The problem in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is not about attending classes; it is about registering compulsory attendance in classes. This is not merely a semantic nicety, for in these two issues lies the crux of what has now brought JNU to a boil. Let me explain. Students attend lectures, seminars, discussions and presentations because they want to, not because they must. The latter has nothing to do with some misunderstood and misinformed self-arrogated ‘right’ of not attending lectures, now being imputed to them in the public domain.
The fact is that students in JNU are expected to attend; and they do. In fact, students spilling out of classrooms, sitting on floors, or standing during lectures because all seats are occupied by their colleagues is a common sight in the campus. Come to any seminar or conference, and the most enthusiastic and informed participants there are the students who attend each and every session with almost religious fervour. Attending classes in JNU is participative, and it is this which makes it a self-enforced ‘compulsion’.
We also have other more overt ways of ensuring attendance by linking it to the evaluation process. In my centre (as elsewhere), it is mandatory for students to be present during tutorial and seminar discussions. Absence in these is severely penalised by a deduction of one-third of the credit for that tutorial.
For instance, a B plus grade has a numerical equivalence of six points on a ten-point scale. A student who misses a discussion, and would have hypothetically scored a B plus, now scores a B minus after a deduction of one-third of the credit.
Tutorial, term-papers and seminar submissions have a strict timeline, and deviations and delays are met with grades being cut in proportion to the delays. Also, not clearing the course work with all its requirements debars a student from appearing in the end-semester examination. These are mandatory, non-negotiable and often harsh requirements, and yet I haven’t heard a single demand to do away with these in the 25-odd years I’ve spent as a teacher in this university.
What has been put in place now is a regime of compulsory attendance. Instead of students being motivated to voluntarily accept uncompromising academic requirements because of the tangibility of their academic benefits, this new diktat has introduced an unacceptable degree of coerciveness in the system which is both pedagogically and academically self-defeating.
For starters, these rules will destroy the uniqueness of JNU, namely, its research orientation. My centre has more than 300 scholars who are at various stages of their researches. Most of them are using documents, manuscripts and archaeological materials on various themes pertaining to regional histories, literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Many of them are also legitimately working in different colleges and universities scattered across the country.
The nature of their work demands that they go on approved ‘field-work’ and stay there sometimes for months on end. Instead of facilitating them, they are now being asked to report every day in the morning, sign a register and then go to the archives. Even if someone is not required to be out of Delhi for research purposes but needs to use the National Archives or the National Museum on a daily basis, what’s the rationale of making them come to the department each morning, sign the register and then go to their research destinations?
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Let me provide another example, this time from the MA programme, drawn once again from my centre. Each four-credit lecture course has four contact hours per week equally divided over lectures and tutorial discussions. Since attendance in tutorial discussions is non-negotiable, each student’s presence in 50% of the course is already compulsory. Presuming that a hypothetical student decides not to attend one lecture per month, this amounts to five lectures out of a maximum of 18 two-hour lectures in a course per semester, which means that she has attended more than 75% of the lectures plus another 100% in the discussions.
In other words, in a course which has a cumulative of 72 contact hours in a semester, this hypothetical student would have attended 61. This works out to an average attendance of 93%, which is 18% points more than the now decided cut-off of 75%. Therefore, an average JNU student is not only attending classes regularly, she is actually over-attending them.
The crucial point is that a form of compulsory attendance is already in place in JNU, albeit minus the coerciveness, because attendance is linked to evaluation and not to registering an individual’s presence in class as a matter of fact. This is the pedagogical aspect of attendance, where a student’s academic performance is judged through her participation in a series of interactive sessions with her teacher and her peer group. Such interactions are carefully prepared and calibrated: prescribed readings must be done, papers written and submitted on time, and arguments presented and defended.
In other words, there is a degree of spontaneous involvement of students in the entire academic process, and that too despite being fully aware that the demands on them are unrelenting, and with very harsh penalties for non-performance or tardiness. Students realise the benefits, and the uncompromising academic procedures then become voluntarily included in their learning curve. Students enter JNU after a gruelling entrance examination, and once admitted what they expect is not leniency but a plethora of stringent academic thresholds which encourage them to rise to the challenges.
It is quite clear that there is no pedagogic or utilitarian benefit which will accrue from this imposition of compulsory attendance. This step is just one more in the slew of measures which have been taken since 2016 to enforce conformity and regimentation in an institution known for its aversion to both.
However, contrary to some wild perceptions about this university, this aversion doesn’t breed anarchy; it creates an academic atmosphere of critical engagement and combative scepticism. Students like to be challenged in the classrooms, otherwise they tend to vote with their feet.
For the administration and their collaborators, the arguments in favour of compulsory attendance range from platitudes, such as attending classes is the duty of a student, so why should JNU be different when attendance is compulsory everywhere? The duty of the student is to learn, but in a system which enables their spontaneous engagement with the teaching process; and no, compulsory attendance is not in vogue everywhere. The best practice is one which encourages voluntary presence.
In my view, compulsory attendance in JNU is part of a deep attempt to enforce a system of surveillance to control both students and teachers alike. Students are required to sign attendance sheets, to be circulated and collected by individual teachers each time they meet in class. These sheets must be handed over to the dean of the school concerned so that the administration can monitor them. Failure to attend is accompanied by severe threats like withholding of degrees, cancellation of fellowships and stoppage of merit-cum-maintenance grants, thereby hitting at the poorest and most deprived sections among the students.
In a recent missive from the administration, the registrar of the university has asked chairpersons and deans to submit reports on students who are opposing the move, ostensibly on grounds that the striking students have prevented some teachers from entering their offices. So far no one has stopped me from coming to my office, nor have I witnessed any such act of wilful obstruction. But the real perversity of what’s happening in JNU is exposed by the fact that chairpersons and deans are now seen as minions of the administration and not as teachers and academics doing their jobs in an academic institution. What is happening in JNU is an exercise in discipline and finish, and I say this with apologies to Michel Foucault.
Rajat Datta is a professor at JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies.