The Teacher-Student Relationship in Our Universities Is in Jeopardy

In an emotionally charged environment, suspicion is normalised, everything takes a political turn and even an unintended mistake by an otherwise well-meaning teacher is turned into a scandal.

Students at the Delhi University campus. Credit: Reuters

Students at the Delhi University campus. Credit: Reuters

A university – supposedly a ‘temple’ of higher learning – cannot escape the ugliness that surrounds our existence. We are a product of the caste prejudices and sexual violence that we, as a part of the intelligentsia, condemn. Stories of victims of caste discrimination and sexual harassment have been surfacing more and more in universities lately. It seems that as teachers, we have lost our moral grounding.

Universities are increasingly becoming a war zone, filled with doubt, grievance committees and surveillance machineries. Even though I know that a university is not a solitary island and that in a caste-ridden and patriarchal society, asymmetrical power relations operate through diverse forms of sadism and exploitation, something keeps haunting me. Is there nothing beautiful and life-sustaining left in the teacher-taught relationship? Is it possible to create a community of learners if we normalise negativity with our harsh realism and refuse to believe that no legal machinery and social media campaigning can replace the power of love, care and trust?

Understanding the ‘darkness’ surrounding universities

However, before I speak of these ‘lost ideals’, I wish to understand the darkness surrounding us. To begin with, let me reflect on caste hierarchy and classroom dynamics. The social composition of students in public universities is changing, with students from marginalised castes and communities – many of them first-generation learners – securing admissions. As the university, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s words, is inherently inclined to some sort of ‘cultural capital’, many of them find it difficult to cope with the academic pressure. This gap prevails because of unequal schooling and monopoly of the cultural elite in the transaction of knowledge traditions. Not solely that. They also experience some form of violence – not necessarily always physical, but essentially symbolic and psychic. They realise that their experiences and skills are devalued, and because of a complex process of official as well as social classification, they have already acquired some sort of ‘stigmatised’ identity. This leads to hypersensitivity: an intense feeling of betrayal, doubt and suspicion. No wonder it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to believe that a teacher from a so-called forward caste can also be their friend and well-wisher.

Moreover, we, as teachers from a privileged background, fail to understand their inner turmoil and psychic struggle. Despite theoretical cognition of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, caste, it seems, lies in the deeper layers of our existence. Furthermore, in an over-crowded classroom in which covering the syllabus and conducting exams are the primary tasks, where is the possibility of a delicate and sustained interaction of human souls? Thus, in an emotionally charged environment, suspicion is normalised, everything takes a political turn, and even an unintended mistake by an otherwise well-meaning teacher is turned into a scandal. As politics of doubt become all-pervading, there is no space for patience and forgiveness, for mutual self-improvement and faith.

Also read: India’s Universities Are Falling Terribly Short on Addressing Caste Discrimination

As male teachers, how do we see our female students? With the growing articulation of feminist voices and discourses, many of us are problematised and possibly rightly so. Diverse forms of sexual harassment seem to have polluted the university environment – from jokes with erotic connotation some of us crack in the classroom to undue interest in their private lives, from our distorted masculinity superseding the sublime and graceful act of teaching to the temptations of dark fantasies that patriarchal power induces and makes us forget the spiritual ethic of care. But then, in a social milieu in which human bodies are becoming increasingly sexualised leading to a change in the meaning of a ‘look’ or a ‘gaze’, some sort of permissiveness is seen as a marker of equality, and allowed to ridicule age-old civilisational values like reverence, affection and sacred prayer. With the constant fear of sexual violence in workplaces, are we becoming incapable of seeing the possibility of a positive relationship between male teachers and female students?

The vocation of teaching needs to be redefined. Credit: Reuters

Composing the song of a relationship

It is important to realise that no university can function with perpetual fear, doubt and suspicion. It is also important to understand that there are limits to purely bureaucratic, legal and technical solutions to caste or gender violence. Imagine how frightening it would be if a male teacher fears his female student, meets her only at the ‘right’ time at the ‘right’ place, keeps his door wide open for public verification and discusses nothing except the technicalities of tutorial assignments and dissertations. Imagine an equally frightening scenario: with fear and suspicion, a student meets the teacher and records every piece of conversation in a tape recorder kept inside her bag. We would lose spontaneity, warmth, humour and a degree of informality, without which no dialogic education is possible. The question is: how do we restore trust, positivity and goodwill in our universities?

First, the vocation of teaching needs to be redefined. As teachers, we are required to be reflexive and transparent. We ought to educate ourselves all the time. It is like looking at ourselves and acknowledging even the slightest residue of hidden temptations and prejudices. It is only this rigorous self-search that, as Gandhi’s ‘experiments’ suggested, leads to inner transformation. Furthermore, we ought to go beyond the restricted role of being merely a specialised ‘academic’; we must engage with young minds, listen to their voices and nurture them with love. We must have non-utilitarian time for our students.

Also read: India’s Best Universities Must Discard the Practice of Academic Inbreeding

Second, students – particularly the vulnerable ones like Dalits and women – ought to make a distinction between alertness and cynicism. True we live in an uneven world in which caste prejudices and sexual violence are not unreal and teachers are not saints. But a struggle for justice – academic as well as political – begins with this alertness. However, alertness should not be allowed to make one cynical. One should not see potential sinners everywhere – when a teacher is asking his female/male students to accompany him to the university cafeteria for a cup of tea, when he is angry with students (irrespective of their identities) who have not submitted their assignments in time, or, for that matter, when he evolves a philosophic critique of even B.R. Ambedkar and Simone de Beauvoir.

Likewise, it is also important for them to realise the ambiguous character of social media. The Internet can give agency and voice to grievances, but at the same time, it can do a lot of damage if used irresponsibly and unethically. Social media can play with the life of the ‘condemned’ and trivialises the entire struggle for justice. Before making judgments, one should think of the meanings and implications of a charge like ‘casteist’ or ‘sexually pervert’ levelled against a professor. I am saying this not because I doubt the credential of the victims. I am saying this because dishonesty has affected all of us – the privileged as well as the underprivileged.

Finally, the new generation of students should be told about the beauty and grace in the teacher-taught relationship. In this age of utility and cynical politics, all noble aspirations are laughed at. Yet, a life that has lost its poetry is not worth living. The teacher-taught relationship is essentially like a poem, a song that we have to compose every moment. It is about love and care, trust and dependence, dreams and aspirations. It has the festivity of friendship, the touch of a parent, the intellectual partnership of collegiality, love, devotion, faith and reverence. The danger is that in this neo-liberal era where everyone is a ‘resource’ for exploitation, we tend to lose the warmth of a life-sustaining relationship. However, in this prosaic world filled with negativities, we have to write our poetries and compose our songs, and if universities fail, we are at a great loss.

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