Jeff plays the role of visiting scholar for a day

09/02/2014

3 January.

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My talk at Bharathiar University on climate change.

The point of my trip to India was to see the Western Ghats and to tag along with Dr. Mani and his team on their fish ecology junkets. The fact that I am enjoying their company is an immensely nice extra. But somewhere along the way, we realized that it was appropriate and made sense to insert some official-ish business while I’m here—talks in regard to a potential MOU between my institution and Bharathiar University and a seminar/lecture that I would give to the students and faculty. Dr. Mani’s original idea was for us to cram all of this in during the morning hours so that we could make our start up to Wayanad for our last sampling trip in the early afternoon, but the Vice Chancellor rescheduled our morning meeting to 3pm, so now the new plan was for me to visit with faculty and students in the morning and I would give my talk after lunch. Then we would meet wid da VC and git outta Dodge by the late afternoon, which might actually give us a shot at making it into the protected area before the gates shut us out (as had happened twice before already).

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Me and the Env.Sci. posse at Bharathiar U.

In our previous Coimbatore stopovers I had been hanging around the department offices and labs enough to have met a few of the people, but since the university had been on holiday since my arrival this was the first day in which all of the professors and most of the students would be back in classes.  The Department of Environmental Studies at Bharathiar is a bit of a mix of loosely related disciplines. There’s a crop scientist, two ecologists (Dr. Mani and Dr. Arul), two environmental toxicologists, and the chair (Dr. Usha) whose research interests seemed to span from human genetics to cultural anthropology. Bharathiar University serves only postbaccalaureate students, which seems kind of unusual though not entirely unheard of in the States (UC San Fran, for example). The Indian educational pathway to a doctorate is substantially different from ours. The bachelor’s degree, for example, is a three-year program at colleges specializing on undergraduate education. Students seeking advanced study would most likely go to a university like Bharathiar to embark on a two-year course of study as an “embassy student” to achieve a master’s degree, after which there is a required extra year for those who wish to proceed into a five-year doctoral program. Overall the years add up the same eleven years as a four-year B.A, a two-year M.A, and a five-year Ph.D. Personally, I am not inclined to equate education with the number of years spent in school, but here it rare or impossible for someone to take a different path—either shorter or longer—to the endpoint of Ph.D.

A course of study—for example as an embassy student—consists of a prescribed sequence of “papers” (which I think is the equivalent of what we would call “classes”) that are taught by the faculty, and “practica,” which are based on laboratory work, overseen by a combination of faculty and laboratory technical support. All instruction is carried out in English, though English as a first language is nonexistent in India and (as I have mentioned earlier in this blog) the level of English proficiency is highly variable both among students and university staff.

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Notice the rapt attention on the speaker. Notice the complete segregation by gender in the audience. Coincidence?

The rapport between faculty and students is very different from what I’m used to—there’s an understood superior/subordinate relationship that is way more pronounced than anything you’d find in the States—at least outside of the military. When a professor enters a room, all of the students stop what they’re doing and stand at attention until given permission (a.k.a. “At ease, people!”) to do otherwise by the prof. It also seemed like students were unaccustomed to being asked questions. After I was introduced to several environmental toxicology students I asked them whether they thought that chemical or biological methods were more effective for removing toxins from freshwater habitats—from the introductions I learned that about half were focused on chemical methods and the other half on bioremediation, so I figured this might generate some interesting responses. Instead the students gave me a very distressed look and deferred to their prof, who basically answered my question for them. This was just very weird, and I’m not sure that I could ever get used to it.

ImageI have already seen some evidence that there are suboptimal circumstances that might be inherent to the Indian system for higher education. Two I’m pointing out here are in my opinion serious obstructions: having all instruction take place in what amounts to a second language for both teachers and students, and a disconnectedness between teacher and student that is founded on an understood huge disparity in level that hinders or arrests the students’ intellectual development beyond just the basic lessons. This situation is not universal—I have seen over the past two weeks that Dr. Mani treats Arun and Magesh with both respect and fatherly affection, but he tells me that he is the exception in this regard and most of his colleagues wouldn’t be as chill to grad students. The three of them also communicate with each other freely in Tamil, and I have no doubt that this alone dramatically increases the comfort level.

There is the other obstacle of limited funding that affects more than just teaching. I have been telling Dr. Mani so many times that Bharathiar University should provide the 4×4 he needs for his field excursions that this has become the running joke of our sampling trips. So far we have rented vehicles, taken buses, received free transport from Mani’s contacts, and on this day in Coimbatore Arun was out begging a friend to loan us a Maruti for out trip out to Wayanad.

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Dr. Usha is the one in a turquoise sari. Dr. Arul (the newlywed) is on the right.

