Saturday, 30 January 2010

native intelligence

The Azim Premji foundation in one of its numerous studies has found out the expectation parents have from education.
You ask any urban middle class parent, his answer to the question "what do you expect from educating your child?" the answer would be " a highly paid job"
Ask a rural illiterate, he says "knowledge" . This is not a quote from "mera gaon, mera desh" type fiction. It is a quote from this study by the APF.
So when did our urban parent lose his native good sense?

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

life in other worlds.

Many of my students live in a different Universe (Multiverse). I often have this conversation.
Me: Hello X! You've done well in the exam. What are your plans for your future?
X: Ma'm I am going to Carnegie Mellon.
Me: That's excellent. Have they given you any aid? or fee waiver?
X: I'll get that ma' problem.
Me: Good! So, when are you leaving?
X: I will be writing GRE next month. Then I can go.
Me: Oh.......
Leaves me with nothing to say.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Prof Gyan Prakash says something that has been in my mind for long. The big difference is, in my mind the thought was not clear enough for me to articulate it. We praise democracy and I am always angered by those who decry it and favour autocratic governance. But in the recent years, particularly after the Babri masjid, I have been troubled by the fact that a large group of people...say a few thousand, can do exactly what they wish to do just because the remaining millions are not gathered together in one location opposing what they wish to do. The mob tyranny.
It has come to stay in our country. A few thousand do not constitute majority in our country, still, their writ runs! Why has this come to pass? Are we to blame?
Anytime you and a group of your friends want something, you get together and burn down shops built out of someone's hard burn buses and the city raises bus fares burdening millions who need to use buses.... you declare a bandh and thousands are left without earnings and food for the block trains and many are stranded with hungry babies...
Why have we become hostage to hooligans?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Autos in chennai and other places

I read a post about Chennai autos. I am moved to add my two bits worth to the serious issue of condemning Chennai autodrivers. The only other place comparable for auto-athiyachar is Coimbatore.
They not only overcharge you terribly, but are rude to boot.
When my son as a toddler, an auto I hailed asked for more-than-usual extortionist fare. I protested..he replies " Edhukku niruththinema?" "then why did you stop me?"
If you are carrying a large load of shopping bags, or have a little child, they are more extortionate.
Last summer, one auto driver charged me 100Rs to go to Annanagar HP service centre. I protested, but he told me it's so hot. I said,well it's hot for me too. He says you sit in AC office so you can pay. That really made me furious. I am going to a service centre to get my laptop repaired and getting back to a very much non AC place. In any case, where's the logic?
A few years ago, when my daughter was a young girl, we were going by an auto, I just wanted to stop and let her get down on the other side of the road with a quick U turn at aproper signal...
The auto driver had the cheek to say " ennamma unnoda thollaiapochu" are a big nuisance....
By chance, a few meters ahead, by a strange quirk, the ignition key just fell off from the auto. He was forced to stop and retrace searching for the key. I just let him have it...never enjoyed ticking off someone so much.
Of late, there is a slight improvement...not much though.
Nowhere else have I seen such unreasonable auto drivers as in Madras.
Here, where I live, they may ask for 5 Rs extra when the traffic is bad, or if you are going to a place where they dont get return passengers, but nothing like charging 100% extra as in Madras. Secondly, here if you dont want to pay, they are polite to you...they just go Chennai, you get a lecture on the miserliness of people...or how people will buy stuff for 1000 rupees but not pay a poor auto driver 50 Rs (for 2 km)....
Here, I have had nice chats with auto asked my opinion on whether he did right in not forcing his son and daughter to do engineering, but study for a BA social service instead. I heartily congratulated him...specially since his children were both working for Helpage.
One auto driver asked me for financial children laughed the whole evening.

