Sunday, May 25, 2008

sentenced to be refreshed: a post-facto meditation

On Refresher Courses for Teachers

Digging into the foundational rationale of academic refresher courses, one may run into layers. There is the advertised layer, and then there are others.

The advertised layer can be sighted in statements of objectives: acquaintance with the latest developments in one's area of teaching; review of one's teaching practices; an opportunity to think laterally; re-motivation; etc.

Corrupted beyond recovery by excessive academic abuse, the word “refresh” has finally given up the ghost. The spirit has departed, and the letters hang dank and withered like leaves. The primary specific implication that as a teacher I need refreshing is simply too painful. It hurts vanity. Not that modesty is absent, but it sure isn't spilling over either.

Often, then, a refresher course is received as a paid holiday in a sanatorium, a time to doze and booze, with its compulsory regimen of indoctrination--the forced ingestion of a handful of ill-digested intellectual fads normally thrown up the moment the dispenser has turned his back. Only after you have attended a refresher course can you comprehend how seriously and chronically most teachers are afflicted by an obscure allergy to professional refreshing. And the nasty environment, getting nastier by the day, only aggravates the affliction.

At a recent course, one of my colleagues tearfully begged the course coordinator to be delivered from “this academitis”. The poor woman, who had just concluded her inspirational discourse on the virtues of academic refresher courses, smiled and smiled and looked utterly disconsolate. No one before had voiced his apprehensions about the course so prematurely and boorishly. It was inauspicious.

She nonetheless rose to the occasion like a veteran and peered into every abashed eye. With the silence that followed, an unholy alliance was negotiated, signed and sealed. All agreed to suffer together, to lend one another their shoulder to cry on. It would be a pure sacrifice, with no priest!

And so time began to drag. Superlative poverty of intellect and pedagogy moved arrogantly in a procession of overdone pageants. Mediocrity reigned supreme, to be officially archived as excellence. One decade of compulsory academic refresher courses has spawned a school of resource persons among whom the majority has been devoutly parroting the same discourses to consecutive groups of participants year after year. Even the introductory fumes and concluding whimpers are at times indistinguishable.

One retired professor, after gratefully suffering a prolonged introduction as “an internationally renowned authority on Shakespeare,” read out a paper that he claimed was his very recent work. During lunch, the participants put their heads together and mutually confirmed that he had made the same claim for the same paper one year before too and at different staff colleges. Another resource person, having taken it into his head that college teachers needed a diet of grammar, chirpily spent three hours reading clauses from a book and copying them on the blackboard. His marvelous resourcefulness was only surpassed a few days later by another who, giving cheaply tuneful readings from his shoddy translations of Shakespeare's sonnets, endeavored hard to elicit a few words of gushing praise from the ladies. What he achieved, instead, was clear universal disapproval, nay, disgust, so that in the following session he conveniently abandoned what he had set out to do and proceeded with an impromptu sermon on the contemporary meaning of dharma. In a shining display of metaphysical wit that must have dazzled the worm-eaten eye-holes of Dr. Johnson's corpse, he gravely described the Constitution as one of the sacred shastras and exhorted us to shape our lives in deference to this timeless book.

Not all persons, though, turn into muscle-flexing and foul-mouthed porters under the load of learning. Indeed, they become lighter and brighter. The best resource persons were clearly those who didn't derive their weight from the label of “resource person”, who didn't try to be seen as possessing any special knowledge but felt, like children feel, that they had found something exciting and ought to share it--a sense of discovery, an exploratory outlook, an aesthetic transaction, even a few moments of frank, honest conversation. They were, obviously, few; but they were the persons who could have got better audiences and yet had come to talk to us. They had not stooped to earn money, nor climbed atop a shaking pole to dance to someone's tune and shout down at others. And they did not ferociously defend their perceptions like poor fanatics who have nothing more to hang on to.

Unfortunately, even they showed little inclination to engage with the most pressing issues of living and teaching today. How easily the academic life castrates the intellect. Intellectual adulthood gets reduced to sucking the confectionery of shoplifted theories and licking the walls of ivory towers. They will cheerfully discuss the techniques of teaching language and literature, but they are not prepared to question whether what we do in the classrooms makes much sense and whether what we are doing is really the best we can among our students. It is a dreadful barrenness; questions are simply not being conceived.

Ideally, colleges should be the places where we can bring together what we have learnt from teaching in the classrooms and then find out what best we can do in order to help the students do their best. With the expertise and the fruits of research made available by the resource persons, we can attempt to devise better educational practices. What happens, instead, is that the refresher courses are reduced to sentences to be undergone in order to earn a promotion in grades. Non-monetary benefits are extremely rare and derive strictly from personal transmission on the one end and receptivity on the other.

But then, even a prison sentence has its lessons provided one will suffer to read it deviantly.

By a fair estimate, the refresher courses for college and university teachers in India consume Rs. 100 million annually. Since the institution has entrenched itself into the system that survives chiefly on inertia, there is no evidence of any inclination to examine either its efficiency or its usefulness. Information technology, for instance, finds no place in the training equipment of academic staff colleges. Two or four courses in a teacher's career that spans three or four decades should invite ridicule in an era when work normally requires continual re-skilling. It would be better, therefore, if these colleges are restructured and transformed into Virtual Centres for knowledge-sourcing, research, pedagogical training, creative work, academic exchange, and peer interaction and evaluation. In place of the occasional ritual of refreshing, a properly functioning system of self-driven academic training, exchange and knowledge creation can be put in place much more affordably. The consequent arrangement will be far more useful, efficient, responsive, and engaging.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma
(from Archives 2001)
Published in Spark-Online


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