Life on a campus : IIT Bombay

I am not of the view that most of us join an educational institute for the sake of knowledge. I also find it unconvincing that an educational institute is build solely for the purpose of ‘spreading knowledge’; no matter what their motto is. There will be few among us who are driven solely by the desire of learning, criticizing existing and producing new knowledge. For rest of us there are certain benefits to be harnessed; employment and social status being the most prominent one. A young desires both. Thus a large flock of young humanity tries to get into educational institutes. No educational institute, especially in South Asia, can accommodate all applicants it receives. So it looks for a tool to discriminate among its perspective students. The most ubiquitous tool for this purpose is believed to be competition.

Not only for admitting good students but also to function properly, the university has to discriminate among it’s members. Competition, being easyly accessible, becomes an useful tool for such discrimination. Although its efficiency as an effective discriminatory tool has been questioned by some. Nonetheless it instills a sense of fairness especially among the middle class which put a high value on social mobility through an individual effort. In contrast to middle class, working class preferred collective actions such as strike and demonstration for social mobility in addition to individual initiatives. The leadership to working class may have been provided by some other class. In the past, it was the working class which took inspiration from the middle class by arranging best possible education for their offspring. Now middle class has also learned a few things from working class. These days it is a rule rather than an exception that teachers, lawyers, doctors etc. go on strike like working class whenever their demands are not met.

The sophistication of problems in competitions has been diluted by objective kind of problems in them. Life with objective problems are convenient and may be desirable for some institutes where job requires only a tiny set of skills. But why a university shy away from subjective problems? It is regrettable that the defense of objective kind of problems is based on the fact that correcting objective kind of problems are easy. Convenience in intellectual life can hardly be of any worth.

Competitions produce their own inequalities for there could be equalities before competition and not after it. But such discrimination on the basis of merit is unavoidable. Merit is indispensable for a institute to function; merit and discrimination are the faces of the same coin. Although every society has its own rules to award the merit but you can not have merit unless you discriminate in one sense or in another.

I am not a hardcore supporter of competitions especially for pre-university students. The discomfort is for various reasons, most prominent of them is that in our society competitions are not fair. It gives an undue advantages to those who have the benefit of ‘accident of birth’. A perfect example is the unease with which some people speak about the rise of upper middle class students in IITs. In fair competition, they laments, at least equality of opportunities must be given. Those, who have the resources to spend time in concentrations camps in Kota and like centers already have an edge over those are from the lower middle class or from villages. Even if they have money, it may not necessarily translates in to desired effects since the access to information and resources are often limited. They have a fair point. One may argue that even if one has such resources, it depends on the agency of individual to succeed in competitions. After-all not all of  those apply from upper middle class enter IIT’s. But it would be impossible to prove that among the millions who do not have access to such opportunity can not make it to IIT when given equal resources. The experience of ‘Super 30’ (or is it Super 20) proves that success in competition is solely not due to individual agency. The Darwinian maxim, ‘survival of the fittest’ can also be reversed : ‘Fittest is the one who survives’. As far as IITs are concerned, they do not have any problem since coaching centers improve skills of their future batch.

In hierarchical and unequal societies like ours, competitions create their own strains. Any student who had an disadvantaged beginning has to be much above the average to do the average. When they are made aware that the system has not been fair to them, they demand a place for themselves if they have a strong political presence. They put pressure on their leaders to redress this ‘injustice’. And their leaders often demand a quota for them. It is not only their belief but also a fact that they have been a disadvantaged lot due to their place fixed by birth in a highly hierarchical society. In democracy, they can get away with quota. After all the soul purpose of democracy is, as Alex de Tocqueville put it, ‘to break the chain and severe every links of it.’ Competition gives an unfair edge to those who already have a head-start, democracy brings advantage to those who are politically strong. Sometimes these two groups may head for a collision.The upper class think that others are asking for too much while the pro-reservation believes that they are getting too little. The fact that advantage of the reservation always goes to the least-disadvantaged member of the group, make reservation looks very illogical to some. Here the iron enters the soul and dirty linen of caste are washed in public.

How much degradation of performance of an university is caused by reservation? It is not at all convincing that it affect at all in long run. The experience of north American university with affirmative action proves that cultural diversity increases the health of an university. As the Indian middle class is growing and fragmenting, there will be little differences between the marks of reserved and non-reserved category.  Parents of both groups, unreserved or reserved, like to arrange quality education for their children if they can afford it. Tamilnadu has already given some hints. It has a long history of reservation, as high as 69% even before Mandal II. A report in 2005 showed that there is hardly any difference left between OBC and general category (see, The little magazine, Reservation, The die is caste). But the major problem of reservation is not the dilution of talent but the animosity, cynicism and frustration it creates. For each individual promoted on the basis of caste, there will at least 10 who will feel demoralized, angry and disgusted. In an Q/A session in IIT Bombay, director of movie ‘India untouched’, a passionate pro-reservation GEN category individual, told one of such irritated anti-reservation individual who was not able to see any good thing in reservation, ‘Bhai, tumhari problem ye hai ki tumhari gand main aag lagi hai’.

Reservation is not the biggest challenge to the university. Although one can make it appears as a shark ready to swallow so called ‘merit’. I have heard few processors in IIT, and perhaps everywhere, are very much concerned about significant portion of students showing tremendous decline in their interests in academic careers. Some of them believes that one can not do anything about it but hope for the best because here in India individual shows a ‘herd mentality’. Some of them also argue that what is the use of such misfits who do not extend their professional training but effectively block IIT’s from those who could have been much better suited for academics in long term. But is there any method available to test candidates for their long term commitments? One is forced to used classical methods and hope for the best. And individual in all societies long for a career on which either he or his peer-group, to which he is emotionally dependent, put a lot of value.

In 2007, just before joining IIT Bombay for masters, I had been warned by one of my Orkut friend that time that IIT is reserved for her B. Tech. and M. Tech. does not get that kind of treatment. In fact there are few blogs written by IIT undergraduates to get a proper insight. On the campus, this is true that post-graduates and under-graduates do not mingle with each other. And it should not be viewed in disapproving terms. Neither there is any such necessity nor there is any thing wrong about it. Undergraduates generally consider post-graduates hard working (at same time also inferior. Why didn’t they crack JEE otherwise?) as well as give-up, perhaps because of their rough treatment when they discharge their TA jobs. Some of the TAs seem to forget their U.G. days or perhaps they also suffer from a common Indian disorder ‘got-power-gotta-flaunt-it’. Dual Degrees and Masters students do a lot of courses and lab-work together and also do their TAship together. There is quite a harmony among them. Initially there could be a friction, but it soothes out later. This is not to say that they are being measured equally by everyone. Indeed, at the time of our orientation, our Dept. HOD (Prof. Subhasis Chaudhary) said that They (I don’t know on whom behalf he was speaking) are proud of their B. Techs students but they have seen some nice M. Tech.’s also. Going through his profile would reveal that he got is UG from IIT.

I do not believe in IQ’s. I believe in enthusiasm and natural inclination. In India, or may be elsewhere, these common-wisdom regarding IQ has taken deep roots.[2] How would you explain that a person who can not clear an exam in first attempt can clear it in second or third with really impressive score? Does that mean that a person is suddenly has become super intelligent or does it mean that hard work always pays off? Rank only shows that one is fast enough. Most of us can be a ‘deep’ but only some can be fast enough in a competition. Although in long run, to master a subject, it does not matter whether you had some ranks or won some accolades, as long as you are ready to do hard work and give yourself enough time. If one is not ready to give yourself time and still want to become master of some subject, I think one will end up chasing wild-goose. People who are always in hurry to reap rewards will find some semi-literate professions such as management or, to borrow Prof. Milind Sahani phrase, ‘warm-body’ works more rewarding.

There is very curious pattern in post-graduates. Most of them do their UG in their home-town or home-state. Living alone and keeping the interest alive in a boring curriculum of engineering is tough if not impossible, and given the fact that a lot of them are forced (socially or psychologically) to take up engineering, it is not surprising outcome. Unfortunately it is more acute in students who are naturally creative for professional courses such as engineering which values profitable skills more than anything else, need not encourage creativity. It need not to be the case, but it is the usual experience. In under-graduation, it is very important that one should not take a very puritan stand, namely, ‘I’ll not move on unless I understand it completely’. It’s better to sprinkle this attitude over one’s whole professional career. So my observation is that we do not see very creative people at PG level (exception are there, as always!) and in their UG, they are usually ripped off of their creativity, if any. Being in home-town also make them very narrow-minded when it comes to handling different cultures. They tends to react rather than respond, have stronger moralistic arguments than of liberal/balanced arguments. And not to mention doing M. Tech. in IIT means having a seal on your documents to climb the ladder of success; at least in markets, of jobs or of marriage.

A few professors, who generally lashes out on UG’s for their lack of enthusiasm in their courses, consider UG’s smarter than PG’s. And this perception may be largely true. The U.G. curriculum of IIT is highly packed and is of great quality. Unfortunately, IIT’s still could not find a way to retain them. Any Institute which prepares its student for markets must definitely suffer from brain-drain. It seems like they have already given up on their U.G’s and concentrating more on their PGs. In IITB, they have started dual degree program (M.Tech and Ph.D) to retain their M.Tech. And I can say with certain confidence, it has been successful at least in my department. I can count many M. Techs converted to Ph.D. and it is not like that they did not get any job (the ultimate proof of one’s worth).

Prof XYZ would tell his (irritating) M. Tech. students, “Don’t do matka-pankti, first understand and then argue.” And he has a point. But there are others who admire M.Tech. for their more hard-working nature in academic courses as one of my U.G. friend Swapnil have told me one day, “One of my Prof, He said in class that UG courses are disaster. I am not going to take them. So there is a pattern of both kinds but in this pattern there is also a pattern. The PG-bashers are generally have their UG degree from IIT’s like XYZ, the PG-lovers one are usually from outside. Most of the Profs are generally neutral. But all of them are of views that if UG stays here for masters, and masters for PhD, the institute will flourish. As to say that UG’s are the best, then Maters’s and then our PhD. Anyway, most people come to IIT to get only one degree. Our UGs are technically better. They have access to good professors and much better teaching for four years.