affiliated colleges

The chairman of Tamil Nadu Virtual University says the problems in our higher education is due to the fact that the bulk of the teaching-learning process is done in affiliated colleges and not in the university campuses; that 84% of the faculty are not expected to do research.
I disagree.
Of course, many affiliated colleges are bad, BUT--
Many affiliated colleges do a better job of teaching undergrads than do the university constituent colleges. One reason is the market forces. The private affiliated colleges are totally self financed. They have to compete for student admissions and fill up their seats and they have to be good enough to attract students willing to pay the high tuition fees charged by them. Their students must get admission into good institutions for their PG or get good jobs. Hence they are under pressure to perform well and get a good reputation.
The university our college is affiliated to, has a few good professors, but the bulk are in for political reasons. There are many faculty members in the parent university who are really bad academically. The quality of research, barring a very few, is quite pathetic.
The appointment of key functionaries of the university is governed by politics.
There is a resource crunch and the university research scholars do not have access to many journals-- most equipment is lying useless--under repair for years; very little money to order chemicals.
Finally, I do not believe that research skills is necessary to teach undergrads. The need is to make the students understand basic concepts of the subject thoroughly before they pass out of the college. For that what the teacher needs is good communication skills and a good understanding of the basics of the subject s/he teaches- and a lot of patience.
Post graduate students of course need to be taught by people involved in research-- or so you would think. My short stint (three semesters) at teaching MSc students in my college has made me believe otherwise...they are absolute response in class- no questions-not even a lifting of an eyebrow or a nod to indicate I have been heard... they sit like they are a few mannequins placed to look like I am taking a class.(The undergrads are not that bad....every class has at least 5 -10 students who ask questions, are willing to read up ...) These PG students were from the biochemistry department and I was teaching spectroscopic methods to them.... I used to slog over my lecture notes for hours before each lecture taking care to provide biochemical examples....sheer waste of time.... all they needed were give some notes, they learn and reproduce in the exam.
Now what research skill do I need to do that? All I needed to do was open a book by one Dr Satyanarayana, or maybe one Dr Wilson, rewrite a few pages in simple language and hand it out to them. I just need to be literate --that's all.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

living in the hills

I dislike visiting places, but love living in different places--specially the hills. To be a tourist is definitely not my cup-o-tea.
I really enjoyed living in the hills last year. I spent about 5 years of my schooldays in the hills of Uttaranchal(UP then) and a year in the hills of North Bengal. All wonderful experiences.
Wildest are the hills of Sikkim where see a hut and then you can drive for half an hour before you see the next habitation.
The beauty of the mountains, and a school right out of Enid was good.
Then later, the majesty of Kanchenjuga at our doorstep, walking with my toddler son.
And recently, the wonderful walks in the hills; and best of all the winter evening train ride back home from the library or shopping.
I am truly grateful.

Monday, 18 January 2010


Acoustics is a mystery to a layperson like me. Some rooms are really good. I stand at the head of the class and speak at just slightly above my speaking voice and the student in the 8th row can hear me, while in other rooms, my voice seems to lose its way beyond the second row.
In my house, I have a television in the first floor lobby. If you sit in front of the TV, you can hear it only if the volume is fairly high, but at that volume, the sound reaches the ground floor dining area at an unbearable volume. It is most peculiar. In the same dining area, I have been scared out of my wits by a man's voice just behind my shoulder when I was alone in the house. It was someone talking in the next house garden that sounded as if it was 6 inches away from me. My house has the most peculiar acoustics.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

A person becomes is really, truly terrible- but if a person is born blind, I feel it is not quite as terrible. It is difficult of course-- in a world designed for the seeing, a blind person has many obstacles. But it is not in the same class of terrible tragedy that becoming blind is.

Friday, 15 January 2010

More on hazards of being a teacher

Further on the hazards of being a teacher is the habit of talking loudly.
I regularly teach a class of 70 students. A few of our classrooms have (accidentally) good acoustics . In others, I have to strain my vocal chords to their maximum to be heard (which is the reason I am intolerant of students chatting while I teach). The result of this is that I habitually talk loud. My children, when in their teens were terribly embarassed by me-- "sh.... ma, I am one person, not a class" and "dont shout at me! I didnt commit any crime."
Now as I grow older, my voice has automatically lost its volume. On the days I have three or more lectures, I feel I have run a marathon.
The amount of energy required to talk loudly is unbelievable and you realise it only when your body starts struggling during each lecture.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A professional hazard of being a teacher, is you grow to enjoy the sound of your own voice (and opinions).
That is the reason I started this have my say without paining my poor students.

