No to Mandatory Attendance: A Pedagogic Struggle for Academic Freedom in JNU

Making attendance mandatory for students and researchers threatens the articulation of responsible freedom – the chief reason for the university's excellence.

The School of Social Sciences at JNU. Credit: Manuel Menal/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The School of Social Sciences at JNU. Credit: Manuel Menal/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is known for its vibrant culture of learning and its academic environment filled with a reasonable degree of informality, creative freedom and life-affirming teacher-taught relationships. This academic freedom seems to be the chief reason for its excellence. As the university is in turmoil, and the administration through its practices of discipline, surveillance and control imposes itself, we find a new instruction: mandatory attendance for students and researchers. This repels me because as a teacher, I love JNU – its promise of abundance, its free/relaxed environment of learning, its dialogic spirit and its critical traditions. Moreover, my mature and responsible students know what it means to live with freedom; they have made me realise the beauty of teaching; they have made me work hard; they have helped me to evolve and progress every day. It is because of my sustained engagement with them that I have dared to walk with Paulo Freire, Martin Buber and Rabindranath Tagore, and redefine pedagogic possibilities. I have never felt like documenting, measuring and recording their attendance.

Voluntarism is the only guarantee for excellence

I write this piece as a co-traveller. As the official instruction goes, JNU students are likely to be observed and monitored; and as teachers, we will be required to record and document the statistics of their attendance in classes. I loathe this idea. I insist that barring exceptions, our postgraduate students and research scholars are responsible and mature, and they are our potential colleagues. I can’t imagine anything except voluntarism or the power of trust in our relationships. When they come to the class voluntarily, participate in the dialogue, as co-travellers we learn and evolve together. A moment of catharsis takes place. But if they are compelled to come because of fear or a technical/legal formality, classroom conversations would lose its enchanting power. The distance from the ecstasy of teaching, I fear, makes the administrators see students as potential deviators to be kept under perpetual surveillance. Not everything, the administration should know, can be accomplished through surveillance, CCTV cameras and the registers of documentation, classification and hierarchisation. If meaningful learning is an interaction of engaged human minds, you cannot guarantee it through compulsory attendance. A teacher is not an army general; students are not docile soldiers. The experience of education is magical – not a product of a meticulously designed/technically efficient surveillance machinery.

I would further add that our students have enhanced our confidence in asserting that it is possible to create a vibrant classroom culture filled with eager, alert and enthusiastic students without policing, surveillance and the ugly practice of mandatory attendance. In this context, I wish to narrate a set of illuminating illustrations from my own experiential account as a teacher, and let the ignorant administration know about it.

Also read: The Teacher-Student Relationship in Our Universities Is in Jeopardy

Imagine Delhi’s winter. Foggy morning, 9 am class, and there is no space left in the lecture hall. I saw it repeatedly. I saw a visually challenged student not missing a single class; I saw young girls from Faridabad and Noida making it a point to attend 9 am class; I saw students giving me a telephone call: ‘Sir, are you fine? You have not yet arrived. We have been waiting for you.’ Yes, after the theory class, I would find young/ vibrant students coming to me, and requesting me to accompany them to the library canteen for a cup of tea and initiate an informal discussion on Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. And I have seen students from other centres who are not officially enrolled for the course, yet attending the class and celebrating every moment of collective learning.

JNU is a wonderful university precisely for this reason – the articulation of responsible freedom. Here classes are taking place everywhere. Yes, students come to our residences; we keep talking, arguing, discussing. For us, summer or winter vacation does not make much sense. And, for most of us, it is fine. We meet our research students, read their dissertations and theses; we have learned to believe that for a creative vocation like teaching there is no rigid duality of ‘work’ and ‘play’. That is why, when I see this new rule of mandatory attendance, it repels me, it makes me feel that in a bureaucratic cage they are denying the true spirit of dialogic education, symmetrical teacher-taught relationship and mature freedom. It is a sad moment for the university causing a metamorphosis: from trust to suspicion.

A view on the JNU campus. Credit: Kiran Jonnalagadda/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

JNU campus. Credit: Kiran Jonnalagadda/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

‘No’ to surveillance, ‘yes’ to responsible freedom

I know that students are annoyed. And in a highly politically charged campus they are likely to write posters and pamphlets, shout slogans and condemn the administration. They will speak of their ‘rights’. However, I believe that the best mode of protest would be their positive and pedagogically enriched practice. This is the only way to prove before the administration and the world that they are truly  eager learners, they are not finding excuses for the alleged passivity, they love classroom dialogues, they attend classes voluntarily, and they do not need policing or surveillance because they are the children of creative energy that unites freedom and responsibility, liberty and inner discipline. Let their everyday practice teach the administration that it is possible to have a university that excels precisely because of the freedom that its habitats nourish. Let their ‘no’ to compulsory attendance assure their ‘yes’ to voluntary participation. Likewise, if tomorrow they come forward with the same rule for teachers, we all should protest because I believe that 9 am to 5 pm rule is absurd for teachers; unlike a bank accountant, a teacher with conscience is working all the time – visibly, and most of the time invisibly. Only with that moral confidence can our protest gain legitimacy.

I think we should take up this challenge. Otherwise, we can’t prove them wrong. For this, as teachers and students we all have to work together. This requires some honest reflection. There were occasions when as teachers some of us were angry with a section of students because we saw them not living with the spirit of responsible freedom. Yes, I believe that we need to understand Jean-Paul Sartre’s anguish: ‘man is condemned to be free’. To be free means to be responsible for your action. If we cease to be responsible, we invite what the existentialist philosopher would have regarded as ‘bad faith’. We would then be compelled to say: let the administration as an external authority decide what we ought to do. This is like inviting the chains of slavery. We need to understand its seriousness. When students do not come to the class, or even do not bother to inform the course teacher I feel sad. I feel sad because I have faith in them. I always tell my students: ‘Please attend the class. Give me an opportunity to work with you. And if my lecture is not sufficiently inspiring, please inform me, give me a chance, suggest me, and then I can improve.’ Yet, at times, I would see absolute indifference. This absence of warmth is painful. I tell them: ‘Knowledge is not the flow of information that one gets from the Internet; classroom is something that a media simulated hyper reality cannot give you; it is an experience, a moment of departure, an interaction of human souls, an inter-subjective world with new ideas and possibilities. To miss it in a university is to miss the beauty of being young’.

If we are ethically weak, we cannot fight this obnoxious measure. That is why, as teachers we too have to ask a set of uncomfortable questions to ourselves: Do we really give sufficient time to our students? Do we reduce the classroom into a panoptic space? Do we involve our students in the making of the curriculum? Or, do we think only about our own career trajectories – our seminars, publications, and projects? I think that self-reflexivity always helps us to grow. Freedom is the most wonderful gift that this iconic university has given to us. This is the freedom to think, freedom to differ, freedom to live meaningfully. It is sad that the administration fails to realise that the culture of fear, surveillance, mistrust and bureaucratic control will damage this place. As I apprehend this danger, I appeal to students because the intoxication of power has not yet corrupted them, and they can still carry a lamp of liberating education and morally empowered art of resistance that, I hope, has the power to illumine the hearts of even academic bureaucrats.

Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.