Sinning by Silence?

Weltenangst. German somehow seems the right language to use in the present context and if this word is not already a part of the general vocabulary its high time it joined weltschmerz  in describing the present global collective and perpetual sense of disquiet that does not seem to let up no matter where or when one looks, home or abroad.  There is, in a way that has not earlier been quite as sharp, a distinct sense of the binary: us/them, right/left, right/wrong, in/out… One yearns for a  world where the distinctions are recognizably blurred, where the blacks and whites give way to more  shades of gray, where one can be more definitely unsure… when one is more willing to learn, and to change.

But since that is not to be, this post is about the need to speak out, inspired by a friend in New York from whom I learned of Ella Wheeler Wilcox‘ poem Protest, written over a century ago. In words that are truly timeless, and as pertinent today as when they were written, she says:


To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many.

The poem itself is longer, but this post is about the last two lines from the excerpt above, “The few who dare must speak and speak again”. And it is essential that those who do not speak should at the very least, support those who speak for us, for the values that we hold dear.

The heart of one of the crises we are presently facing, the breakdown of communication between the UGC and the rest of the universe on the matter of admissions to the Ph D, is a matter of perceptions. The UGC believes that a system that works in the US or elsewhere should work here. The here knows that the system that would work elsewhere does not work here, and the proof of the pudding is in its eating… To give complete weightage to an interview would tilt the balance in favour of the more articulate. Who also, typically, have had many of the advantages that make them more articulate in the first place… It is simply not true, as Mr Javadekar asserts, that “UGC regulations on MPhil and PhD admissions are as per the best practices of the world. It is being implemented healthily in all universities. The problem is there in one university.” His statements reflect an imperfect understanding of what the best academic practices are, and what that one university has been trying to do all these years.

To start with, the MPhil is a dying degree that should be allowed to become extinct as per the best practices of the world. And as for healthy implementation, the healthiest implementation of admission to the PhD is through the GRE Examination and applications, with no weightage at all for an oral examination… US university admissions committees know full well that their brightest graduate students (typically those from Asia) may not speak English well enough when they enter, so using performance in an oral entrance examination as a yardstick would serve them badly. They do what works well: Administer a good written examination and choose the best from the written scores. Of course they do it intelligently as well, using a combination of measures, but an interview is typically not one of them.

The UGC would best serve the University community  by restricting itself to be a regulatory body as far as curricula are concerned (if at all) and stay away from prescribing admission rules and procedures. There are mechanisms aplenty to identify those who do not follow fair practices, and instead of finding routes of exempting them from fair play (such as declaring them to be INI‘s or Institutions of National Importance), it would serve us all better if the UGC would step in and insist on an even playing field for all.


To make the point further, the real responsibility is to ensure that all have an equal – or equitable – access to higher education.  And one of the reasons for this is that the workforce, especially for skilled jobs, should have a balanced representation. Gender imbalance, for example,  at the hiring stage reflects to a large extent the gender imbalance at earlier stages, that of admission to the qualifying degree for example. This is what has been termed the leaky pipeline in the context of gender representation in academic careers, but it is clear that the leaky  pipeline idea operates just as well for all other groups, particularly those that have been excluded for one or the other reason.

The human race, Ella Wilcox asserts,  has climbed on protest, and indeed we have. And protest we must, at these ill-argued, poorly considered fiats decreed by a body that has lost its relevance, the UGC which should also heed that students of all persuasions are now are opposing this move …

And not just this. It appears that the idea of a university is lost on the very group that needs it most, the government. In the abstract, the government of the people, by the people and for the people, should use those very people it has invested in to help it think through and devise a better future for the rest of the people. And arguably, that is one of the jobs our universities should undertake – take our country into its future. At least that is what, again in the abstract, each modern nation does. It is 2017 after all, and one of the blindingly obvious truths is that any government needs to use the best minds that it can muster, not just the best brawn. To disregard uncomfortable thought is more than just another mistake… Minds are terrible things to waste.

In the past three years, especially in higher education administration one has seen a relentless and uncompromising policy of choosing complaisant and available mediocrity for purposes of ideological resonance. This is a big mistake, one that we really cannot afford, not least because there is saner counsel available.

In a journal article that is available on the net, David Roy Smith of the Department of Biology, University of Western Ontario (DOI: 10.15252/embr.201643750) points out (passionately, one might add) that by democratically electing a person who openly mocks science and what one has learned from science (in the USA) puts both the basic sciences and our planet in danger. To quote from Smith’s article, “The situation is looking equally dire in other parts of the world, with nationalist, anti-immigration, and big business interests taking precedence over the preservation of our planet, its natural resources, and its ecosystems and species. To be an environmentalist, an academic, or a scientist of any kind in this polarized and pernicious political landscape risks being labeled an elitist, a liar, an ultra-leftist, and someone who is out of touch with the average person.”

