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…

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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.

Carrying on

ccxCommenting on my last post, an old classmate wrote to say “Ram, we are both at an age where we mark the passage of time by composing eulogies for our friends and loved ones. One day someone else will do the same for us….”

True enough. I found that in the past year or so, I’ve done this four times, and each time has been painful in its own way… The passage of the years does indeed makes these occasions more frequent, but every passing is none the easier for that. And every cliché in the book has some ring of truth to it, each day has its own new regrets.

I have been overwhelmed by the several letters that friends from all over the world have written in the past few weeks. And touched by the genuine expressions of grief, by the concern and the affection. I am beginning to respond to these, but each response goes with its own memories, so this note is both to acknowledge how heartwarming it has been to read each message and to say  I will write back, but maybe slowly.  We will meet, and when we do we will speak of other things, without forgetting this connection.

A life unfinished

cc (1)Charusita Chakravarty, Professor of Chemistry at the IIT Delhi died last Tuesday, 29 March 2016.

Charu and I were married in 1992. In early 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the triple-negative subtype.  She won many battles against this form of the cancer, but in the end, we lost the war.

She would have been fifty-two this coming May.

Maudlin lines from a 1970’s novel run through my mind… morphing along the way to: What can you say about a fifty-one-year-old woman who died? That she was smart, witty, beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Eliot and Tagore. And Kabir.  And life.

And that she was a scientist who cared passionately about her work, her teaching, her students, that last scientific paper, that seminar given at the last conference. That she brought intensity and genuineness to everything she did, from chemistry to cooking.

The last few years were a struggle against odds, but not always overshadowed by what we both knew. She found the time and the strength to do some of the many things she wanted. And made time for people, for friends.

The memorial service for her on Saturday included poetry which she truly enjoyed. Friends and family read out verses she loved or would have loved, and I know that she would have been surprised and pleased by some of the selections. Particularly these lines from Margaret Mead,

Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.

A Physicist and a Gentleman

Dr Deepak Kumar (1988)My friend and colleague, Deepak Kumar, passed away all of a sudden late Monday (25th January) night. I had seen him that day, sharing a cup of tea with another member of the faculty in the afternoon sun on the lawns of the School of Physical Sciences at JNU. The spot where he sat was directly visible from my office window- Deepak often sat there and had his lunch. I hadn’t spoken to him that particular day, but that was not unusual – there were many days like that. But it was not just another day, not like any other.

Deepak was one of the first to join the School as Professor when it was formed, and he brought a decade or more of experience at the University of Roorkee. As it happened that greatly helped the School in its early, formative years, and set the mark for how it developed subsequently, defined what it’s core values were, and the sense of purpose and commitment that it has had since.

Colleague for almost 30 years, Deepak has been a friend for a little over that, and if I were to have to characterize him, the title of this post says it as well as anything. Deepak was a scholar in the true sense of the word, and one for whom the world of physics was all absorbing. Although his professional interests were in condensed matter physics, he was both knowledgeable about, and was interested in a huge range of topics. One could go to him for just about any doubt, count on him to give the right bit of advice, and if the matter happened to be something that he knew well, his intellectual generosity was limitless.

This is not exaggeration. Not for nothing was Deepak the most collaborative colleague that we have at the SPS:  of the 20 or so faculty that we have in physics, Deepak has actually written papers with no less than seven of us. And with something like twice that many students, either as their formal or informal supervisor, as a mentor in the best tradition.  Indeed, he mentored the first Ph. D. that was awarded from the SPS, and both directly and indirectly showed many of us the way in which one could bring out the very best in our students.

There is so much to say about Deepak- his academic contributions in condensed matter and statistical physics, the several awards, the recognition. But this above all: This was too soon and too sudden. There were many many good years of physics one could have had from him, and many years of physics that he would have enjoyed.  Even the last day, on Monday, he gave a lecture, there was another scheduled this week. And last semester he taught a course for the MSc Physics seniors. He was working to the end, and he went with his academic boots on…

I know his ethos will continue to guide us, and I can only hope that we will not forget his calming spirit that often brought hot tempers down, his somewhat other-worldly smile, and his gentle sense of humour that helped us all see that there were many ways of reaching conclusions. We all will miss him deeply, the community that he helped build at JNU, and the larger community of physicists in the country that knew and admired him.