Teachers and taught

Academic practices in the US were poles apart from what we’re used to in India. The openness and trust with which exams were conducted was in stark contrast to the rigidity, secrecy and suspicion we are used to here. And the professors there had highly individualistic ways of functioning. Their word was unwritten law.

I met the prospective examiners for my Master’s comprehensive examinations seeking their guidance. One of them said, “There will be a question on…” and listed four questions in his subject. Those four were the only ones I was faced with! But a different experience awaited Dale. He found himself staring at a set of questions different from what he had been told about. Using the telephone available in the room, he confronted the professor, who simply told Dale, “Do you remember those questions? Answer them.”

The PhD qualifying exams were customised. My adviser, in consultation with me, decided that I would write a six-hour exam for him and three hours each for the other examiners. One examiner waived her portion of the exam. Using my prerogative, I scheduled the exams prior to the Christmas party planned at the dormitory. 

On the scheduled dates, I picked up the closed covers from Kay, the Department Secretary. She also reserved the committee room for me to write the exam in. I wrote them in the blue books I had purchased in the book store. When I turned them in, Kay simply put them in the open mail boxes of the respective professors kept in the open office. No cumbersome sealing of the bags, covers and dispatches etc as in India. 

One professor put the spotlight on term papers, a must for each course that he taught. Those of publishable standard got an ’A’, the highest grade. When he heard that a paper marked ’B’ had been published, he promptly changed the student’s grade to an ’A’, under intimation to the university!

Exams in statistics were invariably ‘open book’. It was a new experience for me. The students could carry any reference material they chose. Also new to me was the take-home exam which kept us busy for a week with consultations strictly forbidden.

In a one-on-one discussion, a class assignment, the professor appreciated my presentation, only to say “Wait a minute” and pointed out my fallacious reasoning. “I have to be careful with you,” he said. “You have the advantages of two cultures.” Another professor,  taking note of my nationality, said ominously, “If I give you a zero, don’t blame me. It was discovered by the Indians!”

A professor’s word was valued even outside the academic world. When I requested my professor to address a letter to the immigration authorities to extend my student visa, he looked me in the eye and said, “You know you have completed your studies.” I argued that since the CCC was a requirement for professional practice, an extension to complete the internship year was justified. He did write the letter and my student visa for another year was promptly endorsed.

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