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Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

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.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On 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.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

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!

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.


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!

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