PanIIT Chronicles - IIT system is rottingOn the opening day of PanIIT 2006, I listened with rapt attention to Shashi Tharoor's speech on "Idea of India", and quite frankly, it was fantastic (transcript available here). I was struck by how much it echoed with Amartya Sen's "Argumentative Indian". Though Tharoor did not mention Amartya Sen, it seems obvious how much the two think alike.
If you haven't read "Argumentative Indian", you should read it - it is a must-read for every non-Indian, and more importantly, every Indian too. It is a historical account of his (and predominantly Bengali) perspective of India, and it starts where our history text-books end. It is extremely awe-inspiring to read about Nalanda, Ujjain, Indo-Chinese cultural exchanges, Shantiniketan...
The over-whelming theme of the book is the value of public reasoning, open mindedness, tolerance of diverse views, consensus on how to disagree and public communication that have made India what it is today. And if I look at the IIT system (specifically wrt IIT-Bombay), I am surprised to notice how rotten the system has become. Usually, it is not ethical for a person to criticise the organization one belongs to, but since IITs are public institutions, created by Act of Parliament, and hence answerable to the people, I'm making some of my experiences public.
The IITs have a closed, intellectually depressing system. Much is made of the fact that Profs are autonomous and hence they can change the style of teaching without taking approvals from anybody. While this is defintely true, in practice, it may be that the Profs become arbitrary and this contributes to the *closing* of channels of communication. If I think there is a chance that my grades are affected by something that I say or do, then I don't talk about it. Critical thinking is discouraged and a$$-kissing becomes a top priority for students. Tolerance of diverse views is absent (in most cases) in class discussions moderated by the prof. Thus, a distrust of the objectivity of the faculty results in a total schism in the environment. Therefore, there has been no proper debate on issues that IIT or the country faces. There are a few forums like the newsgroups such as IITB-Discuss and possibly some mailing lists such as discuss-faculty (for which students like me have no access - so I'm speculating), but essentially, forums for wide-ranging debates and discussions are missing. The faculty-administrators (Deans, HODs and Directors) are lethargic in their work (there may be exceptions) and show no interest in taking up responsibilities. Ego issues among the faculty spill-over to class-rooms, where we are treated to the spectacle of professors taking pot-shots at their colleagues. How are we supposed to respect them ? There is frequent (probably deliberate) mis-communication among the faculty and students tend to become the footballs in such cases. The faculty-student relationship is very formal and minimal and both go to extensive lengths to avoid each other. Part of the problem is that the faculty don't usually treat the students at par - sometimes the superiority complex leaks out in every communication that are unfortunately destined to happen. I have not seen any instance (except one)where a professor attends a class taken by the other. To add to the problem, some profs (though knowledgeable) have a pretty bad oral communications problem ... wonder how indeed they are selected.
Faculty are interested in (and even encouraged by the top to do) research and publish papers etc. Some have their own projects (usually Government or industry sponsored) that they are usually busy with. All this serves as a big distraction to teaching. What should universities invest in research ? Can't such things be done by someone else ? This is becoming such a big concern that I'm writing a separate post on it. Some profs have their own companies, and are not at all interested in academics.
The faculty feedback system is the most brain-damaged of all: at the end of a course, the students fill up a feedback form, but get this: the rating is used only for determining the winner of the best faculty award ! There is no systemic way of giving anonymous feedback on specific aspects. It is not that there is no such demand - apparently, the students take the pains of creating anonymous google/msn/yahoo accounts just to send anonymous mails to the profs. One of the SOM's profs has been asking me to develop a system that takes the pain out of this process - profs too need feedback, but the system itself is defective.
What do we expect out of IIT ? I don't expect to learn what is in the book - after all, we've got a fantastic library (and Xerox shops) and I can read the material much faster myself. So, anytime a teacher parrots what is in the book, fire the teacher and buy the book - you may even get a bulk discount ;-) So, what is the value-add that a prof can bring that I can't get myself ?
There is nothing special about the IIT. They take the bright people, who can survive and learn ...... *despite* the system. If the question is how to reform the system, the typical IITian answer would be a rather cynical "Why bother, indeed ?".