Thursday, 4 February 2016

Striking a balance between teaching and research

So here's something that many may not know:

Apparently, as per the University Grants Commission (UGC) framework [UGC is the body that governs most Indian universities and colleges] a person who has just entered the teaching profession is required to take the highest teaching load (this could be as much as 3 courses in a semester at some places) and the more senior people take lesser teaching loads (say 3 --> 2 --> 1 as one goes through his or her promotions).

Now this is exactly the opposite of how it ought to be. Here's why:

The first time someone teaches a course, if it is to be taught well, it can take 4-5 hours to prepare for a 1 hour lecture. So one course (usually 3 lectures per week) amounts to about 15-18 hours of effort per week. This does not account for things like checking homeworks, exams, etc. So just a single course can take over 20 hours of effort per week. If one is teaching as many as three courses per semester just as he or she enters the teaching profession, there is no way they can do a good job of it even if they spend more than 40 hours a week focused just on teaching (and none on research and guiding theses and projects: which of course they ought to be doing!).

A few years of this overload will most probably lead to a burnout: not enough motivation or creative juice left for the times when one is senior and teaching loads reduce. I think this is one reason why research standards are not too high in most universities and colleges in India. Instead many of our more senior academics end up indulging themselves in too much politics and worry too much about which administrative post they get to hold and which not. They are not "immersed in knowledge": which is what one would like to see.

On the other hand, after someone has taught a course a couple of times, the preparation time required for delivering a lecture reduces (lecture notes are ready and only need to be updated once in a while, there is a database of homework problems, etc.): thus allowing for the possibility of taking on another course alongside.

So if at all there has to be a variation in teaching loads based on seniority, the junior faculty ought to be given the least: preferably just one course a semester, and encouraged to settle into a "research rhythm". Meaningful research requires a significant investment of time and effort over a long period of time. It can take as much as 10-20 years of sustained effort in a direction to deliver something of value. So the sooner in one's career one settles into a research rhythm the better. And once one is in a good research rhythm and has taught a few different courses a few times, it would be possible for them to maybe teach an additional course.

So if at all there must be a variation in teaching loads based on seniority, it ought to be 1 --> 2 --> 3 as one goes through his or her promotions (and not 3 --> 2 --> 1!).

Ideally though, in my personal opinion, one ought to be required to teach at most 1 course per semester throughout one's career with an increased emphasis on research (any additional courses someone may want to teach of their own interest or will being entirely their prerogative).

As of today, what most Indian universities and colleges are doing is essentially this: transmit knowledge discovered elsewhere to students. Except for maybe a few places I do not think there is much to write home about in terms of "knowledge discovery".

We need to flip this. Fifty years from now, we should be teaching "a whole lot of stuff that we have discovered" in our classrooms. Then we would be able to call ourselves a part of the "global academic community". And for this to be possible, UGC must question its policies and bring about a balance between teaching and research in our universities and colleges. If need be, hire more people, hire good people and make sure the focus does not deviate from good quality research. At the end of the day, that's going to be the value addition that counts.

[To underline the importance of what I have just said from the viewpoint of a more "tangible deliverable", consider this: Pretty much any book dealing with any field of science and technology that you pick up today contains knowledge that has by and large been discovered outside our country. Our input, at least as far as modern knowledge goes, is pretty much non existent. And whatever knowledge we may have discovered in the distant past finds it difficult to get its due acknowledgement because we aren't really making a significant contribution at the level of "knowledge creation" today. One of the reasons this has happened is we have misunderstood the academic's role at a very fundamental level. We have turned things upside down. Our (mis)understanding is that professors are meant to primarily be in classrooms i.e. they are teachers first then anything else. What this translates to is professors in our country simply assimilating knowledge discovered elsewhere and passing it on to the next generation. And whatever little time and energy remains after this by and large gets wasted in a whole lot of meaningless committees and bureaucratic and political entanglements that have unfortunately invaded our country's universities. Then comes all this noise about how professors should be solving problems that in fact our bachelors and masters degree holders should be. At the end of it all, this is how much value addition happens: Zero.

If we don't correct our understanding now, we will still be in the same boat fifty years from today. We will still be reading books that contain knowledge discovered elsewhere. We would have made no significant contribution to the global knowledge community. And if we stay behind in the field of knowledge, we are going to stay behind overall. We will always be the world's backyard. Many may come and "Make in India" but we will never really reach the level where we "Create in India" and capture the world's imagination. You can be absolutely assured of this.

An academic is a scientist first, a philosopher first, a thinker first, then a teacher. An academic's primary job is to be at the very frontiers of knowledge and take our understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in further. Academics need to be given the space to immerse themselves wholly in knowledge, spending almost all their time in their offices and labs, contemplating deeply on fundamental problems and challenges in their fields, guiding their research groups, and from time to time, delivering lectures of the highest quality to students.]

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