That is something that those of us who teach at this one University are quite familiar with. Being at JNU is equated in the public (post-truth coloured!) eye as being ultra-leftist and all of the other things Smith says.  We see this again and again: To be an academic of any kind in a polarized and pernicious landscape is a major risk. To whit, the following:

copy-2-of-southasian-map-by-himalWe are taught – those of us who have learned of the physical world – that there is no special place in space from which one should derive all our coordinates. There really is no preferred sense of direction other than by convention and by legacy.  For many years now, I have had the Himal South Asia magazine’s unusual map hanging in my office and have had innumerable discussions (of a non-political kind) about how it helps to change one’s point of view about our country, whats up south and down north and so on. I must say that learning to see this map every working day (and learning to refer to it in as normal a fashion as possible) has also been instructive in its own way, and it seems more natural now to draw a line from Kanyakumari down to Kashmir rather than the other way around. To have any sense of nationalism hinge on a completely arbitrary definition of up or down is to have a somewhat unhinged sense of nationalism.

cheAnd speaking of ultra-leftist, another thing that hangs in my office is (what I consider) a superb poster, a telescopic image of Ché Guevara on the South American continent… something I picked up forty years ago when it was fresh and new, and another thing I have had to explain to any number of visitors who eventually all come down to “Ah… JNU, what else can one expect?” But this is just one poster, and it is more about the kind of aesthetic I cared about at some point in time rather than some ideology that is indelibly tattooed onto my soul.

By discrediting academic values, one discredits a rational approach to governance that might see dissent and protests as part of a process that is, in the end, enriching because of its argumentative nature. And we must therefore support the few who speak and speak again.


A Series of Unfortunate Events

Actually a dozen of them, one being Very Unfortunate.

Not having Lemony Snicket to catalogue my tales of woe, I must be my own muse, writing this post on a somewhat bumpy and very late flight home. I should be more upset than I feel since I have managed to spend four hours in an airport on a day when I could have used that time more profitably, and something like  eight or nine hours time on travel all told, just to get from Bangalore to Delhi. The easy answer to why I am not so upset would be age or experience or both, but I suspect that with the passing years, I have begun to expect unfortunate events (or UEs), a sort of retribution for various sins of the past. But I digress.

untitledI’ve had to travel to Bangalore to chair a panel discussion on the 27th January, and to minimise my time away from Delhi, I decided to go out on the 26th and return on the 27th. I had asked my assistant at the office (which shall remain nameless)  to book my tickets. On the 26th, I reached Delhi’s T3 terminal at 11:30 for my flight that was scheduled to leave at 12:55, only to find that it was further delayed on account of fog, rain, and also the Republic Day Air Force flypast… So the first Unfortunate event (UE1) was that I reached Bangalore at 6:30 that evening, three hours after I should have been there, necessitating programme changes, etc. etc. I had only myself to blame – a little thought would have told me that it is madness to fly out of or into Delhi on Republic Day with the added security, but hindsight is no solace.

Now let me skip to the last, the Very Unfortunate Event 12. On my return journey on the 27th, around 8 pm when I was comfortably ensconced in my seat, waiting for the door to close and the plane to pull back, some air marshals arrived and asked me to follow them.  I was taken off the plane…

photo-on-28-01-17-at-2-14-pm-2Although I was not allowed on that flight, I eventually made it back to Delhi by the next flight, although that wasn’t for another two hours, which means I got back a day later, on the 28th…  In the process I had to cancel one ticket, buy another, cancel that, get a third, The details are dreary, but I also learned just how shoddy the so-called security at our airports is… I dare say that nobody thinks its that great anyhow, but we all go through the motions.

UE2 starts with the travel itinerary that I had asked for. Instead of sending me back from Bangalore to Delhi on the 27th January, the travel agency had actually made a booking for the 27th February.

photo-on-28-01-17-at-2-14-pm-2-2UE3:  Nobody checked the tickets that had been sent by email – not my secretary, not the office staff. Me neither.

UE4. On the 27th January, my assistant asked that I should be web checked-in, and the agency sent the boarding pass, leading to UE5, that I also didn’t check the boarding pass, a fragment of which is shown on the left.

Using this boarding pass for 27 February, I entered the Bangalore International Airport, waved in by the CISF staff who looked at the ticket and my JNU ID card. UE6. And UE7 was that I was also passed through security, another set of CISF chaps.

