The Spirit of Being a University Teacher in These Turbulent Times

A teacher ought to realise that their task is not limited to a fragment of specialised academic research. Teaching is an act of inter personal relations. It is political as well as spiritual. It is ethical as well as subversive.

A protest against the ABVP violence at Ramjas College. Credit: PTI/Files

On Teachers’ Day, as I reflect on the vocation of teaching, I realise that my spirited idealism – something laughable in this cynical era – is still alive; and I continue to believe that teachers can play an important role in the making of a good society. Even at the realm of higher education, a teacher ought to realise that his/her task does not remain limited to a fragment of narrow/specialised academic research. He/she engages in an act of communion with young learners, which takes place in a socio-political context. It demands immense responsibility because the process of dissemination and reception of knowledge traditions is delicate and complex. No wonder, teaching is also an act of inter personal relations. It is political as well as spiritual. It is ethical as well as subversive. To elaborate my arguments, there are three central issues relating to the practice of teaching at colleges and universities.

Teaching is live research

When a young faculty joins a university, a question confronts him/her: Who am I? Am I essentially a researcher or am I primarily a teacher? This ‘identity confusion’ emanates from a set of core beliefs – research is real contribution to the production of knowledge, research means constant intellectual growth and elevation and research manifests itself in publications and research papers; whereas teaching is merely a repetitive act of covering the ‘syllabus’, evaluating the exam papers of students and disseminating the established knowledge contents through notes and lectures in the classroom. Hence, unlike research, teaching is less challenging. I interrogate this hierarchical duality and its core assumptions; instead, as I would argue, what distinguishes a university faculty is his/her creative imagination or a nuanced art of critical pedagogy that enables him/her to sharpen research questions through classroom practices and transform teaching into an act of live research. In the absence of this creative interplay of teaching and research, what we witness is a pathological culture confronting the university life.

First, the meaning of research is trivialised. Research becomes utilitarian, a measurable commodity, a compulsive performance, a ritual of research papers, edited volumes and publications. Research becomes soulless. Barring exceptions, it becomes safe, predictable, routinised or some sort of what Thomas Kuhn would have regarded as a mere “puzzle-solving” exercise. For instance, in the domain of sociology, how many research papers do you and I need to read to know that Dalit children tend to drop out from schools, domestic violence is the recurrent story in our households and caste assumes a new form through the language of electoral politics? As a teacher’s performance is measured through the list of publications, research loses its spirit. It becomes a number – yet another paper to be thrown into the dustbin of history. Not solely that. This clever orientation distorts the realm of teaching. Sometimes, it is not taken seriously and is seen as an hindrance. If a faculty remains primarily concerned with his/her career growth, the vibrancy of the classroom receives a severe blow. What is important to realise is that good teaching is good research – not necessarily in terms of publications, but as sustained work, epistemological enquiry and awareness of the changing domain of knowledge. For instance, as a social historian when you teach Partition, you see how Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories become as valuable as archival documents, how M.S. Sathayu’s  cinematic text Garam Hawa becomes as relevant as the exchange of letters among Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah. Your lecture becomes a piece of research. Neither a textbook nor a guidebook (or the latest on Wikipedia) can capture the spirit of a vibrant classroom. Who says it is repetitive and boring? A university, unlike an insulated research centre, is a site of communication. Classroom dialogues – theoretically rich, empirically informative and endowed with the spirit of critical enquiry – prepare the ground for the creation of a new generation of learners and researchers. Hence, my humble advice to the new generation: Don’t feel apologetic of being a teacher; there is no contradiction between meaningful research and creative teaching.

Epistemological freedom and crossing the boundaries 

Meaningful teaching needs freedom – the freedom to invite young learners to the enchanting world of ideas and practices. No matter how trained we are in the grammar of our respective academic disciplines, a good teacher realises that the flow of ideas has its own unpredictability and novelty; it cannot be routinised and fitted into the confined spaces of tight boxes designed by the academic priest craft. To take an illustration once again from sociology, is it possible for a teacher to teach classical sociology meaningfully without referring to what Robert Nisbet would have regarded as the cultural landscape of industrial Europe that the poets, novelists and artists portrayed in the late 19th and early 20th century? It is this freedom to cross the boundaries, to experiment and to see the merger of theory and poetry, social science and art, and physics and philosophy that distinguishes a good teacher from someone who merely does his job, remains loyal to the disciplinary boundary and repeats what is written in codified texts. This spirit of freedom also demands the ability to celebrate what is otherwise regarded as non-utilitarian. Poetry does not enhance the growth rate of the economy; philosophy does not assure a lucrative salary and even theoretical physics may not be appreciated by the corporate lobby. Yet, who are we as teachers if we fail to indulge with this non- utilitarian quest? But then, there are two obstacles.

