Press Release, 18.12.2009

Even as teachers of the University of Delhi held dharnas at every college to protest against among other things the improper haste with which the VC is seeking to push through a disastrous proposal to switch the undergraduate programmes of the University to a semester mode, the VC continues to show a lack of academic honesty and administrative sagacity.

The framework earlier circulated by him was criticised for lowering the standards of academic programmes. It diluted the contents of Honours programmes and reduced choices available to students at present. The VC has been arguing that the semester system is better than the annual one as it supposedly offers more choices and more interdisciplinarity. When it was pointed out that these suppositions were true only for smaller institutions where teaching and examinations were conducted internally, he decided to avoid a debate on the issue. He claimed to have found a solution to the challenge of reducing the time required for examinations in such a large university. As it turned out, his blueprint was worked out solely with the object of conducting examinations twice a year without compromising on teaching time. The consequence was a blueprint that dilutes the content and reduces options. That proves that semester system is unsuitable for a large and varied university. He, however, is impervious to academic concerns. He wants the semester system at all costs.

He has now produced a tinkered version (see here) of the original blueprint (see here). On major issues, he has done minor tinkering. Six papers that Honours students were to do from other disciplines now are supposed to be of lower than Honours standards. He has, however, proposed a major regressive change. The system of tutorials that has been a cornerstone of the Delhi University academic programmes allowing for small group interaction for so many decades has been effectively jettisoned without any discussion. The size of the tutorial groups for Honours at present is of eight students. Now, he proposes a minimum of 10 without any upper limit. In fact he wants a maximum of four tutorial groups even if there are 60-70 students in a class. Moreover, each group is to meet only once in a fortnight instead of every week (in case the scheduled day is a holiday, it works out to be once in a month). This is a serious blow to the quality of education the University can provide.

If the VC really believes that his mission is to improve education and not please the Government, he should be ready to debate as to whether semester system can actually lead to improving the quality of undergraduate programmes. The misfortune is that he is asking the Heads of various Departments to bypass due processes and find few compliant college teachers who will not raise uncomfortable academic issues and will only carry out tasks assigned to them.
The tinkered blueprint for semester system circulated by the VC fails to meet academic concerns and, worse, effectively does away with the tutorial system.

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One thought on “Press Release, 18.12.2009