Being somewhat early at the airport, I tried to see if there was an earlier flight I could take, but I was already past security so it didn’t seem worth the hassle. Anyhow, by about 8 the flight was boarding and I tried to get in, and the first real jolt that all was not smooth was UE8, when I was briefly held up at the gate. Apparently someone else also had the boarding sequence 1 (I was mildly surprised that I was the first person to check in on the flight…). After a few minutes the very pleasant attendants told me to go ahead as it was OK.  By now, nobody should be surprised that the CISF guards at the aerobridge waved me through after a perfunctory glance at my boarding pass.

untitledI came into the plane, and immediately faced UE9, and feeling somewhat like baby bear, I pointed out to the stewardess that someone had been sitting in my chair and he was still there… Very kindly, even after comparing the two boarding passes, she  reassigned me to a new seat, and its number 13C should have warned me that that was indeed  UE10. I settled in, retrieved my Keigo Higashino (Malice, by the way, and an excellent read!) listened to another attendant tell us in a loud voice and with considerable attention to detail just what to do if there was an emergency landing (I always pay attention to which handle I am supposed to pull), and suddenly a couple of other airlines staff rush in ask for my boarding pass, match the torn stub and ask me to get up. Alarm bells going off in my mind, it was surely UE11: Something is wrong with my ticket, and without explaining, they take my luggage off the plane and ask me to follow them, leading to VUE12

There was a lot of waiting, some loss of composure, a few angry phone calls, and a colossal loss of time, but it was only then that I pieced together the banal mundanity of what had happened. The travel agency had issued a ticket for the wrong day, and including myself, no fewer than eight people had not realised the error over a 4 day period. And with a wrong ticket, I had made it all the way from the airport main gate to a seat on a plane that was about to take off… All of which would be laughable, of course, except that the obvious and absolute lack of care is more than a bit worrisome.

In the end I trundled home in the early hours of today with a little help from the airlines staff who do rise to the occasion.  One of them was frank enough to confess that what I had gone through was a first for him… But there are always “explanations”:   If you had only checked in your baggage, we would had spotted the mistake there. (Yes, but you also tell people to travel light and have now introduced no luggage fares, right?) If you had checked in before the other person with the same sequence number… right. Many ifs, but it also throws up some how comes.

  • How come one can get a boarding pass a month in advance? Even the airlines staff were perplexed.
  • How come three sets of CISF staff looked at my boarding pass and didn’t notice anything? So all they did was that they tallied the name with the photograph?
  • The airlines make a big deal of scanning the tickets to verify identity. How come these readers don’t get a wrong date on the ticket?

This is a service industry after all, so the staff aim to please and are always quick to assume that some machine might have made a mistake somewhere. Machines do, but in this sad story, the biggest mistakes were human.

untitledIn all this, and I guess that’s one of the things that kept me reasonably equable, there were moments of comedy. One handler at the aerobridge asked me why I had come a month early for my flight! Another set of people asked me why I booked for February if I wanted to travel in January (although it was painfully obvious from the nature of my ticket that it was booked by someone else). But the cake, so to speak, was taken when they told me that they would have to rebook me on another flight, and the supervisor said that they had two flights, one at 10:45 pm and another at 00:45 am, and “Which would you prefer?”

All in all, it took some doing and I am still a bit mystified by the series of linked unfortunate events, with every link in the chain breaking down… I feel a bit like Wodehouse’s Crumpet in The Great Hat Mystery and “prefer to think that the whole thing, as I say, has something to do with the Fourth Dimension. I am convinced that that is the true explanation, if our minds could only grasp it.”

Talking about Science

Several strands of discussion came together in my mind recently, sparked first by an email from the Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre, asking for Science Communicators, and then by two op-ed articles in the Hindu, on whether or not scientists should be responsible for communicating their science to the general public, apart from some ongoing discussions in FB and on Twitter on the same issues.

image7There is no gainsaying that this is an important matter, and a difficult one to address in a wholly satisfactory manner, especially in a multilingual country like ours, one where the general level of education is not as high as one would like. Nevertheless, one must laud efforts that have a non-negligible impact, and the Science Express is a brilliant example of how things can be done right. This is a unique collaboration of the Department of Science and Technology, the Science Museums and the Indian Railways who have come together to make a science exhibition train that travels across the country, and has been doing so since 2007, and by now it has traveled over 142,000 km and welcomed more than 1.56 crore visitors. It has become the largest, longest running and most visited mobile science exhibition in the world. Now the DST wants people to man this remarkable science museum. They would like

Young science postgraduates/graduates or equivalent. Education or experience in science communication, science education, environmental science, environment education, life sciences or related disciplines will be given preference. Excellent communication skills and knowledge of multiple Indian languages is desirable. Candidates should be self-motivated and medically fit for the long and continuous exhibition tour.

Self-motivation is indeed required, and the ad spares no punches:  The job involves work without off days and continuous travel on the train.This being a mobile exhibition, changing location frequently, the candidates should have ability to quickly adapt to different and challenging local conditions. Consolidated salary in the range of Rs. 20,000 to 24,000/- per month…

As the photo above (taken from the SE website) shows there are people who will bite, though one does wish that the job would be more remunerative- what the train does seems so valuable, and in a country like ours, so severely necessary.

