This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.
On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.
More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!
Stolen moments of pleasure are always special. But often times, when you suddenly find yourself at a loose end with time on your hands, when a meeting gets over too soon for example, it’s hard to figure out what to do. I rack my brains to think of all the stuff I always want to do but never seem to have time for, and nothing comes to mind.
Well, today the cylinders inside my brain fired up at the right time when I realized I was done early at college and my car wouldn’t pick me up for another hour at least. I walked briskly to the other side of the road and caught the first auto to Mandi House. This was a nostalgia trip for sure, for Mandi House was where we went whenever we had a free afternoon, back in the days when we studied architecture in SPA. A sort of culture hub, we were always sure to be able to see a few art exhibitions and would end up catching a play or music performance at one of the 5 or so auditoriums there.
This afternoon, I headed first for the Triveni Kala Sangam. This was always our favorite among the Mandi House venues because it is a Joseph Allen Stein building, beautiful, always serene and quiet. As usual, most galleries were open and walking through the art, both paintings and sculpture, was pleasurable indeed. ‘Polemics of a Soul Catcher’, an exhibition of very large paintings, oil on canvas, by Satish Sharma offered a commentary of the place of modern man, his moral dilemmas, his new increasingly urban environment..thought provoking. A group art show in the open air court offered a variety of techniques and themes and the sculpture court was also full of interesting works.
I had but a short time left, but I still tried to dash across to the Lalit Kala Akademi building, where again I know there always is something worth looking at.This ws quite a job with all the construction happening in this area. Thankfully, there were marshalls who were actually stopping cars so pedestrians could cross! I don’t come here often, but since I was a pedestrian today I noticed just how much the vehicular traffic has increased by in Lutyen’s Delhi. It completely destroys the charm, the constant whirring of cars with impatient drivers who don’t really want to wait for the pedestrians to cross! And this is the only walkable part of the city!
I had only about fifteen minutes at Lalit Kala Akademi. The building, Rabindra Bhawan, hosts important cultural institutions for literature, fine arts and performing arts and is an iconic building designed by Habib Rehman, one of many public buildings he designed in the ’50s and ’60s. The art gallery here has been renovated and I was entering the renovated space for the first time. Rather nice and uncluttered. The exhibition, and I cannot remember the name of the show or the artists, was an exploration of abstraction using new media. I quite liked some of the works, especially those depicting nature and human form.
An hour or so well spent, in my own company, soaking in art, the city and its spaces….
Both my parents have been academicians through their careers, so observing the relationship between teachers and students and simply understanding the position of the teacher has been something I have inadvertently done all my life. My father always told me that I was born to be a teacher and yes, I do love teaching. Sadly, the status of teachers has declined in Indian society and education has become more a transaction than an enriching process. And so, it’s rather late that I have taken up what I perhaps should have done earlier!
My experience with advising students at SPA this semester has taught me a lot about a lot things- the psyche of the present day student, the role that faculty must assume in an information-rich world, the malaise that plagues our educational institutions and how, despite all obstacles, the show must go on! With the final seminar presentation done and done well, I can now write about what I felt through the journey, as a teacher and as an observer.
When I first started interacting with the students, I was struck by how bright and idealistic young people are. This is perhaps a usual first reaction to teaching and we got off to a positive note. A few weeks in, I found myself sympathetic to the student community, who are aware that their institutions gives them limited exposure and seek a more exciting, challenging experience.
I also observed distinct differences in student attitudes, but was glad to see that they still approached faculty with respect and a genuine expectation that they will derive value from our experience. I wrote a post before I actually started teaching about how things appeared the same but how attitudes had subtly changed, referring to the awareness of a new power among students and a sense of confidence (arrogance, intolerance) in their dealings with faculty and adverse situations. That post was critical and based on hearsay, but after having interactions all semester, I believe this empowerment is not a bad thing. I just wish there was a better process of managing and harnessing this sense of empowerment to challenge and encourage students, and address their needs better.
I feel like we need to accept that young people have different attitudes now, instead of forcing them into the mold of what we think students should be like. I also recognized, through these weeks, that backgrounds from which students come vary hugely. It is perhaps not possible to have a one size fits all approach to mentoring these knowledge seekers, whose motivations vary as much as their capacity to imbibe, contextualize and express themselves.
These differences come out starkly in the use of the English language. A bunch of erudite, suave kids confront you with part-intelligent and part-gimmicky questions and observations, some nearly mocking you, others genuinely inquisitive. Another bunch of sharp minds navigate this sea of ideas struggling to structure their thoughts because English is an alien language, because they are self-conscious about their means of expression, because material that they study appears alien to them and it is so much harder work to study it. The majority of the students seem to be somewhere in between. They have a basic grasp on the language and they put in a minimum effort into what they do, but need an extra leg-up to push their boundaries and really benefit from the education they are receiving.
Here is where the teacher comes in. With a glut of information available to them via the Internet, students are desperately seeking exposure to a new world view, to new ways of thinking. They are seeking assurance, but also direction. With my students, I was amazed by their instinctive sense of right and wrong, their strong convictions and passion for what they were researching. But equally surprised by how easily they lose heart and go astray. Perhaps distractions and caveats are an integral part of the journey of seeking knowledge. We were pretty clueless too at various points, and angry when our faculty did not think our angst was genuine!