  1. The Vice-Chancellor and Members Academic Council
    University of Delhi

    Re: Proposal for semester system in colleges

    I am glad the Vice-Chancellor has sought responses from teachers on what he is contemplating with regard to the captioned matter – it would be still better if he were to consult the teachers’ association, which is the formal appropriate forum for determining their organised collective will. Meanwhile, I am writing in the hope that this effort at a consultation is a real effort.
    It is my opinion, shared I believe by a vast majority of college teachers in the University, that the proposed implementation of the semester scheme at the college level is ill-conceived as to its substantive content and merits, and can only be implemented with a ‘show of democracy’ not amounting to genuine democratic responsiveness to the collective will of those who have to operationalise the scheme on the ground.
    As earlier seen in the way that the internal assessment system was pushed through without factoring in grassroots opinion and realities, and especially in the many deleterious consequences that thus developed in the IA system’s actual execution, there now appears to be a settled tendency among some in the University establishment to set actively in motion large pedagogic and systemic processes modeled on outside paradigms without adequate crosschecking and sufficient consideration of the new systems’ applicability and relevance to specifics at home. In the process, an innovation may be introduced which if in some ways well intended may end up doing more harm than good because it is ill suited to the the on-the-ground situation obtaining here. The road to hell as we know may be paved with good intentions. And if we remember that, we can keep hell at bay if we do not choose to summarily dismiss and highhandedly disregard the misgivings and sincere voices of those whose task it will be to implement these ‘reformed’ systems because they are the ones with the experience to sense and know what it would really be like down there, in actual operational conditions.
    Semester teaching plus exams are perhaps acceptable at the PG level. That is because students by the time of the Master’s are sufficiently grounded in the basics of the discipline, certain fundamentals of knowledge can be taken for granted, and it is possible to deliver fairly advanced, intensive and propulsive lectures that wrap things up within 10-12 meetings on a course unit.
    Things are quite different at the undergraduate college level. In many disciplines such as mine for example (English literature), college entrants with a CBSE type background haven’t a clue as to how literary criticism is ‘done’ and are ill-equipped to get this in a hurry – initiating them into the nitty-gritties involves a very gradual form of exposure, a path of passage involving active demonstration and a sort of ongoing apprenticeship in which the learner in time picks up the fundamentals. It happens very slowly, very gradually, nearly unconsiously – almost by a process of osmosis. Moreoever, there is a good deal of ‘background’ contextualising (social history, intellectual history, esthetic categories and ‘period’/genre grounding, critical/theoretical concepts, interpretational debates etc., etc) requisite to be introduced to students before textual components can be effectively and meaningfully tackled in the classroom.
    This slow process of ‘laying out’ the syllabus components in undergraduate classrooms is also affected by the many programmes, involvements, extramural festivals et al that punctuate and interrupt the academic calendar in colleges.
    In such operational conditions, the semester system must lead to the thinning out of course contents and encourage capsule-type hurried teaching and coaching-centre type of ‘examination answer preparation’ – rather than liberal education in the fuller meaning.
    The casualty, inevitably, will be in-depth explication, interllectual substance, participative interaction, and authentic understanding. Teachers, under pressure simply to ‘finish the syllabus’, will be compelled to adopt a superficial, tokenist approach to the study objects. Vital elements, perhaps the most valuable ones, would have to be sacrificed and left out. Students will begin to prefer ‘model answer’ type pedagogics. Minimalism will flourish. The best, richest, most explorative and curious academic values of study and teaching at DU will stand compromised.
    What will be gained in the trade-off is not clear. A mere rescheduling of the academic calendar – it’s bifurcation in 2 halves -, in the absence of other features of the concept in say American universities (fully self-designed, self-evaluated seminar and term-paper based courses and small classes per individual course supervisor), shall not amount to serious academic reform, in the fuller, more serious meaning. It would in fact be no more than mere procedural-functional tinkering and time-tabling redistribution: a purported ‘reform’ measure better described as ‘bureaucratic’ than as ‘academic’.
    In the bargain, we will be left with, simultaneously, the limitations and weaknesses of our own present system at DU conflating with those of the American pattern now being sought to be imported – while bracketing out the best features and strengths of either.
    That the new academic calendar will be in better tandem with American concepts and schedules is to say little as to its intrinsic virtues and merits, especially for us, in our functional conditions. Six decades into independence India’s premier general education university should have more pride and belief in its own traditions, systems and values – and the logic behind these – than simply to ape ‘something’ in the Occident just because ‘they know better’. We should have more self-respect and self-belief. We should have more trust in ourselves and our own people. Our university system should have more empathy for the concerns and worries of its own teachers in the college – some 8000 of them. One particularly should not adopt the approach of a George Bush Jr who went arrogantly and heedlessly forward with bombarding Iraq on suspect arguments, even when the whole world cried nay, simply because he had already so decided. Simply to genuflect and reset our schedules and priorities to minor functional exigencies of the geopolitical metropolis of our own day (a metropolitan centre which one should add is at this moment facing a profound crisis that should cause anyone planning to blindly follow suit, to pause and think!) is still to be colonised – or should one say ‘post-colonised’?
    I trust that this exercise in democratic consultation will not be used as window dressing. I sincerely hope the Vice-Chancellor and the decision makers in the University system will actually read and pay heed to this letter and other similar cautionary opinions and inputs expressing teachers’ very real concerns and worries as regards the semester scheme idea. I hope there will be some degree of sensitivity to the genuine motivates behind those concerns (why would anyone take the trouble of penning their doubts for no rhyme or reason?) I hope the head of a great University such as Delhi U will evince some respect (rather than its opposite) towards the several thousand college teachers who are the real and stable strength behind the effectiveness of college education here, individuals who are deeply invested in their work, having made it their life and avocation by active choice, and who in any case are the persons the University shall have to depend upon to operationalise any system in force.
    It would be a great pity if the bulk of teachers are envisioned as ‘The Enemy’ by the head of the university in which they work, a sort of undesirable errant group that deserves no more than to be dismissively ignored, bypassed or disciplined by forcible fiat. (In any case, those few individuals who, let us say, are chronically diseased, and which profession doesn’t have a few of those, cannot be cured or disciplined by one or another system of ‘scheduling’ or ‘evaluation’ or whatever, and it is simply perverse to come up with ‘reforms’ as a way of punishing the innocent and the dedicated for the sins of the dedicatedly conscience-less)!

    With best wishes and hopes of a positive response to this input, in the spirit in which it is intended.

    Ahmer Nadeem Anwer
    Department of English
    Sri Venkateswara College

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