Thursday, February 22, 2007

A rant on IITs, faculty and research

I usually don't court controversies but one of my previous posts has attracted the ire of a lot of people. I had questioned the need for research in IITs, and I got a scathing reply from an IIT prof saying "Balancing teaching and research is a difficult game, but asking IIT profs to be 100% (or even 60%) dedicated to teaching and letting "someone else" do the research is preposterous. I'd leave IIT sooner than I can catch a taxi if matters came to this stage." Ouch ! So, I'll now write about it, once and for all. A disclaimer: exceptions exist :)

IITs have a very strict policy in recruiting their faculty - a core faculty must have a PhD. At a time when the country is crying for teachers (esp. in mgmt education), the excuse that IITs are offering is that the number of PhDs are too low, and hence recruitment is difficult. IIT also evaluates its profs on their research (I think), and a former professor of SOM, who taught us microeconomics, used to wonder whether it would be right to decrease the amount of time he spent on preparing for the class (and he did spend a lot) and use it for research ? In other words, should a good teacher (which he was) suffer because he likes to teach and teaches well and wants to keep doing it ? What sort of a system do we have ? An intellectual (not necessarily meritorious) caste-system.

What does a PhD guarantee ? In my brushes with research, I've found something fascinating: People starting with research are advised to keep narrowing the scope of their topic, and to focus on doing it right, though in a narrow domain. So, PhD essentially guarantees that you achieve mastery over a very narrow domain. That is all. PhD students, called Research Scholars in IIT parlance, are taught that doing it in a proper way matters much more than getting the results. Means are infinitely more important than the ends ! You have to quote your sources, you have to follow a structured process, and all crap. Very high importance is given to the form. You must follow a definite system of quoting the sources (and there are rival systems), you must follow a proper line spacing and font-size and font-style. You better follow a proper bibliographic format. And don't forget to put your guide's name, for God's sake !

I argue that it (a pure PhD) makes a person narrow-minded and creates intellectual arrogance. No wonder most pure academic profs I've met don't treat students are co-learners (one of the questions in the course-end feedback form) ... And this also forces profs to offer courses about subjects that they know, instead of what we need.

This is not the disease of IITs only, but is prevalent across academia across the world. Andrew Tanenbaum, a famous computer scientist and a professor, still defends minix's micro-kernel design is better than Linux's monolithic design, because that "right way" to do it, despite being beaten pants off in performance and quality. I was taught in my college that I must not program using "goto", avoid C macros, avoid type-casts of pointers of different data types, etc. But, my work life would have been miserable without those features. Plagiarism is a crime in the academia, but its cousin called reverse-engineering is hailed in the industry as a great genius. Academics have no touch with reality - engineers and corporate employees do. Real life forces you to be tolerant of errors, and to be more pragmatic. That is why, I suppose, most of the successful people aren't from academia.

It is not difficult to comprehend this - the bad habits start early in the PhD.

We're blindly copying the American university system. Can't we innovate a bit ?

Do we want good researchers or do we want good teachers ? Since I can always learn theory from a book, I'd rather learn about writing operating systems from Linus Torvalds, rather than Andrew Tanenbaum (I would in fact, read the OS and networking text book written by Tanenbaum ... but that's it), and learn about investing from, say, a mutual fund manager than from an academic who has investigated all the models of investing. If I want to be taught, I'd rather be taught by someone with 10 years of relevant work experience and good communcation skills, rather than an academic with 100 journal publications. And please don't point to the consulting done by profs are work experience, for reasons mentioned here.

So, am I suggesting that nobody should have PhD ? Actually, no. My point is: I don't give a damn about the antecedents of a professor, but only his current ability to teach me. A good teacher, in my experience, is not necessarily someone who has mastered a subject, but instead, can inspire us to surpass him. If you want to know the attitude of a teacher, just read Richard Stevens' Network programming book - he teaches concepts as experiments that he conducts (armed with only a C compiler and a sniffer) ... and is humble to acknowledge and point out the mistakes. He takes you on an adventure and gets you curious. No wonder, I learnt more from reading that book than from any person.

The IITs already have a solution - visiting professors. But, often, such visiting professors are treated as pariahs by the system, since they don't have the "Dr." before their names. They are no better than contract employees. But it cuts both ways too. There is no proper measurement of their performance, no evaluation of their quality.... They are anomalies of the system.

So, for whatever they are worth, here are my suggestions: All IIT core faculty must have atleast 2 years relevant work experience. All PhD students must have atleast 5 years workex. btw, joining a company as a fresher is a good experience - you are not important, nobody needs you, yet you get shouted at, by your boss. It can dissolve superiority complex easily. Have a separate/parallel evaluation of research and teaching. If a prof spends 80% of the time teaching, the weightage of his teaching should be 80%. And keep the evaluation transparent to students. Allow an experienced person (10-15 yrs of relevant workex) to become IIT prof, as a sabbatical from industry. And in turn, send core faculty on sabbaticals to industry. You can knock off a lot of birds with a single stone: profs will get corporate remuneration, junior prof might get lucky ... :)

So, I'm done ranting about the IIT system. My next target - b-schools !

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At Sunday, 25 March, 2007 at 3:14:00 PM IST, Blogger Anomalizer said...

I totally believe in "experiment with shell and compiler" way of teaching. In fact, that is what I am doing

At Sunday, 8 April, 2007 at 1:50:00 PM IST, Blogger Kiran Kulkarni said...

Hello Sridhar....
I am Kiran Kulkarni teaching at IDC, IIT B. At IDC we teach a bit differently and we have a studio culture, no text books, no theory, no processes, we learn to create. Process of creating goes way beyond books and beyond 2 yrs of teaching and giving a post graduate certificate. So we have a peculiar situation of involving with enthusiatic young designers. (I dont believe in calling students!)
Your point on reverse engineering interested me. Many of your points seemed to be quite agreeable but if you place yourself outside the frame work of academia and industry, you are in a interesting situation of seeing both. Industry has to make products to pump the economic realities which it is built on and academia will rest on the "policized classical style of a learning institute! which i personally makes any sense expect providing a place for students for 4 years and engage them for a while!". What world needs is a clear vision between many such disturbing systems created by us. I personally think that Industry creates some other of social tensions which are more complex than simpler versions of education. Industry hails reverse engineering as it needs it for that time not that you are capable of creating it. Both create a contrained environment for any individual while anyone wants to be simply free. In free thought you see more beautiful vision of relationships between your self and your work, then you choose to work with delight and comfort. Reality has more deeper problems which are created by industry, well as well by our education. If I say...."Hell" with both , I see more, I guess.
I happened to see you on my orkut and happened to see your blog and happened to comment to your thought. I wonder when I will fall back on your page, have a nice future.


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