First, the idea of a university is changing fast. As the market ideology becomes overwhelmingly powerful, every sphere of society is invaded by its logic. This “colonisation of life world”, to use Jurgen Habermas’s words, is bound to affect the ethos of a university. The relevance of teaching and research is judged in terms of their salability, their nexus with the market forces and corporate interests. This new pragmatism destroys the idealism of a university. Teachers are being increasingly compelled to design the courses that sell in the market. We are asked to become traders of knowledge. We begin to lose our visions, our poetic madness and our romance with the domain of the non-utilitarian.

Second, the tyranny of political ideologies damages the spirit of teaching. At times, as the recent events in our political history suggest, we are asked to become sufficiently ‘nationalist’ and ‘patriotic’; and hence any critical idea – even Tagore’s brilliant reflections on the pathology of militant nationalism – may be censored. The surveillance machinery of the state causes an environment of fear not conducive to the spirit of free dialogue. Paradoxically, even the burden of ‘political correctness’ destroys the spirit of a teacher. For instance, in my classroom (when my Marxist/Ambedkarite/feminist colleagues and students are constantly observing me), can I see beyond Ambedkar and speak of Yajnavalkya’s conversation with Gargi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad while reflecting on Hinduism, or for that matter, ask students to read both – Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as well as Sister Nivedita’s The Master as I Saw Him? I believe that as teachers, we need to acquire the courage to interrogate ‘rightist orthodoxy’ as wells as ‘leftist certainty’ and celebrate the process of continual exploration and experimentation with ideas because understanding, as Hans-Georg Gadamer taught us in Truth and Method, is an aesthetic play, a process of becoming; it is not something defined once for all.

Teachers as communicators

A university – particularly, a privileged metropolitan university – leads many of us to assume the role of ‘subject experts’ or ‘specialists’. While one’s grounding in the traditions of knowledge is important, we should not forget that as teachers, we ought to fulfill yet another function – as communicators and organic intellectuals, we need to enter the inner world of young students and build a bridge between the university and the larger civil society. For this, as I believe, we have to overcome two obstacles. The first obstacle is the very ritualisation of university life. Even supposedly, emancipatory disciplines like gender studies are appropriated by the university through its ritualisation of conferences and publications in esoteric journals. A professor prefers to remain confined to her sub group and her connectedness with ordinary women becomes weaker. Likewise, even a Marxist professor may end up seeing the ‘working class’ merely as a theoretical abstraction and feel more comfortable at a book release function in the British Council. These practices of exclusion legitimated in the name of ‘specialisation’ are not in tune with the spirit of being a teacher. A true teacher, I repeat, is dialogic, communicative and eager to break all walls of separation. The second obstacle is the widening gap between English-speaking metropolitan intellectuals and vernacular intellectuals. As an insider in a privileged university, I do realise the intensity of our arrogance. Even though many of us are eager to establish a rapport with Euro-American centres of learning, seldom do we write in ‘unknown’ magazines in Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam, or articulate our willingness to talk to students located in Meerut, Coimbatore and Siliguri. This comfort has paralysed us, killed our creativity and destroyed our communicative skills. It was Gandhi, who, in his famous speech on the occasion of the opening of Banaras Hindu University in 1916, reminded us of the need for this sort of communication: the bridge between high culture and folk traditions, university and people.

It would not be inappropriate to conclude this article with a point of caution. Technology gives us the tools to do things; elections give us the power to exercise our voting rights; malls and supermarkets display the commodities for sale. However, the questions are:  How do we use technology – for nuclear reactors or eco-sensitive small dams? How do we choose our representatives – by seeing merely the outer spectacle created by 24*7 television channels or evaluating their personal integrity and conviction for a humane society? And what do we buy and consume – attractively packaged commodities mythologised through branding and seductive culture industry or the products organically related to our true needs like the need to breathe in non-polluted air, the need to have a shared/egalitarian public domain and the need to love, care and heal? We need spirited teachers as co-travellers to find the life-affirming answers to these puzzling questions. A society that forgets this truth is in the process of disintegration.

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