Coincidentally, and somewhat ironically, one of the op-eds in the Hindu pointed out the lack of science communicators or more accurately, the lack of a critical mass of science communicators in the country. That of course is neither here nor there, since there is the glaring lack of a critical mass of persons from almost any discipline (or of persons of discipline for that matter) in the country. But Gautam Desiraju makes other points when he asks “Are scientists responsible for communicating their work to the general public?” Both his write-up as well as the counterpoint by R. Prasad, whose rejoinder simply  points out that  ‘There is a huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon’ are charmingly illustrated with images of scientists communicating with non-specialists!

This morning I had occasion to talk with a younger colleague about these viewpoints, and both of us recalled how influential (in our own lives) some popular books by well-known scientists had been: What is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, or James  Watson’s Double Helix, not to mention some truly popular books (in their times) by some of the greatest scientists, The Origin of Species by Darwin and Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. I only learned very recently that Wiener was persuaded to write up his ideas in order to communicate them to the public by a French publisher – and given the prolixity of the language used, it is a wonder that the book reached as far and wide as it did. Nevertheless, as we use cyberspace to communicate our ideas today, our debt to him is obvious. And the very readable What is life? resulted from a set of lectures to the general ‘lay’ public in Dublin in the war years.

The importance of communicating one’s ideas to whatever audience that shows an interest cannot be overstated. I’m not sure I want to get into whether it is a scientist’s moral obligation or duty to do so, but it does seem to me that the value of most things we do is enhanced when the communal nature of our activities is explicitly recognized. And the effectiveness of the work is directly related to the size and width of the community that is aware of or is made aware of it.

Investment in research or in scientific activity is ultimately a  community decision –  and given our political system, it is reflected in the way in which the budget for science is decided. Which in turn is determined by the party (or parties) we vote into power. The bulk of research in the country is therefore publicly supported, and one of the issues at hand is whether the results of publicly funded research need to be shared with the public that funded it. [The argument has been made very forcefully in the west, where research is funded both publicly and privately. When private companies fund research, the results are guarded zealously for possible patents, but many have argued for full public access to publicly funded research – and this has formed the vanguard of the Open Access movement. But of that later.] One can take the point of view that the public in question do not have the required sophistication to appreciate the nuances, the finer details of most areas of research, and there is some truth in that. But the same argument would hold for, say, music, or cuisine, or poetry or any number of things that we enjoy as a community and appreciate as individuals. Each of us may hear the notes we wish to hear – or can hear, for that matter – and make of it what we will. We may get a sense of the larger scheme of things, whether the finer points of raga Anandabhairavi or the crucial role played by the p53 gene in each of our cells, or any number of the other wonders that we have created or discovered, and there will be those among us for whom even this vague sense will provide the catalyst for other avenues of exploration and discovery.

71hz53cqn-lThere is a sense in which the privilege of being invested in to pursue publicly funded research is very much an expression of the trust of a society. By acknowledging this as part of a social contract, almost the very least one can do is to pay back to society by talking openly (and clearly) about what one does and the results one has obtained. If one doesn’t, there is always the danger that someone else, less able and less articulate might well do so, and other than writing bitterly about X’s misrepresentations, one will not be able to do much else. Science communicators (as a tribe) play a different role. At their best, their function is to integrate many approaches in an analytical manner, and present this in a format that is sometimes easier on the eye. (In this genre, and from my own area of interest, there are few books that compare with James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science, a hugely popular and hugely influential description of chaos theory and nonlinear science. And accurate as well.)

awThe friendship and the intense discussions between Goethe and Humboldt, for instance, as Andrea Wulf discusses in her brilliant The Invention of Nature, were mutually very influential, with Humboldt’s detailed reports being inspirational not just to Goethe, but also to Darwin, Wordsworth and John Muir among others. One can argue that the state of science, and the state of the world, was very different two centuries ago, as it surely was. Card-carrying scientists were fewer and the language that scientists used was not as forbiddingly jargon-filled as it can seem today, but there is good evidence that the lay public flocked to hear Humboldt and his descriptions of South America, much as today’s audience might well be glad to hear from a specialist, of the unexplored vistas of string theory or human behaviour or the brain.

Hearing about a subject from someone who has contributed greatly to it can be much more than just inspirational: the authenticity of experience transmits itself in a very unique manner. It is quite another thing to have someone else talk about it, though there are exceptions, of course- some science journalists are very effective communicators of the big picture, in a way that a practitioner who is focused on some small portion of the puzzle may not be. And of course, this is their forte, putting together a narrative that can grip a reader in a way in which an individual’s very personal story might not. But authenticity has a separate value and cannot be substituted…

Which is why it might be good to occasionally worry about communicating just what it is that one does – science, poetry, or philosophy – to a wider and larger audience. The process might well be beneficial to the quality of what one does in the first place! And today there are many different ways in which this might be done. Through a blog, for instance, or a YouTube channel, through books and articles, or by public lectures, the tradition for which is sadly absent in most of our cities.

