Being a modern teacher

Technology and theatrics

In the 2014 movie Interstellar, the grandfather in the mid-21st century, reminiscing about the early 21st century, tells his granddaughter, “Everyday, there was some new technology or the other, it was a struggle to stay relevant.” The same could be said about today’s higher education teacher, who is trying to remain coherent in this struggle for relevance in the classroom. Amidst the banal ascent of technologies within the classroom, the teaching itself has seen a philosophical transition towards becoming a practice of detailing out the paths and processes to explore, rather than the traditional approach even 20 years back of inspiring the want to explore.

Teaching at institutes of higher education is a profession traditionally cherished for its inner calling and internal validity. However, recently, it seems to be plagued by the quagmire of student feedback and fears of backlash and antagonisation. Today, for an average instructor, the lecture seems to be more of theatre than a process of elucidating the subject matter at hand. Further, there remains the perpetual streamlining of research work along contemporary research paradigms amidst rejections, blind peer reviews and subsequent publications.

The fact that the academician’s career path is decisively guided by these dimensions, not to forget the competition within the profession, the novelty of the modern teacher in the neo-liberal world at times seems to be lost in the hands of post-modern ideals of accountability, transparency and the external validity of pay and promotion. And hence, without published and well-cited research work or successful dramatisation of the classroom, the modern teacher’s academic authority remains questionable.

This is also evident in the fact that in the last decade though there has been new impetus to liberal arts education, devoid of any major short-term incentive, the creation as well as consumption of non-citable literary or fictional work by academicians has gone down significantly.

While literature itself remains a static representation of society, it allows readers across generations to reflect upon the relative shifting paradigms of their times. However, it goes against the philosophy of the current economic environment that defines relevance in terms of incremental improvement, while providing consumers the option of sorting, selecting or to move on, without getting invested in the subject, thereby not allowing the consumer to critically think. While calling students consumers might be harsh, the fact that education in the last two decades has also been seen through the lens of ‘return on investment’ makes it a market-defined idea through the economics of utility.

The modern classroom with the traditional teacher requires assimilated knowledge transfer in an entertaining format. A more precise way of defining it would be a near real 3D representation of an instructor with Byju’s, Sololearn and Khan Academy’s animation design prowess.

And hence, a modern teacher is looking towards a future where there are academicians purely dedicated to research and bringing citations leading to improved institutional ranking, or the academician as the entertaining teacher or literary or fiction writers outside the umbrella of being called an academician. Whether they co-exist within the same institutional framework called colleges and universities remains to be seen.

Amidst these, the modern teacher has been completely missing from the debate as well as policy formulation, be it on the nearly decade-old implementation of OBC quota, which suddenly added to the already overburdened educational infrastructure, or the UGC’s credit-based choice system for design of curriculum. The recently passed laws to grant university status to prominent government institutions or the acts establishing private universities do not help.

Besides these, recent times have been all about the ever-increasing thrust towards the highest levels of awareness regarding gender sensitisation, codes of conduct, sexual harassment sensitisation, etc., making the conversation within the classroom intense tightrope theatre. The interactions in the class amidst these morally ambiguous lines of bringing order and falling prey to the fuzziness around the human conversation is becoming more and more complex in nature.

The corporatisation of compensation and promotion policy has added more layers of complexity to the profession. Currently, there is a policy and regulations void in addressing these issues at the national level. The UGC Rules, Regulations & Guidelines 2018 for selection, salary, promotion, leave and workload for Assistant Professors seem to be a right step in this direction.

However, much is required to be addressed in terms of integration of the changing social, economic and technological environment. A policy encompassing all these seems to be the need of the hour. The UGC or the Ministry of Human Resource Development should look towards advocating the same.

From the student’s perspective, the present-day consumer of education needs to realise that unlike other modern economic goods, education is a merit good, distinct from other entitlements of consumerism, requiring hard labour outside its transactional financial aspects. The consumer needs to be sensitised that not every session can be therapeutic and not every teacher is going to be entertaining.

Not all of us are proficient at self-learning and would require the discipline and structure of classroom education in physical spaces, irrespective of the available technology. And hence, amidst all the technological advancement and knowledge within the reach of our fingertips, the modern teacher’s significance cannot be undermined or eliminated. The current institutional framework needs to comprehensively address these issues so as to create a balance between the external and internal validity of the profession.

Policymakers today need to remember that academics as a profession is a real-world laboratory for ideating. Devoid of a conducive environment, the right amount of freedom and patronage, the modern teacher seems to be slowly transforming into a classroom-based Hunger Artist in a Raymond Carver storyline.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat) 

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