What really surprised me though, and I wonder now why it did, was the motivation that came from having to share their work on a public forum. After seeing their ups and downs all semester, I was amazed at their confidence and their sharp sense of what would work and what wouldn’t. My students were addressing the rather complex idea of what the role of the architect can be in the low income housing market. They had received a rather negative response (their perception, not mine) from their peers and faculty during the first few weeks of their research. That invigorated them and warned them of prevailing attitudes. Besides putting in data to counter some of the criticism, they also invited a renowned architect-planner Mr SK Das to chair their seminar and Prof PSN Rao from SPA’s housing department as special guest. They surmised, and rightly so, that these experts could help them field questions that were too complex for their understanding. It was a smart move and it paid off. I am not implying they genuinely wanted these inputs. They did and they got excellent comments. External experts also were able to contextualize the content for the audience and offer directions for how students could think about their career and future.
I was also impressed by the natural confidence of students in being able to answer questions, accept gaps in their research, re-frame questions in the light of their work, etc. These were not qualities I had seen when we were working together through the semester and the dynamic of being up there on a public platform was very interesting to see! I also realized that the process was far more important than the end -product, though I do wish they go on to produce a paper that would be relevant to the community.
Thursdays are set aside for the weekly trek to SPA. I spend about 4 hours there, two of which are dedicated to a group of students exploring the role of an architect while working in the low-income housing space. The next two hours are spent interacting with 5 students doing individual dissertations in subjects ranging from hospital design to vernacular materials. It’s a tough ride for the kids, to be expected to think in a structured, critical way and to express themselves clearly in language that is not the first language for most of them! They do rise to the challenge though, in their own topsy turvy way.
The discussion today though, veered to another aspect of student life, especially in a professional college. As the youngsters poured out their hearts, it struck me that little has changed. I distinctly remember asking our faculty in our final couple of years of college about why they felt the need to burden us with so much workload that we are incapable of quality work. These kids asked me the exact same question today! Back then, we also asked our profs if they didn’t think unstructured time was also important to the creative process and to the business of learning, in general. I don’t remember getting any reasonable answers. The gist of the response was that pressure is the only tried and tested way to make kids work. Full stop.
At the time, I thought that is ridiculous. Having experience the American system of college education, and despite being on the ‘other’ side now, I know it as ridiculous. Students perform very well when given some choice, some flexibility and encouraged to exert their opinions. But they do need excellent resources, exposure, role models, inspiration….which is hard for our stuck-in-a-mould institutions to muster. So, even though I do get rather frustrated by the lackadaisical attitude of some of my students, I do believe a more liberal system will sieve the meritorious from the average, the curious from the idle, and teach kids to take responsibility as opposed to the current system that is, from what I see, rather top-down!
After many years, I walked into the building I practically lived in for five years. The WC-shaped, slightly run-down but nostalgia-ridden Architecture Block at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, or SPA as most of us know it. A place, or rather an environment, that shaped our perceptions and made us the people we are today, for better or for worse.
I was there as one of seventeen advisers who would guide the present 4th year (soon to the final year) students to research/explore/debate/investigate a subject of relevance in the format of a research seminar in groups of 5-6 students. Naturally, when you visit your alma mater after years, the foremost question in your mind is “Has anything really changed?”
Walking around the campus before the interaction and even during the interaction, not much felt different. The students were the usual mix- scruffy ones, alert ones, bored ones, blank ones, bright eyed ones, sleepy ones, confused ones, disinterested ones, the ones who ask questions to get noticed and the bright ones who always ask questions- kind of similar to what we were back then in the ’90s. Now note that I’ve had no college-level teaching experience, so these are totally fresh and spontaneous observations.
Some things had changed- the most prominent being the mobile phone that threatened to disrupt, distract and deviate the discussion. Faculty had to strictly warn the students from leaving their phones on and leave the room is they must use it! After the interaction, I started noticing more differences. A couple of computers set up in the canteen for web surfing on the go, a lot more expensive looking clothes, many cars parked along the wall outside in the lane.
Meeting old batchmates who have been teaching at SPA, I learnt more about the differences and the impending changes. The intake in college has increased from about 70 to 120 since the last couple of years, which means college needs more resources, more faculty, etc. Computers and computer-based teaching is going to be compulsory soon. The friends with experience warned me not to expect students to turn up for classes, respond to emails and calls, etc. They warned me of the ‘wikipedia syndrome’; apparently, students might just throw internet-sourced info at me with the message that they know everything, have access to all info and I am redundant really!
But what intrigued and shocked me the most was the discussion about how sensibilities and sensitivities have changed. That a member of the visiting faculty faced complaints and investigations because he informally used a swear word in front of a student; that faculty and students can no longer drink together on out of town trips because the students could photograph them and complain! It was apparent that the faculty is now paranoid. The kids can smell the fear, I was told and then they sieze the chance to sort-of intimidate the faculty.
I have no idea how much of this is true and how much exaggeration. Some of this may also be about specific incidents and not a general critique on students today. But in an environment when interacting with first years is seen through the lens of ragging being a punishable offense by law, I guess its natural for students to seize a window to put their faculty (any representative of authority) in the dock as well!
My concern is that the stories I heard today are linked to a larger mood of intolerance, defiance and conservatism that seems to be haunting Indian urban youth today. While youngsters should get cooler and more open-minded, they seem to be closeting themselves in a variety of safe havens like social media and class-bound interactions, even private transport over public. While we viewed everything from a prism of coolness and novelty, they seem to be viewing us from a prism of usefulness and value.
Why is this happening? Is it because they’re trying to follow the ‘go to college, get a degree and earn pots of money’ script; and in the process, most of missing out on self-development, introspection and pursuit of true interests and passions? I don’t know. Perhaps in my interactions over the seminar next semester, I’ll get a better glimpse into their psyche and be able to address the subject more comprehensively! Or maybe it’s another of those questions with no real answers!