This is not to say the there is no U.G./P.G. divide on campus. It is like a caste system where U.G. are the Brahmins, M.Techs are the OBC and Ph.D.s are untouchables. Of-course none of them dare say such thing in public but in private they will reveal something more. Once one of my UG friends told me that once an alumni came to hire and was lecturing the UGs about few things in mess, “Ye pahle aane nahi dete aur baad main sirf M. Techs bachte hai aur Matka kise chahiye..[pause, after remembering that he is not a student anymore].. No offence, I hope there is no matka here.” (They [IIT] do not allow us to come for placement early and later we find only M. Techs and who wants a Matka… [pause ..]…). One of my Prof would reveal in class that, “DD’s do not write M. Tech on their resume, they write senior graduate student.”.

A significant portion of Post-Graduate life on IIT is spend as a teaching assistant. By most accounts, life of a Teaching Assistant (TA) is quite simple. Go to the lab, do the assigned work and come back. If you are TA for a theory course then professor usually asks you to do work related with script checking, grading and other related clerk-work. There is a space for improvement but most of the professors do not want to overburden their TA’s. They generally leave them with these routine works. For a M.Tech. (especially first year) this is indeed needed. They have their own tightly packed first year curriculum. But final year M.Techs as well as Dual Degree (D.D.) sure can do more. But its up to the professor to be thoughtful as in how he can utilize them without making them feel like they are being consumed in something they do not want to be a part of. Well, there can be counter argument to this. One can simply say since you get money in exchanged of your services, you have to do what I ask you to do. But I am not a supporter that this kind of ‘money/market oriented arguments’ should be used against young people. They mostly do what is required. However I am not denying that some of them take pride in shunning their responsibilities and corruption should be dealt with. This boring part, we leave to authorities.

I found out that only a few U.G.’s are hostile to M.Tech. or to Ph.D. in start. Most of them do not show any sort of superiority syndrome in the beginning. If over the time of they somehow acquire these feelings that P.G.s are ‘give-up’, they must have their own experiences. And who can argue us out from our own experiences. Though there can be a chauvinism among them but generally they are polite enough not to communicate it to you. It’s not to say that we don’t see thoughtful people in post-graduation. There is much more to intelligence that cracking competitions. And there much more to scholarship than sharpness and speed. And of course, there is much much more to thoughtfulness than just being looking serious.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to get close to them without being unreasonably generous. I have certain experiences from past that being friendly with them, some of them start believing that poor performance on their part will be tolerated. They must have reason to believe so since our society has been like that where nepotism is deeply rooted and they can not be much different. There are ways to sort it out by acting professionally till you are their TA’s. But making mistakes are allowed if you have certain feedback in you to discover the error of judgment. I did over graded few of students while I was a M.Tech. initially.

One should not be thrifty when it comes to praise them when they work hard. Although praising someone for being smart has its own downside, but the criticism is the last thing an Indian kid need. We get it all the time. There are repercussion of these kind of praises which IITians generally receive – for being smart. The safest is praising for their effort. Indians are generally very thrifty and mostly jealous in praising their fellow citizen. In criticism, they will be unsparing.

Being on the IIT  was the best thing that happened in my life till now. I was alone and have all the time to think. Breaking away from friends is as rewarding for academic life as maintaining a long list of friends is for professional life. And after a year in professional life, it seems to me that one generally comes at the cost of another. In fact, few argues that personal life also have its own conflict with professional life.

It’s almost impossible to find students working on their own ideas. At best they are dictated by Professors. Ideas need free time to develop. Free time is equivalent to the time you spend in privacy. Privacy is very alien to India. Since childhood, an Indian kid is told that being himself is a way of being selfish and arrogant. At home, there is no privacy. At college, this is also not possible. In fact almost all the time you see a hostel room is either occupied by two or more or empty. Only time you get students alone is on exam time, and this is time to mug-up. I wonder when they get the time to think things over and develop some their own ideas towards life rather than reacting to ‘herd-instincts’.

A widespread disease which has plagued some of the best Institutes in India, most notably civil services, is to glorify oneself at the cost of the Institute one suppose to serve. In Civil Services, a civil servant can easily been seen criticizing his/her institute; almost every time to prove that (s)he is a different pattern. I have seen that some of the students of almost every institute are now showing symptoms of this. They sometime claim that all the badness in them is caused by the institute. This is not to say that these people do not suffer. Indian, it seems, tends to greatify themselves rather than building up an Institutes they are part of. For a nation, greatness of an Individual is not as valuable as the greatness of an Institute for individual greatness dies with oneself but an Institute lives on to make few more great people. After-all institute is the legacy a generation left behind for a new one. West Bengal is a perfect example which has produced a great many individuals but not single institute of lasting values.


[2] The rise of meritocracy, Micheal Dunlop Young.



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