Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dr. Ashley's take on the Education System: What's Right or Wrong with It

Q 1. Being an academician, you get to interact with many Indian and foreign students on a regular basis. Do you see any difference in the way students of different nationalities approach the Humanities and the Social Sciences? Are students taught to become ‘thinkers of tomorrow’ at most places? Why or why not?
I have taught mainly in the Anglophone world – India, the UK, the US – and so the tradition is basically the same. Of these, the worst students are the US ones. This is because of the particular brand of shameless and self-righteous individualism on which they are bumped up through the school education system since the retrograde 60s when student evaluations came in and a mindless disregard of the teacher and of pedagogic authority entered US academia in the sheep’s clothing of democracy. Students in the US do not know English at all (they learn it phonetically and not through reading and writing – they only watch TV – and fall of what is known there as the fourth grade cliff when they are suddenly asked to read and make sense of sentences. I’ve had some of my most frightening moments as a teacher in the US where you give a magazine article to 18 year olds in a Freshman Comp class and it is on f...... basketball and the salary cap – something they are very familiar with and they can’t tell what position the article is taking on it, can’t read what the article is saying. It is frightening. The amount of I’s in their paper are terrifying, worse still the ‘I feel that’. A student once read an Alice Walker essay (‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’) as anti-Black and anti-women and said she had the right to feel and interpret it that way! Another read a Shakespeare sonnet (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’) as being about getting a tan! The US undergrad population is among the most insane populations in the world and not just the ones who bring guns to school and shoot everyone down. I mean every US teenager is insane. They are anorexic, bulimic, tripping on stuff, on Ecstasy, on Prozac, illiterate, unable to write a coherent sentence let alone an argument and they don’t want anyone brown telling them this. I feel so bad for the legions of Indian grad assistants who have to suffer them as TA’s. The racism they receive is astounding, much worse than Australians randomly beating up Indians that obsesses the media here. But no one, least of all the TA’s themselves want to talk about it. So obsessed are they about being in he US and living “the American Dream.’ The American Dream, my f...... a...! Grad students there are not much better. I have never seen a more self-righteous bunch of underqualified a........ ever. Their ignorance is matched only by their arrogance.
Coming to Indian students, most suffer from the opposite syndrome. They are too diffident, too intimidated by mediocre, insecure teachers and too cowed down. Indian students need to learn some attitude from US ones, though nothing else, because there is not much else to learn from US students. But Indian students are smarter, more able to process complexity (it is all around them) and less sheltered (the University system is very much in the social and not completely isolated from the rest of society, like in the US
British students I liked a lot and found them the perfect mix of Indian and US ones but I taught there a decade ago and I hear they have become obnoxious now because the UK has become more and more like the US. After all, politically, the UK is the US’ left testicle.
As for the approach specifically to the Humanities and the Social Sciences, developments in these areas force a critical engagement. Here it is Indian institutions lagging behind because most faculty do no research and do not keep up and are insecure about other teachers and students who do. I find students open, receptive and producing amazing work once introduced to developments and given a free hand. If at all I continue to work in educational institutions, most of which are moribund and highly inimical to rigorous and interesting intellectual work, it is because I have always, at least up to now, met interesting, brilliant, marvelous students. They are few, the jerks are many, but the few make it worth it. There’s also the largest middle set who are underconfident and trying and it is the biggest pleasure working with them because you can see them move.
As for this “thinkers of tomorrow” nonsensical rhetoric, I leave it to VCs and what they mean by it is very different from what I mean by it. The Director of the Institute I currently work in (IIT Hyderabad) keeps urging us to “think out of the box” by which me means get corporate capital for the Institute and for our research from big industry. Not much thinking out of the box can ever come from that but he uses the lingo completely unthinkingly. He has only one book on his shelf in his office and that is by Nandan Nilekani. Need I say more?
Teaching at an IIT has been most instructive (it is just my first year here and probably my last as well). It shows you how irrelevant most of Indian society thinks the Humanities is. These guys don’t give a s... about it or us. I’m teaching a course to MTechs and PhDs here (all Science PhDs) on Technical Commuication and also making them read epistemology and STS (Science and Technology Studies) and they are hating me and it. I don’t know what they are going to do when I reach Haraway and Latour. They are not used to thinking reflexively or critically about what they do at all. They do not ever think about questions of ethics or environment or politics or corporate interest when it comes to their research, which I find astounding, given how intimately tied up with all these things their research is.
I think there needs to be a serious dialogue between the Hard Sciences and the Humanities and the Social Sciences. This has began in the West and while the difficulties are enormous, some productive work has been, and is being, done. This is the real challenge before us, to set up this dialogue. This for me is what the thinkers of tomorrow must do. If we are to have a tomorrow at all.

Q2. What do you feel about all-girls/boys schools? Parents who favour such institutions claim that they teach students ‘morality and good values’, hence are better than the other schools. Do you agree? Don’t you think such institutions give an incomplete idea of the ‘real world’ out there, which has all kinds of people jostling for survival?
I think all single-sex schools should be converted into mixed schools. Single-sex schools are sick and pathetic. Already, sex segregation in our society has wreaked, and continues to wreak, horrendous effects on both main sexes and genders and a host of others. We all know what “morality” and “good values” are. Nothing but the perpetuation of sexual ignorance and upper caste, misogynist, f..... up ideology passing off as historical and philosophical truth. Of course such institutions give people an incomplete idea of the world out there and not because of some stupid conception of different kinds of people jostling for survival but because it creates impossible chasms between one major chunk of the world and another (heterosexual men and women). They just do not know each other at all and we have to spend the rest of our lives trying to help them understand one another when we could be doing much better things with our lives.

