years passed, and I learnt how to insincerely perform through self-indulgent academic rituals, competitively assert myself by caricaturing the perspectives of others, and self-righteously articulate politically correct positions while conveniently ignoring questions of practice. My social advantage allowed me to climb the academic ladder relatively easily, but here I am, on the verge of finishing my PhD, constantly grappling with a sense of hypocrisy, irrelevance, and uncertainty about the future. Meanwhile, I realise how ‘privileged’ my problems are as I hear about (but do not personally experience) the rising numbers of the ‘educated’ unemployed, rampant caste and gender-based discrimination on campuses, and clampdown on student activism by autocratic university administrations. A rather sinister question is thrown up by such a scenario: who does the university work for, really?  

The critical scholarship on the university expose the fault lines: the university is an apparatus of the feudal, Brahmanical, patriarchal, and capitalist state machinery; the university reproduces social and economic hierarchies; university curriculum and pedagogy continue to encourage uncritical conformity. In utopian resistance to such a disheartening scenario, some of the literature advocate that the university should ideally be an egalitarian, critically reflective space; distribute power across communities; and actively contribute to social good. While it is desirable to ethically hold such a position, the possibility of producing such a university often runs up against collective cynicism. How can any radical policy change be implemented by lethargic, self-preserving, managerial bureaucracies? How can creative and critical scholarship emerge within systems promoting rote learning and unquestioned obedience to norms? How can the classroom become less hierarchical if ways of collective living within hostels, social groups, and cultural practices also remain hierarchical?  

In my PhD work, I enquired into student experience within various English departments in the University of Delhi, to understand what was being learned in the guise of disciplinary knowledge. During interviews with students, I would ask them to do a thought experiment: what would they change if they were administrators? The analytic detail with which students would describe their alienation, discomfort, and sense of exclusion would not lend itself to an easy imagination of change. A few would half-heartedly respond that perhaps there could be more academic support systems (but what exactly?); or perhaps the teachers could put in more effort to engage with students who are struggling (but how?). This lack of a specific imagination exists in both policy discourse and the defensive accounts of faculty and administrators, so perhaps it is no wonder that it gets reflected in student imagination. What is required, then, is both a specific accounting of what goes on within universities as well as a re-imagining of alternatives. To expect administrations to magically do this job does not have positive historical precedence, unfortunately. It is in all our interests, as students, teachers, workers, and administrators, to collectively nudge each other towards such a process of change. But how do we begin? Grappling with my own alienation, a primary realisation has been that quick fixes and temporary reassurances are no good; we need to begin from foundational principles. Here are a few potential starting points:  

Pedagogy: It has been extensively documented how teaching practices in India are top-down, exam-oriented, and do not engage with the social contexts of the students. The typical objective of teacher reform is to make the teacher more ‘friendly’ and ‘democratic’ and improve classroom performance, towards ostensibly improving learning outcomes. However, such suggestions are not always effective. Teachers might agree with the principles of reform, but might struggle to translate them into practice in the face of student disengagement and demands of syllabus completion. There are two other premises to begin an enquiry into pedagogy. First, to take into account the multiple ways in which knowledge is shaped, not just through acquisition of bookish knowledge, but through conversations, gossip, irreverence, even boredom. The possibilities of how disciplinary knowledge is interpreted and re-shaped within educational spaces has to be recognised, through reflection exercises, to produce multiple templates for pedagogic engagement. Second, to recognise that the curriculum is not merely a set of texts in a syllabus, but a set of values, behaviours, and actions sanctioned within the educational space. There is a ‘hidden curriculum’ signalling what kinds of questions need to be asked, or what kinds of behaviour will be rewarded. It becomes important to draw attention to the hidden curriculum, to be able to collectively reflect upon how to transform classroom practices. In other words, pedagogy should be critically ‘read’ as a text in conjunction with the formal syllabus. Teachers and students can re-imagine their roles as participant-observers, not to surveil each other, but to empathetically support each other. Pedagogic attitudes, it must be remembered, are not just restricted to formal educational contexts. They are internalised by individuals and influence interpersonal relationships, professional choices, and social mindsets. The stakes are always high in pedagogic enquiry.  

Politics: Progressive student groups in the university continue to emphasise the need for structural change. There are demands made for increasing public education funding, implementation of affirmative action policies, and for bolstering support mechanisms and institutional facilities for students. While all of these demands are necessary, student politics rarely takes up the mantle of concretely re-imagining the institution of the university itself. How are classroom practices, evaluation systems, and academic and social support mechanisms to be developed? Political groups can concretely enquire into and begin to document the practices constituting life and work at the university. Interventions can be concretely mapped out only on the basis of such an enquiry. Following Rohith Vemula’s suicide, there has been a nationwide debate on experiences of exclusion within universities which disproportionately target Dalit and other socially marginalised students. But the debate has not adequately probed the practices through which ‘exclusion’ is produced. This includes how students speak and behave with each other, participate in cultural activities, experience classroom learning and evaluation, among many other factors. Student political groups must take up the onus of investigating the complexity of each issue. To do politics is not merely about organising protest demonstrations that respond to a social crisis, but also to think of how to engage and intervene in various spaces, whether they are classrooms, hostels, clubs, or social groups. This will require an active re-thinking of the forms and languages through which one does politics.  

Praxis: The word ‘praxis’ implies the practical application of theory, or action informed by critical reflection. In the university, there is a constant production of knowledge, in the form of coursework, research, conference proceedings, and even pamphleteering by student groups. However, the motivation to write a paper or even a pamphlet is often to merely gain approval within the system, or adhere to expected norms, rather than rigorously and creatively pursue the potential of ideas. Further, the education acquired does not ensure the learning of the multiple literacies required to critically navigate social and professional life; and unfortunately ends up re-producing various socio-economic hierarchies. Instead, it would be useful to begin from a fundamental premise: why should one write an assignment, or produce research work? The motivations may be varied. To analytically pursue an idea, or to present a set of knowledges for particular audiences, or to intervene in a social context. The form and process of the work should ideally be adapted in dialogue with the motivations. In other words, the production of knowledge can be re-imagined as cultural performances, social media initiatives, translations into multiple languages, newsletters or magazines, resources for social sensitisation, or even the formation of new organisations. These are just a few possibilities; there are endless more to be imagined.  

In contrast to the pessimism I began with, I want to conclude with cautious hope. Yes, none of these changes can happen overnight, perhaps they do not even seem ‘practical’ within existing constraints. But the language of practicality will only get us so far; we need to imagine against the grain to be able to produce genuine alternatives. To pursue the potential of my own work, I am no longer thinking about publishing papers for journals, but newsletters in regional languages to be informally distributed across campuses; or a video series on YouTube to communicate ideas on transforming education; or creating an online database of student and teacher experiences to help provide pedagogic support to others. We need to begin from recognising our own agency, as teachers, students, workers, administrators, and concerned citizens, to begin to enquire into and re-imagine our own contexts and actions. The rest will (hopefully) follow.  

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