Does this, namely taking the time to communicate one’s work to others – even if one doesn’t have to – take away from the presumably more important task at hand, of doing the science in the first place? To which one might well ask why do science at all then. And in any case, it is an unrepeatable exercise. What other work would Gamow have done if he had not written 1, 2, 3… infinity? Or what other vistas might Richard Dawkins have explored, had he not spent his time writing The Selfish Genome or The Extended Phenotype. I prefer to think that this, in itself, was the essential task, to write the books that would go on to influence others.

newsfeynmanOne can go on talking about talking about science… but in the end the basic points are few. There needs to be much more about scientific matters in public discourse, particularly in this day and age, when almost any aspect of our daily life is so influenced by the scientific advances of the past few centuries. It has always needed science communicators (who may or may not be practicing scientists) to do their bit, to bring out the significance of the work, and to see where value can be added. But hearing about any field directly from the ones who have contributed to its advance – in whatever way – has a charm and value all of its own.

Depart, I say

Perhaps not unexpectedly, I have been having a bit of a writer’s block these past few months. Talking with an older friend the other day, we both remarked that in the aftermath of a loss, the pointlessness of some things just becomes starker, and one has to find the strength within to go on, or more often, the strength within to not stop going on.

rockerThe difficulty of not stopping though, is exacerbated when the only thing one can do is academics…  and the inability of even the most well-intentioned amongst us to not fall into the easy trap of seeking out extension of services long after it seems reasonable to others. As the time of my own retirement draws closer – another two years under normal circumstances, which seems both frighteningly near and yet comfortably still some time in the future – it is tempting to not call it a day just yet. But one has to find some alternate ways of keeping intellectually alive, contributing to the institutions one holds dear (and there are many of them still left!) without inadvertently or deliberately preventing them from growing and changing.

Knowing when to leave – that well timed exit, stage left – may be one of the best strategies to learn, as an anonymous Chinese proverb and Burt Bacharach have said in as many words.  But when it comes to academe, there is a problem. A fixed retirement age cannot by definition apply across the board: there is deadwood in every department, as much as there will always be some who continue to astound us all with their continued productivity and creativity. Although a median should be respected, the median is not really the message.

imagesThe question of what to do, as well as how and where… These and other such night-thoughts have tended to occupy my mind a bit more these days, more often than in the past. This year has necessarily been a time of summing up and one of re-evaluation.

But as this year draws to a close – an annus horribilis by even the most generous of reckonings – I am reminded of the good Cromwell, who in another context and to another audience said, “Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”. 

I feel much the same emotions: Depart, 2016. In the name of God, go! Enough.  There is a new year on the horizon…

Kathmandu, 1969

jscoverWhen I was in the last years of high school in Mussoorie, a brand new magazine appeared- JS, or Junior Statesman. The first issue came out in January 1967, and it quickly became staple reading for me and my friends, especially during long study periods when it was also forbidden… Although published from Calcutta (I remember going to Desmond Doig’s office once in 1970 or ’71) there was a lot of Kathmandu in it, drawings of hippies, articles by Jug Suraiya, Sashi Tharoor, Zeenat Aman, all exotic names in our boarding school. It was our one great weekly escape that we shared. When I went to college later, I went on to send contributions to JS (and earned some pocket money in the bargain), but regrettably I never kept copies, even though one of the articles I wrote even made it to a cover. And The Statesman has either not digitized this classic (or has chosen to not make the files public) and as a result, the only illustrations I was able to find on the net are very unsatisfactory. See above.

But Kathmandu…

The gap between passing out of school and entering college was a long one: The Senior Cambridge exam was held in November 1968, and college admissions were not until June the following year. And for the not very professionally inclined – I was not going to do either medicine or engineering – there was a lot of time on my hands. As it happened, there was a to-do about the exams my year, and we all had to repeat the school final in February or March 1968, but still, there was a lot of waiting time, and I decided I wanted to travel “abroad”.

ic70-01I had already traveled outside India and found it quite underwhelming… One afternoon, driving beyond Tuensang in Nagaland, we stopped the jeep at a post along the road that said simply “Burma”. That was about it, but being a little over 14, I jumped out, ran into Burma, expecting I’m not sure what. Of course I could not have expected that it would be very different, but still, there was an unreasonable disappointment… And a year or so later, when living in Ukhrul in Manipur, we drove down to the border town of Moreh and crossed over into Tamu in Burma. Being heavily populated by Tamils at that time, it was actually possible to get by in Tamil, and the only sense of the foreignness of Tamu that I got was from the visibility of a lot of “Made in China” goods and Burmese parasols, neither of which were of interest to me then. But still, seeing the pagoda and having to change money into Kyat was a positive…

AUntitledt some point in early 1969, I decided to go to Nepal. Some cajoling of parents was needed, but they gave in soon enough- there was little enough to do in Ukhrul, and those were also days in which, in retrospect, our lives seemed surreally secure. I was a little over 15, and all I had as I set off for Kathmandu was the address of some people at the Indian Embassy, friends of friends. My travel plan was vague. I would fly from Imphal to Calcutta (via Silchar and Agartala) by the Indian Airlines Dakota, take the train (third class, no reservation) to Patna, and fly into Kathmandu from there…

Amazingly enough, it happened pretty much like that. I had an old sleeping bag and a duffel, some money- I’m not even sure how much, except that it was probably a few hundred rupees, a princely sum in those days- and an idea that Nepal was doable, and both exciting and inexpensive. In addition there were student concessions that made every trip half-price or less, and the Indian Airlines flights were adventures in of themselves. To this day I regret not taking the Agartala to Khowai flight when I could have- it was the shortest flight in the world at that time, and at Rs 7 ($1.40 then) surely the cheapest.

vvI took some train to Patna and landed up early in the morning, and eventually made my way to the Indian Airlines city office by a rickshaw. I managed to get myself the very last seat on the morning flight to Kathmandu, and it is another testimony to the times that none of the IA staff (and from talking to some of the old-timers, I know that they all regret the merger with Air India) found it odd that I would be traveling on my own on an international flight. I can’t swear to it, but from the little scouting I have done on the web and the few old timetables I could find, I think it must have been IC 245, the thrice-weekly Vickers Viscount flight at 9:05 in the morning. That day we were a bit delayed by a massive dust storm – I have a very clear memory of the sky turning a vivid brown – but soon enough, I was in my window seat and on my way…

1The window seat. Its funny what one chooses to remember – my eyes must have been glued to the outside for all the 50 minutes of the flight, but I can still see the roseate Himalayan peaks as we came into the Kathmandu valley in the early morning. Time has added hues and tinges to all memories, but I can still sense the excitement that I felt landing at Tribhuvan airport, more than a bit nervous since all I had was a school ID and an address in the Embassy compound that I needed to get to.

tigertaxi1And the arrival did not disappoint. In those days, all taxis in Kathmandu were whimsically painted in tiger stripes- and many were Volkswagen Beetles. The Tiger Taxis were a world away from the black and yellow Ambassadors of Calcutta and Delhi- but strangely I was only able to find a few images on the net. Anyhow, I was soon at the Embassy, and spent the subsequent few days doing much the usual things one did before there was Thamel.

Getting back was another trip. I had run out of money, so flying back was not an option, and people told me about taking a bus to Birgunj, on the border between Nepal and India, from where one took a rickshaw to Raxaul on the Indian side. My memory of the ride is a dimmed one, the only striking image I have of that ride is when I looked over my shoulder for that last view of the Himalayas…

And then Birgunj. By the time the bus deposited me in Birgunj, it was dark, all the better for me to make the crossing I thought. I had bought some “foreign goods” – some inexpensive perfumes and gifts for my parents, mainly – and was firmly convinced that this would going to land me in trouble with the border police. Although I had hidden these artfully in my luggage in case of a search, I was quite nervous as we made the cross into Raxaul, and to the train station from where one would take the train back to Calcutta.

mgsetupatnaI can’t decide whether Google and Google Maps are a good or poor way to recreate memories… There is so much that gets thrown up on a search that I’m not sure if these are my recollections or trancreations thereof. Anyhow, it has been a bonus to discover the old IC timetables and to realize that already in 1970, Indian Airlines flew between 62 cities in India. (The number today is not that much more within the country, while it has greatly increased the number of flights outside the country.) The train ride I took from Raxaul to Patna was via Muzaffarpur, and I do have a vivid memory of crossing the Ganga at Patna by ferry. These were the days before the Mahatma Gandhi Setu was built (as I discovered via G) or the Digha-Sonpur bridge… Blame it on the age, but the excitement of taking a boat trip- it was less than an hour long – to top off everything was a big bonus! And I can add in hindsight, it was one of the nicest ways in which I have arrived in Patna.

There really is not much more to tell. I got back to Calcutta the next day, took a plane the next to  Imphal (via Agartala and Silchar) and reached Ukhrul, feeling very “foreign-returned” and worldly wise. I had had my share of sightseeing, the living goddess, Hanuman Dhoka, Pashupatinath, Swayambhunath, renting a bicycle and riding out to Patan, eating momos for the first time… the works, but as the wise TSE had said, it really was all about the journey.

Global Responsibilities

I was a graduate student in the mid 1970s. In those days computers were large beasts that were festooned with blinking lights, that ate punched cards and spewed out answers on large sheets of paper. The internet was in its infancy. Travel was expensive and infrequent, and communication, which was by mail, meant that answers to letters typically took a month or so. Collaborations with colleagues outside one’s own institution was rare, usually happening only during sabbaticals or extended visits…

coverThe practice of scientific research has evolved radically in the past few decades, largely due to the effects of globalization. Dramatically improved communication and significantly enhanced computation have contributed greatly to making scientific research a global enterprise. Many more scientific papers in many more areas of science today tend to involve large numbers of authors, and as the problems addressed become more complex, these different authors tend to be from different disciplines, often from different institutions, and quite often from different countries.