Q3. What does being ‘educated’ mean in today’s world?
It means making money, money, money. It means nothing else. Education means nothing in today’s world. In India, it means a medical degree and an engineering degree, then an MBA and then you f... up the country, while making money, and while claiming you love the country.

Q4. Do you believe that children from poor families cannot have brilliant minds? Or that men are smarter than women so education is meant only for the more ‘deserving’? What about LGBT people and their right to quality education? Who decides what is being taught and to whom?
Are you out of your mind? Are you tripping on something? I know a million brilliant poor students and practically every woman I know is smarter than practically every smart man I know, at every level. Of LGBT people, only hijras are denied education in this country and we should have hijras allowed admission in schools and colleges. If they can now vote in some places and stand for elections, they can also go to school. Tamil Nadu might lead the way.
As for who decides what is being taught to whom, that is, of course, context-specific. If you go to Rishi valley, you get a certain perspective you do not get in a government school run by s..... Jesuits (like the one I went to). However, we are who we are, in the long run, in spite of schools, despite them, not because of them, unless of course they destroy us completely, which, thankfully, they seldom do, whatever Illich or Foucault might claim.

Q4. Do you feel privileged at being associated with some of the best Universities in the world? How has mainstream education impacted you, especially because you finally chose to stay in the academic field, when there are many other things you could have possibly done with your life?
Of course I am privileged but I fought hard for this privilege. I come from a piss poor family. My school fees were 5 Rs in Class V and 6 Rs in Class 6 and we could not afford it. I had no clothes and no shoes and lived on hand-me-downs. I fought my way out of that. I did not get a scholarship to Britain for 3 years despite excellent grades and recos because I was not from Delhi (Stephens, LSR. Miranda) or Calcutta (Presidency) or Chennai (Stella, Loyola’s) or IISC in Bangalore or an IIT. I need the chhap of a big place because as a half-dalit, half-Christian, black-skinned, malonourished militant homosexual and feminist, I knew I would never be taken seriously otherwise.
Mainstream education impacted me very little. I did my PhD at Cambridge and it was the most mediocre place I’d ever been, apart from the most traumatic as I was not of the right class at all.
I visited, attended seminars and so on in all the top schools in the US and found them incredibly substandard. I think much more intellectual work happens in a University like the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalala in Wardha where Ilina Sen runs the most brilliant Women’s Studies MA or in Tezpur University in Assam where Amiya Das teaches Sociology and carries truckloads of books from DSchool’s library for them. I am not being facetious here, I am quite serious. Brand names are just brand names. Oxford and Cambridge are s... compared to the red brick Universities in Britain.
As I said, I chose to stay in academia because of students. However, I am now contemplating leaving the University and academic institutions forever. I will not cease to be an academic. I love academic work and will always do it but I am not sure I want to be in a University/Institute any more. These places kill all the real enjoyment of education.

Q5. What do you think is the best thing a teacher can give his/her student within a deeply problematic education system? What has been your experience as a teacher? What do you value in a student?
The best, and, indeed, the only thing a teacher can give a student, is a training in the method of thinking, showing the student how to use the tools in a particular discipline to read and change the world. I am from the Humanities, so speaking from the Humanities, I train students to read closely, to write carefully and to think about how to transform the world on the basis of that. It is what Spivak calls the “uncoercive rearrangement of desires,” that’s what a Humanities education effects. I am not interested in the project of telling students what to think, only how to think. Where they reach with that is up to them and I retain the right to fight with them about it that is, about where they reach) till I die but I will train them in how to read and write also till I die.
Part of this is, of course, to become aware and question the epistemic limits of knowledge production within the structure of the University system, what are the problems, what are the possibilities. They realise that better than I do because they are at the receiving end of it in more ways than I am.
I have no regrets about the roughly two decades, since I finished my MA in 1991 that I have been teaching, in one form or another. I will continue to teach for the rest of my days. Teaching is joyful and amazing and one learns so much oneself in the process.
What I value in a student is an openness to the world. That is all one needs really and you’d be surprised how hard it is to come by. Most students have to be beaten into it. But when you meet a student who is open to the world, eager to learn, reading, writing, thinking in class and on the page, it is a pleasure beyond all other pleasures. S.. pales in comparison. I have had the pleasure of having more than one student like this. Shad Naved in St. Stephens, Naina Manjrekar in Miranda House are two of my favourite Indian examples. They have made my life worth it.
(Dr. Ashley Tellis is Assistant Professor, Department of Liberal Arts, IIT, Hyderabad. His areas of interest include Twentieth Century Women's Poetry (Irish, English, US, Indian),Gender Studies (especially Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Studies, Dalit Literature and Culture (especially Marathi), Postcolonial Theory/Studies, Literary Theory, Northeastern Writing and Cultures, Black British Literatures, African Literatures, Latin American Literatures).


  1. Well said! Bravo! Only a real teacher can say what you have said in this interview. One of your best.....Prakash

  2. Hi dear, re-stating here again that I liked ur interview with Dr.Ashley a lot. Thanks for this. Also, I am cross-posting a link of this interview on two of my groups, i hope u don't mind. Dr. Ashley's sarcasm, as also the brilliant insights on our education system, and the societal frames is lovely...and also wickedly funny. :) You questions are also, as I said, perceptive...u kep many skills under ur hat!

  3. Shad Naved is a prodigy who read Marx's Capital at the age of 13. Naina is an uber-social creature who needs to become a recluse to be able to read as much as she should.