Blog Archives

The future is in safe hands: Inspired by the bonding, empathy between students from two ends of the world

When mHS took on the task of hosting a workshop in the slums of Delhi for a class of American students from the ACARA program at the University of Minnesota, we spent a lot of time worrying about how to do this without just landing inside a community like aliens and shooting questions at those who lived there. And so we partnered with a well-known NGO Katha, which runs a school in Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri near Kalkaji, New Delhi. Class 12 students from the Katha Khazana school took the lead in introducing 15 American students to their community. They took them home, helped them speak to shopkeepers and neighbors and relatives, showed them places they liked and places they would like to change. They also spoke of their aspirations, their lives, their dreams, their future, their joys and sorrows…

I explored the slum with this specific group both days. The three Katha kids were fabulous-confident, expressive and innocent.

I explored the slum with this specific group both days. The three Katha kids were fabulous-confident, expressive and innocent.

In the two-day workshop, we who were wearing the facilitator’s hat found that while we did need to step in to translate conversations related to the assignment the University students were doing, we had no need to intervene in the bonds that we being formed between the Katha kids and the American ones. By the end of the two-hour visit on Saturday, the tone of conversations was relaxed and informal. By the end of that first day, Facebook requests were flying around. By Day 2, they were sharing earphones and exchanging views on music, eating together, taking pictures together, body language had changed. Even the girls from the Katha school who were from conservative families (parents were calling every half hour to check on them) were mixing openly and clearly feeling very comfortable with the American students.

Fevicol from Dabangg 2!

Fevicol from Dabangg 2!

Celine Dion on Shanu's playlist...Greg from mHS finding that rather bizarre!

Celine Dion on Shanu’s playlist…Greg from mHS finding that rather bizarre! And I loved Shanu’s hair and sense of style too đŸ™‚

Undoubtedly, this is a different generation. With apparently so little in common (language, affluence, social background, family structures, exposure….), young people can connect effortlessly both in person as well as via social networks on a variety of common subjects like music, role models, aspirations, relationships…… In a flash, they can bridge an enormous gap, something that has never been possible before in the history of humankind; and technology helps them do this effectively and maintain that connection long after their time together. What’s more, they have no hesitations about taking that leap. Not all the bad news in the world-media screaming headlines about rapes, warnings from anxious parents and Embassy bulletins giving all sorts of travel advisories, nothing can deter young people from taking forward a connection once they deem in worth their attention.

What is equally striking is the enormous capacity for empathy. In these two days, we saw children who had never stepped outside the proverbial ‘West’ sit squeezed inside the matchbox-sized homes of their new friends genuinely trying to find out about how they live and what bothers them, We saw them walk over open sewers and across garbage dumps, ask the most sensitive questions in the nicest way and even walk into the filthiest toilets in the world without even wrinkling their noses! I actively tried to dissuade one particular student from doing that. He hadn’t been too well and I had just seen the appalling conditions in the community toilets. I genuinely thought he didn’t need to subject himself to that experience. But on he went. “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me” he declared! Of course, those toilets are not good enough for the community and that’s a story for another post, but I was sufficiently impressed by his determination and genuine empathy with the people who lived in Bhumiheen Camp.

So they were trying to see what the difference in height was when Tim was kneeling! Hilarious :)

So they were trying to see what the difference in height was when Tim was kneeling! Hilarious đŸ™‚

After lunch on the mHS office spillout...the clicking went on for a while...in an attemot to sort of delay that moment of separation!

After lunch on the mHS office spillout…the clicking went on for a while…in an attemot to sort of delay that moment of separation!

Observing the young people from Katha and University of Minnesotta during this two-day workshop filled me with a sense of hope. The future is in safe hands if the young can so effortlessly exhibit sensitivity and concern and genuinely find common ground with those unlike them. I am inspired, indeed infected, by the innocence, spontaneity and simplicity of the interactions i saw and resolve to bring more of these aspects into my life. A new, better way of doing things, perhaps.

 

Teaching a new generation in an information-rich world: SPA Diaries- Oct 31, 2012

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.

 

Finding happiness in dance: Vignettes from my kathak journey- Oct 15, 2012

My weekends are intensely cultural these days. That’s because I learn kathak on Saturday mornings and Hindustani classical vocals on Sunday afternoons. It’s been a long cherished dream for me to get back to both dance and music and once I had decided, there was no stopping me from soaking it all in!

Fortunately for me, I have found patient, good-natured and excellent gurus in Gurgaon. Learning under the tutelage of someone who not only excels at her art, but also is passionately in love with imparting its nuances to her students takes the experience of learning to a whole new level. I find that the informal interactions we have with our kathak guru Jayashree Acharya on art, culture, attitudes to life, how we deal with change in our society, values and a whole range of issues, have a direct bearing on our understanding of kathak as a dance form and the importance of pursuing and practicing the classical arts in modern urban Indian society.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of watching Jayashreeji perform at the India Habitat Centre as part of ‘Tasmai’, a festival organized by the Aakriti Foundation. What struck me, besides the mastery she has over her art form, was her high comfort level on stage, her easy interactions with the audience as well as with all her co-artists who were supporting her. I felt like I was part of her performance, not someone watching from the outside.