 Even in my own research in the past decades, things have changed quite drastically. Between 2006 and 2015, I estimate that I have written papers with colleagues from over 40 different institutions in a dozen or so different countries. The average number of authors on my papers is about 3.5, and I have not even met about 25 of my co-authors. In the ten years between 1986 and 1995 by contrast, the average number of authors on my papers was 2.5, the total number of different institutions was about 15, my coauthors were from about 7 different countries and I had not met only three of them. (Not having met one’s coauthors being a strange way to characterize the globalization of research! Or its multidisciplinarity!)

 Such numbers are probably not atypical, and reflect the changes brought about not just by globalization and enhanced communication and mobility, but also by the realization of shared scientific goals and the advantages of collaborative research. Looking at the patterns of scientific publication over the past fifteen or more years, one can conservatively estimate that between 10 and 15% of the papers that are published by Indians is in collaboration with researchers based outside India. This estimate doubles when one adds all other countries, and if one were to restrict the count to the last decade, to high-impact journals, or to authors from the better known institutes in the country, the proportion of papers which result from international collaborations is even higher.

Trust is a crucial component in carrying out such collaborative research. One has to believe in the reliability of results communicated by one’s collaborators, some of who one may not have even met. And as is becoming painfully evident there are numerous ways in which the trust can be broken. Deliberately, as in the cases of fraud, but also inadvertently, when cultural cues are misread and the work (or other) ethics of different cultures clash. In this context, having a properly articulated code of conduct that is generally accepted is very valuable. A recent book Doing Global Science: A guide to responsible conduct in the global research enterprise tries to provide just that.

Doing Global Science is timely, and merits careful consideration of all, researchers and science administrators alike. IAP, the Inter-Academy Partnership, a global network of science academies, formed a committee that has authored the book. Professor Indira Nath of the AIIMS, from India and E.-L. Winnacker, President of the German Research Foundation were the co-chairs of the Committee on Research Integrity. They have a blogpost on the Science website, and a Commentary in the latest issue of Current Science.

 The book is short, but covers a range of issues that touch upon ethical matters that have surely confronted anyone who does research. The titles of some of the ten basic chapters are indicative: “Planning and Preparing for Research”, “Preventing the Misuse of Research and Technology”, “The Researcher’s Responsibilities to Society”, “Preventing and Addressing Irresponsible Practice”, “Aligning Incentives with Responsible Research” and  “Reporting Research Results”. What is most culturally sensitive is the presentation of case studies and scenarios (that seem all too familiar!) where the reader is encouraged to provide analysis and resolution.

As the blurb on the Princeton University Press website says, “The book places special emphasis on the international and highly networked environment in which modern research is done, presenting science as an enterprise that is being transformed by globalization, interdisciplinary research projects, team science, and information technologies.”

The book is not ponderous, nor is it particularly verbose, covering all that it has to say in something like 110 pages, give or take a few. The difficulty of finding a universally acceptable code of conduct that can be encapsulated in something like a scientist’s Hippocratic Oath is a very real one. Until such a code comes into being,  reading this book and internalizing the message will have to be a (not so poor) substitute.

The Lesson

An invitation from Bangalore University to speak at a meeting on Pedagogy and Research in the Sciences in Universities (and to listen to other academics) has given me an occasion to think again of what it is that we do when we teach at university, what we do right, and what we do not. There is a certain amorphousness to the enterprise of instruction above a certain level, where intentions and motivations are (in my opinion properly) a bit blurred…

Untitled.pngIt also brought to mind, oddly enough, The Lesson,  that wonderful play by Ionesco that was such a staple of the amateur drama circuit when I was in college, and which is such a commentary on the nature of the teacher-student relationship and of pedagogy itself.

But I digress. Academic life at an Indian university – and here context is everything – has been undergoing considerable change in the past few years, both because the classroom is changing, and because the student is evolving. Sometimes a little too rapidly for one’s liking. And if truth be told, a little too rapidly for the average instructor’s comprehension, and that includes me.

What is so special about pedagogy and research in the sciences at universities? For one, these are now just one of the several institutions where a science-rich (i.e. a curriculum with a majority of courses in scientific areas) education can be obtained. The IITs, the IISERs and a few other institutions all vie to offer a range of sciences at the undergraduate and Masters’ levels, some in integrated five-year programmes. At the Ph. D. stage, the competition is even wider with all the national laboratories essentially being deemed-to-be-universities. So one difficulty that universities face in re science students is to get them there in the first place.