Dr. Mani and I had a very productive morning meeting with his department chair, Dr. Usha Rani, and we talked out various scenarios for a potential intellectual exchange through the MOU that was now on the table. There are obvious difficulties matching a community college with an institution focusing entirely on postgraduate education. Dr. Usha made a brilliant suggestion that MiraCosta students might take benefit from short research-focused programs in the Western Ghats that could be based in Coimbatore, while Ph.D. scholars could benefit from internships shadowing and practice teaching with a MiraCosta prof. This might actually work.

For lunch I was invited to join the faculty and staff in a special celebration of Dr. Arul’s recent marriage to a scholar who is close to finishing her Ph.D. at a different university—Pondicherry, as I recall, which is pretty far away, and she just happens to be in town right now. We caravanned to a nearby restaurant and sat at a long table. Interestingly all of the men were at one end of the table and all of women ate together at the opposite end. Okay, maybe a coincidence. By this point I had thought that I was close to proficiency in the art of eating without utensils, but my approach of mixing several dishes together was apparently still considered scandalous. Fortunately the others did not make a big deal about it, and I figured this was a good rationale as any for sheltering the females (with, you know, their more delicate constitution and all) as far away from the disgusting foreigner as possible.

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Yes, I used the same slide that Bill Nye used in his debate with the Ham-ster.

I arrived in the seminar room for my talk about fifteen minutes late, because Dr. Mani kept me in his office that long working out the details of my flight out of Coimbatore for my trip home. [I think he was making sure that I didn’t commit the faux pas of showing up on time for my lecture.] At this point I was less surprised that the whole audience of mostly students stood up when I entered, but I was not expecting the complete gender division of men on one side of the center aisle and women on the other. I guess the seating arrangement at lunch had nothing to do with protecting the women from having to watch my manners after all.

I delivered my talk—which I had rehearsed once with an audience of students and faculty at MiraCosta—and it was well received. By now I was not surprised to not have any questions from the students in the room, and I was able to answer all of the questions from faculty without any difficulty. The topic of my talk was climate change, selected because of its immediate relevance to India as a nation and also because of a documented lack of awareness among the Indian population in general about the science supporting our understanding of its causes and the projections of future impacts on both ecologies and human populations worldwide. I think the topic choice was good. Mani paid me the compliment later that he was surprised that I “did not bore, even though the talk was very long.” [For the record my talk ran exactly 50 minutes!]

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I’m still perplexed by the gender segregation thing. In the fuchsia shawl behind Dr. Usha is Dr. Arul’s newlywed spouse.

After a bit of post-seminar chitchat with the faculty group, Dr. Mani, Dr. Usha and I rounded up our documents and headed over to the office of the Vice Chancellor, which happens to be in the only marble-paved, teak panel-lined, frostily air-conditioned wing of the university’s main building. There was a waiting area, a larger space for a small army of staff and a secretary (there was another secretary inside the VC’s office). As it happened, the VC was held up in another meeting that was going overtime, and we were told to wait in the antechamber, which was appointed with comfortable seating and a large flat-screen display monitor playing a loop of mostly photos of the VC from some of the recent events that he attended as dignitary. I had a nice conversation with Dr. Usha about some of her earlier research with the tribals of Ooty, which is a town in the mountains of Tamil Nadu through which we were going to pass on our way to Wayanad. Dr. Mani caught up with another colleague who was also waiting for an audience with the VC.

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Not exactly sure about the significance of a pink kangaroo, but this li’l mascot was the holder of all waste receptacles on the Bharathiar University campus.

The wait was long, and Dr. Usha had to repeatedly remind the outside secretary that our appointed time had passed and that Dr. Mani and I needed to depart for our next sampling trip as soon as possible. When we finally made it in to meet with this very important dude, it seemed that while he was aware of the MOU proposal, Dr. Usha was informing him for the first time of the details and potential opportunities for students on both sides. We did our best to exchange pleasantries, we shared some coffee, and there was some standard discussion about education-y things like room use, which was all too familiar to me from my two turns as department chair back home. At the end, we were directed to take the documents down to the legal department, who would evaluate the MOU draft that I had brought, make recommendations, etc.

The legal department was on a floor below and had no air conditioning (but a much stronger air of authenticity), and after answering all of their questions, Dr. Mani and I made it back to the Env.Sci building well after 6—far too late to depart and make it to Wayanad at any decent hour. We would stay the night here and make an early start the next morning. Back at the International Guest House, I finally began to catch up on my notes for Periyar—I was discouraged from bringing along my laptop on that trip because we anticipated no electricity and lots of risk of water damage during the stay at Mullakkady. Dr. Mani brought me an interesting dinner of some more elaborate dishes that I had not sampled before.

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