My guru, Jayashree Acharya. She is a disciple of the famed kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj and a superb dancer and teacher herself. Photo: Avinash Pasricha

Her students, aged between six and fourteen perhaps, performed a dance ballet ‘Paratatva’ at Gurgaon’s Epicentre a couple of days later. In terms of the theme, Paratatva dwelt on the importance of balancing the five essential elements of nature as a way to ensure the continued prosperity of our world. The raw power and beauty of nature, its sounds and rythms, its cascades and cadences were beautifully expressed by the children who performed via a skilfully choreographed ballet. Subtle costumes representing the colours of the elements-grey, orange, blue, green, brown- and a melodious background score added to the impact.

A capture from the dance ballet Paratatva

I enjoyed the overall effect of the dance compositions I saw, but also revelled in the joy of understanding some of the intricacies and even recognizing patterns (both tukdas and footwork) that we have learnt. A friend asked me whether I would be on stage some day and I didn’t really know what to say. I’ve always been the sort of person who craves the spotlight. I’ve performed many times- music, dance, drama, elocution….through school and college. I fancied myself quite the star, the diva.

But now, in my thirties, life has taken on a very different rhythm, a very different meaning. I savor the pleasures of learning and being taught without the bother of that competitive edge nor the bitterness of regret or failure. I enjoy both music and dance as art forms as well as ways to give myself the me-time I need. I have high expectations of myself, but I do not set boundaries or deadlines that stress me out. Now, in this way, I am truly enjoying the classical arts as they deserve to be enjoyed. No wonder, the good old traditions of yore placed the student at the feet of the guru, to learn, evolve and grow, bit by bit, over many years till maturity was attained, and beyond.

Jayashreeji’s students receiving their guru’s love and blessings at the end of the show

An open ended education environment: Positive examples and the need to experiment- Sep 21, 2012

As if on cue, following yesterday’s post about the need to give students a more challenging and enriched learning environment, mHS had a visit from an enthusiastic young man called Brian today representing the University of Minnesota’s ACARA program. From what I understood, the program asks undergraduate and graduate students to prepare a business plan for an identified need in the development sector. The University partners with academic institutions in India and students work in mixed groups of Indian and American students. The business plans are then presented to a jury and a couple of winners selected, which then get helped in terms of mentoring, investor contacts or simply funding for feasibility studies, depending on the group’s intent.

Previously, the program specified a particular area of work, but in its new avatar, students are being put through a three week immersion exercise and will then decide on their own what sort of needs they want to address through their solutions. This change was made because they found previous graduates of the program have veered off their conventional career paths to opt for more socially aware jobs. Some have gone on to set up new organizations working in the development sector in different parts of the world.

Clearly, someone thinks allowing students to decide basis their interests and motivation brings out the best in them. And doing their best in turn inspires confidence, which is certainly the key to creating positive, motivated and solution-oriented professionals.

The change the program has undergone exemplifies the new thinking in education. A move from top-down to bottom-up, as those familiar with development-speak would see it! And that’s primarily what I wanted to highlight through today’s post. That even as we theorize about the changes we want to see, those are happening already, in India and elsewhere. Hope is alive as long as we continue to experiment.

 

 

Dumbed down education, dumb professionals, a numb future? Sep 20, 2012

The world has changed immensely since we went through the motions of being ‘educated’. not just in terms of technology and the amount of information available, but in the perspective of educationists now viewing the student as an active participant, one influential in the process of education rather than as a mere recipient of knowledge.

Today’s youth, in my perception with the interactions that I have had through teaching in an architecture college (SPA) and through interactions with schoolchildren at various stages, are fitted with bright and super-agile minds. However, there is a wide variety in background which impacts their ability to perform in an academic environment.

One one hand,  many students may come to the education system with handicaps. In architecture college, for instance, kids from rural or peri-urban backgrounds often have a hard time understanding references to lifestyles and expectations that teachers assume are obvious and simple to comprehend. Language of instruction is another common challenge for non-English speakers.

On the other hand, most kids love rising to a challenge and lose motivation when the system does not challenge them. So you have a split situation, in which some students are struggling to come to a reasonable level, while many others are barely making an effort, complacent that the minimum effort will be enough! The only way the conventional education system has to tackle this is to dumb stuff down. Keep expectations at an average, make things simple and obvious, make process overarchingly important so as to almost relegate content to the backburner.

I do see the benefits of giving kids a free hand though. Almost every one of my friends who has taught design studio has expressed that their students were motivated when they were allowed to be innovative and could take some decisions about their work for themselves. Even so-called average students produced exciting results when they were pressurized, encouraged and cajoled to better themselves. The trick appears in offering a framework for problem solving and allowing the solutions to evolve rather than a top-down approach of asking kids to pick from a menu of pre-made existing solutions.

For the field of architecture and urban design, this ability to weave in elements of research, design, planning and policy into a cohesive and workable solution is critical. By continuing to dumb down architectural education, we run the risk of creating yet another generation of incapable professionals who will end up becoming slaves of unworkable bureaucratic visions or worse, of the rampant profiteering schemes of vested interests. If we aren’t investing in the professionals of the future by offering them an academic environment fraught with challenges, where risk is possible and even welcome, we should numb ourselves and be prepared for the possibile demise of the increasingly urban economy that India is becoming.

Have students really changed? A day in the alma mater (SPA)- Jan 20, 2012

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!

%d bloggers like this: