Semester Fever – Is it curable?: Alok Rai
This is a guest post by ALOK RAI. It was first sent to the Indian Express which refused to publish it.
Deepak Pental’s inter-personal skills are, of course, legendary. And this last – his parting shot in Indian Express (28 October) – merely strengthens his already formidable reputation, and ensures that he will be regarded with the customary affection even as he leaves. Thus, not only is the Teachers’ Association compared to a khap panchayat – could this conceivably be a compliment, either to his beloved teachers, or to the khap panchayats? – but an entirely gratuitous insult is directed at college teachers, en bloc. Thus, they are stagnant, distant from research, unlike (!) University professors. This is rich, but Professor Pental can manage his own friends and enemies, and I have no desire to engage with him at this point. However, this is being written in the hope that his successor – whoever he or she may be – would at least like to choose their own battles, and not merely fight inherited ones on the bloodied, toxic battlefield bequeathed to them. And, indeed, by way of doing my citizenly duty to assist the honourable judges of the High Court, who are periodically asked to take a stand on the vexed question of “semesterization”.
There is something about the idea of the semester that appeals to the minds of people who have otherwise very little to do with education. (It has a certain appeal to some educated others also – to wit, the grandees of the Knowledge Commission, who are apparently the authors of this current instalment of semester-fever. But with these latter it is at least theoretically possible to have a discussion – even though there are no fora where such discussions could happen. The usual process is that some Moses brings a tablet of wisdom down from the mountain where the gods of the KC abide –and lesser mortals then struggle to interpret and implement the magic formulae.) But to the half-educated, “semesterization” appears like a panacea for the many and undeniable ills of education. Suddenly, as if by magic, syllabi can become flexible – and not be subject to the current, generational cycle. Something like continuous evaluation – and modularized, micro-managed pedagogy – ensures that students and teachers – both groups currently perceived to be slacking off – are forced to work in a closely monitorable format. And in some ideal world – in relatively homogeneous institutions with decent faculty-student ratios, and not vulnerable to the political pressures that make for both sub-standard faculty and sub-standard students – such a “semesterized” solution might even be possible. But if it were possible, I suggest, it would not be necessary. It would be strictly superfluous.
However, the moment the semester model is sought to be translated to a monstrosity like Delhi U, the absurdity is immediately evident – except, obviously, to the faithful who gathered around Pental, and the sheep that allegedly bleated their assent in the Executive Council, making the ongoing disaster of “semesterization” something like a death foretold. The first and potentially most attractive aspect of the semesterized model of education is the possibility of the infinity of knowledge – now clumsily apportioned into disciplines and departments – being modularized into relatively bite-sized units which can both be administered measurably, and also recombined and reconfigured to yield new, interdisciplinary knowledge-conjunctions. Possibly. But clearly the possibility of modularization would apply in different ways to different domains, and the question of cross-domain modular interfaces would require a philosophical attentiveness that has not been witnessed in the halls of altercation for years.
The other core element of the semester model is decentralization. This decentralization applies both to pedagogy, and to evaluation. What is coordinated is the rhythm at which the semester progresses – so that all courses march broadly in step, particularly around some key points, like the minor and major examinations. But what happens within the courses – quite simply, the syllabi, the particular texts, etc – is up to the course instructor, who also has the freedom to evaluate in the particular fashion that he or she desires. Obviously, there is a certain minimum of regulation – and bureaucrats everywhere seek to expand that “minimum” – but this decentralization is the key. It is this that gives the creativity of the faculty room to express itself, and engage and inspire the particular students that they confront from semester to semester.
But does any of this decentralization exist in the model of “semesterization” sought to be implemented for the undergraduate courses of Delhi University by the charming Mr Pental? The short, blunt, unambiguous answer is – NO. The University of Delhi is a large, affiliating, heterogeneous institution, whose colleges both in respect of faculty and students range all the way from excellent to barely-sentient, and perhaps the only thing that holds it together is the centralized examination system. It is because of this examination system that the tens of thousands of students of widely divergent abilities call all be examined, theoretically, by the same standard – and given the same Delhi U degrees. Decentralize this, and you will instantly have College A and College B at opposite ends of the competence spectrum, both in respect of faculty and students – now suddenly rendered free and responsible (or irresponsible) to design their own courses, and conduct their own examinations – but still draw on some common shared pool of academic merit for their degrees? The limited workings of the internal assessment system at the undergraduate level have already revealed the problems with this model – not to put too fine a point on it, the worse the college, the better the internal assessment marks!
Quite rightly, then, the proposed model of “semesterization” at Delhi University does not embrace decentralization. And the only whiff of modularization that I have caught over the last five years is that the existing annual syllabi be chopped into two! And then chopped further to accommodate the heightened level of evaluation which is the core idea in Delhi University’s proposed “semesterization”. But since this evaluation also cannot be decentralized, the idea is to retain the current centralized examination run by the Exam Branch – which is, as I suggested, perhaps the only thing that keeps the Delhi University together. Except of course that instead of the centralized examination happening once a year, as it does at present – under the proposed semester system, the whole exercise would happen twice a year. The little detail – unbeknownst to most people, and key knowledge for the learned judges – is that this process takes four months from start to finish – for one exam! Twice a year would mean that Delhi University could dispense with courses and pedagogy altogether – and merely do evaluation, except of course that there will be precious little left to evaluate! Several people – including professors who have been involved with the conduct of the examinations in the past – have pointed out the absurd unworkability as well as the academic folly of the idea. But even if, by some miracle, the centralized examination could be run in less than four months, the ambition to have two centralized examinations a year, instead of one as at present, can only be called a grotesque travesty of the semester system!
Alok Rai is Professor, University of Delhi