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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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