But some members of our faculty are not aware of this hazard. We have an elderly gentleman with years of administrative experience, but new to teaching. This person has taken up the crusade of "imparting knowledge" (his words, believe me) to all of us fellow faculty members. A good thought, but painful.
However, the problem is that he has probably discovered power points recently and with the zeal of a new convert, is lavish in its use. He has given us a talk (no-- two talks one after the other) inwhich he has downloaded/written pages of text on the life of an eminent person (each). This text he has put on slides, projected it on an LCD screen, stood at the dais and read out the whole text for 45 minutes (for each presentation).
Gross misuse of ppt.
I hope no one introduces him to MS excel. He may write letters on excel....
column A1 dear sir,
column B2 I would like to
column B3 bring your notice...and so on.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

a few molecules

Speaking of chemicals in the brain, smells have disproportionately strong evocative ability. I think it happens to most people if not all. The stray smell can take you on a flashback that seems totally real. A few molecules can totally control your thoughts!

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Young people do not like parental control. Fine, but the same young people are quite willing to get drunk/high and let some substance control them!!! Why do they not see it? This has puzzled me since I was a young person.
The 70's were the days of rampant drug-taking(or whatever the term is) in the more elite institutions of learning. During fests, the auditorium would be full of smoke and the smell would not leave our hair and sweaters even after we got back.
Some of the erstwhile drug-takers have become respectable men(usually men) while a few have fallen along the way...really sad. Some have fallen and got up again and carried on bravely.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

What kind of a person am I?

In the blog What is Life the blogger quotes V S Ramachandran "It seems somehow disconcerting to be told that your life, all your hopes, triumphs and aspirations simply arise from the activity of neurons in your brain."
This has bothered me from the time I started on my hypertension medication. I used to get disproportionately annoyed with my children and was doing quite a bad job as a parent. Then a visit to the doctor for some physical illness, brought out the fact that I was hypertensive. I started on my medication and lo behold! in just two days, I became reasonable, and stopped getting annoyed with my children for petty faults. Fifty mg of a chemical changed who I was!!! That means, some chemicals in my brain had made me a ill-tempered person. Now I fear that tomorrow, some chemical may make me ill-tempered again, or some other chemical may make me saintly...
Then what kind of a person am I?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

I love visiting places that were lived in a long time ago. Old houses--
I love peeping into old deodis that one comes across suddenly in the backlanes of the market.
I enjoyed going through the villages that made up New Delhi....a major thoroughfare with the dangerous DTC buses whizzing past and you turn into a lane suddenly, there is the village--houses with courtyards , village pond and buffaloes.
The old British built houses in cantonments, that one gets to live in.
The old club where the British officers gathered, women played the piano that stands in the corner
My school where girls read their lessons a 100 years ago in the same classrooms and sang the same hymns in the same chapel.
The presence of the people who used to live their lives in those buildings-with their small sorrows and joys- I can almost see them.
In my childhood, I lived in a house that was 70 or 80 years old. I wanted to climb the roof and see what's in the attic, but never did so...I still regret it. I imagine the attic must contain belongings of the previous inhabitants maybe an old pram that baby had outgrown, or old stove taht gave way to a modern contraption...

Sunday, 3 January 2010

synthesising happiness

Due to the mid year vacation, thanks to our students and politicians, I am happily blogging instead of preparing for my lectures.
I have tried time and again to explain to my daughter that being happy is not about getting this or that, not success, nor having good things happen to one...we are happy or not, depending on how we look at things (barring real tragedies).
Now there is a TED talk that says so much better than I could...we synthesise our happiness!!

Saturday, 2 January 2010


In the US there seems to be a growing belief in creationism. The Christian belief that God made us in his image seems to be gathering momentum...or so it seems.
There are different ways in which we believe and different degrees to which we believe in various things. Belief and faith and feelings need not have proof. Everyone has irrational beliefs--it maybe religious belief, or it maybe a fond belief that they are Tansens...we believe many things that are not proven.
In India, I do not see the opposition to the theory of evolution happening. No one objects to their children being taught the theory of evolution. I think it is perhaps because we are adept at holding many contradictory beliefs at one time(like the Red Queen) .
Also, traditionally, our religion and science were intermingled. The Bharat ek khoj title songs were wonderful...I do not understand Sanskrit so I thought the Hindi translation was a brilliant idea. The spirit of inquiry and quest for truth was religion.

I watch this TV show called Blue Bloods. It is about a family of New York Police Department officers. The show is fictional and makes all ...