The difficulty is truly undeserved. There is enough evidence to suggest that students draw significant benefit from having an intellectually diverse academic environment even if their intended area of study, their specialization, is in itself quite narrow. But of course, the range of specializations at a given place is not as important as the quality of the people there, so its a toss-up as to what is preferable. And over the years, as we (as a nation – we are all responsible!) have encouraged the flight of intellect and academic talent out of the universities into the cloisters of research institutes, by policies of preferential funding for the latter over the former, by differential service conditions and numerous other marks of privilege, it is with a heavily biased coin that one calls the toss.

The advantage that universities have, of numbers, is one we should hold on to. A middling sized masters’ class in physics at JNU now has about 30 students, at Bangalore University this number would be 80, and at Delhi about 200. And these numbers offer several opportunities. There are always (and the emphasis is deserved) exceptionally gifted students in such classes, and also always, some really poor students. That’s just the law of large numbers at play. The width of the ability distribution makes teaching such classes a challenge, and (so long as one  is not terminally cynical) there is much to learn from the process.

There are matters we take for granted, such as the purpose of higher education (at the postgraduate level and above) in our country. Academic policy makers will trot out graphs to suggest that there is a positive correlation between GDP and the quantum of original research or the number of scientific papers published. So one purpose of university departments is to “produce” postgraduates, Masters and Ph D’s for somewhat ephemeral ends. But then some of these postgraduates will end up in research careers as well, and perhaps in teaching positions, so that the concerns of the seminar acquire an existential angst that is all too familiar.

One can go on. But to return to the theme of the seminar, namely Pedagogy and Research in the Sciences, my few points are the following.

The first is that the role of the teacher in the university classroom has changed drastically in the past few years. The teacher today is not the central source of information in the way he or she was say, twenty years ago. One still gets respect as a teacher, but not in the simplistic ways of the past – one has to earn it every day… This was always true, of course, but now there is a constant comparison with material all over the web, lectures on any topic easily available on YouTube, MOOCs, Wikis… the list is long.

Next, and this might not be true for all subjects, we tend to over-teach. At any rate, we do tend to over-regulate curricula. While that is grist for another post, it is true that students today are left with few real choices,  the real freedom to design one’s own learning that comes with the semester system being sacrificed for some form of academic uniformity. I’ve seen “elective” courses being made effectively compulsory year after year, the need for completing a set of credit requirements competing with a shortage of teaching staff. Students are integral to the pedagogic process, and not just as the intended targets. They are as responsible in determining outcomes as teachers are, in ways that need a somewhat more individualized approach.

My main concern however, relates to the modularization of pedagogic practice. Over the years the educational pattern in the country has evolved from the system of annual examinations to a semester system, much like the rest of the world. The standard model of academic teaching that has been adopted in most of our progressive universities is one of semester-wise teaching of a number of courses, each considered a stand-alone subject.  It is too late in the day to debate whether it is a good or bad thing, especially when there is so much regulatory pressure to conform to some mythical global standard, but one aspect of such instruction is that it poses new challenges to the didactic process and these challenges have not been seriously addressed.

The unity of a discipline – that which a Department of Study strives to convey – is often missed out in a compartmentalized approach to teaching. The modularity of semester based courses, and in some instances, this is broken up into even smaller modules- can make a discipline seem more granular than it necessarily is.

BJayasriThe contrasting styles of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music offer some parallels to these two pedagogic approaches. A night-long concert of Hindustani music may well be devoted to a single raga, developing and evolving a theme gradually. A Carnatic concert of a few hours, on the other hand would have several compositions in different ragas and with different tempi. There are those who swear by one and those that swear by another, but in the end, both have their adherents as well as those that simply don’t get either.

UntitledBut again, I digress. Modular teaching can lead to modularized learning, with some students feeling that specific topics belong to a specific courses (“… but Hermite polynomials are in quantum mechanics, not mathematical physics … “ or similar plaintive cries that can be heard when discussing the “unfairness” of a question paper…).  And this is a concern that is shared by many. Graduate schools in the US often (if not uniformly) have comprehensives and cumulative examinations to address these types of issues, and quite successfully, but our teaching practices have not yet adopted such measures. Some years ago I offered the graduating batch of students in the MSc programme an optional examination after all the others were over. It happened to be a Friday, 13th May and hence the drama in the poster; the few students who took it were enthusiastic  (if somewhat bewildered) but the answer scripts were more revealing of the outcomes of two years of teaching and learning…

In the end, my point is a simple one.   Our pedagogy can benefit from the explicit recognition of the collective nature of teaching, where the efficacy of what one teacher imparts depends crucially on what is taught by another. In addition, the question of timing is also important. Especially for core courses, a greater level of coordination and planning is needed. This can greatly improve learning outcomes in all disciplines, but it also requires that we rethink our practices.

Let me close by quoting from a blogpost by Keeling and Hersh on higher education in the US that has considerable resonance with some of the points above.  “One challenge […] is that it requires faculty to come together – collectively – and agree on which outcomes, expectations, and standards they share and endorse, and then reinforce them throughout their various courses and programs. It demands a different institutional culture of learning […].” And, I might add,  teaching.