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Thursday, January 10, 2008

On pedagogy and knowing - Responses to BA II sem Additional English students

I found the discussion that was perhaps fuelled by my remarks about combinations interesting and useful. I must thank all those who contributed to it.

In order not to take the classroom time for clarification from my side and also since we have limited number of hours, I wish to engage with the discussion and questions here.

For me, the debate has thrown up a lot of curious questions on the purpose of English, the purpose of Additional English, pedagogic practices, nature of learning and classroom dynamics.

Let me take up one by one.

What is the objective or purpose of Additional English as a subject? At one level it replaces the so called ‘second’ language – for those who cannot or do not want to take up Kannada, Hindi, French or Tamil. In such a case, the paper fulfils merely the structural requirement. If we accept that as given, then the next question is what is the objective of additional English? The only source for the ‘official’ version is the Book of Syllabus. The objectives as laid down in that book are:
1. To introduce the students to contemporary literature
2. To inculcate literary sensibility/taste among students across curriculum
3. To improve language skills both verbal and written
4. To make students read the text critically (Page 34)

The objectives of the II Semester are “To read the text critically; To be aware of the socio-political and cultural aspects of the text; To enable the students to compare and contrast the different cultures.” (Page 36)

I see that the objectives of the course and the paper clearly indicate that the texts are only contextual to discuss other things and to build the language skills of the students. To that extent my three-hour lectures on notions of text and texualities, growth and development of theatre, student presentation and discussion on travelling, on tense, articles, and alphabet, pronunciation are very much in line with the course and paper expectations.

I use a text to bring out the subtexts in the given text by locating it in contexts. From there I try to introduce and challenge the literary, linguistic and critical abilities of the students. It is important for me that I do not prepare you for exams but take you beyond them. The exam needs are taken care of in the process.

I ask questions, problematise the given answers, delay my own answers so that I can inculcate a sense of questioning in them. It is also an attempt to help students to take charge of their learning rather than looking up to teacher as the repository of all knowledge and learning. Towards this end, I use numerous and subtle techniques. Most importantly, I constantly experiment.

There is always a scope to ask questions. I have tried various ways to make you ask questions, and respond, mostly in vain. But I am not disappointed. Since one is trying these things in a system/structure that has different covert demands, it is an uphill task, and one has to do it because one believes in it, and not because one wants to change the world, or one is hopeful of seeing any significant changes or one is going to be recognised or appreciated for it.

With these clarifications let me assure you that should there be any clarification required you are free to seek it any point of time in the class.

However, I have some expectations from the students’ side. Since you know the syllabus and have all the prescribed texts with you, do come to class having read them. In this semester I have not seen it happening. But do it at least in the rest of the semester. When you read please take the help of a dictionary to find out the meanings of words. Despite that if the meanings are not clear do ask me in the class. However, although I welcome questions, if the student does not do the basic required coursework then it does not speak well of that student.

As far as possible raise your questions in the classroom so that they benefit all your classmates.

If you have any suggestions to me or expectations from my side please email them to me or post them in my blog. I will be quite open to look at them.

This apart, the discussion was interesting because it made me look at more closely the questions like what is learning? What is knowing? What is to understand? How does one know that he/she has understood or learnt or knows something? How are learning, knowing constructed for us? Do we have one construction of it or we keep participating in multiple constructions?

Such moments, as the one I encountered in the last class, make me reflect on my own pedagogic and academic practices. I am grateful to you for that as well.

I wish to see your responses to what I have said above and to the discussion we had in the classroom. So email on … or comment on ....


Enid Polymnia said...

The point on disinterest in the class which had arisen lies i think not in the teaching style but in two other factors namely.
1.Students feeling it's not a necessary part and not in the syllabus ...(which has been clarified in the above blog entry..)
2.A weak base in English in many students who have mostly due to the the Education system not had a firm grounding...
..i feel taking these classes as learning something new and not something that one is carrying on from one's past education would enhance one's add english course...

Anil Pinto said...

At one level, i think you have nailed the issue! Your comment is well taken. Thank you for the response.

Enid Polymnia said...

Thank you sir... i hope and wish that others would also take part in these discussions.... and that there will be many more discussions.... :)
Enid Polymnia
A.K.A Elisha Patel

Anil Pinto said...

May your hopes come true...

Anonymous said...

Dear Anil,

My apologies for the delay in responding. You’d understand the reasons, I’m sure.

Firstly, I assume this discussion had taken place in the IV sem class. Although that may sound irrelevant I’d like to know the context of the debate. If I remember right, such discussions have happened before and from my side I have explained the reasons for the presence of such courses and also the way they are.

I wish to look at the issue both as a teacher and as an administrator. As an administrator first: Ad English as you have rightly put, replaces other second languages. In fact, in the past Ad English was offered only to foreigners and to those Indian students who did not study any of these languages at the school level. Of late the university has relaxed the rule and hence many students opt for it because they think it’s easier to score in English. So we had two objectives while preparing the syllabus. One, because of Ad. English other languages must not suffer. Two, we must encourage students to opt for other languages as well as study of our own literatures and cultures is important. Hence a conscious attempt was made to make the Ad English syllabus more challenging. This we thought will attract only those genuinely interested in the subject to opt for it. Consequently all the objectives enumerated on page 34 (quoted by you) will be easy to achieve.

As for the practices in pedagogy I’m glad you are doing the right thing. You are on the right track. You are also very fortunate to have the latest gadgets and teaching tools at your disposal. When I started my career as a teacher I did not have the technological tools that are available today and therefore discussions and debates were confined to classrooms. The kind of visibility offered by technology today to an individual or an organization was impossible twenty years ago. All the same I believe a good teacher must encourage questions and have the courage to experiment and may be …fail. You may not succeed always but a good teacher I guess is someone who is open to changes, willing to change, modify plans, strategies when required. I think that comes from the belief that a teacher is after all a human being and he / she is bound to go wrong, humanly impossible to know everything and therefore there is room for growth. Every class is an opportunity in the teaching / learning process. A good teacher does both (teaching and learning) at once.

However I must caution you that you must ALSO prepare students keeping exams in mind. Yes, you need not, should not stop there but must go beyond the exams. But preparing students for exams is also one of our duties.

All the best!

T said...


Well I would like to take up your invitation to discuss classroom issues other than those you have addressed in your Blog.

The proficiency of professors is a topic which falls far behind in most Indian Universities today, to my mind. Lack of basic language acquisition in their own subject is quite a put off. I dont want to sound rude but I think this is a crucial aspect which really influences students. An incompetent teacher is not inly unable to grasp the attention of his or students but also becomes a topic of ridicule, which is something a guru is not worthy of. But then again the people we put up to students in this fast age, who can actually end up teaching themselves better sitting at home maybe, ought to be professors of a high standing - well read, professional and capable.

There is a lot I would like to talk about and write, but my exams are here and hence leave me no choice but to pen off...

Anil Pinto said...

Very interesting. I look forward to read more of your thoughts.

T said...

I wish i could have written back sooner..

An issue that has been hovering in my mind for quite sometime is that regarding a tendency of professors to deviate from the topic in hand to a tangential discussion.

I whole heartedly agree that it is wonderful for professors to initiate a discussion in class and refer to examples out of the scenario to help explain the concept better to students. However when professors who know a lot tend to branch out from one example to another and another and so on... they lose the classroom far behind. the students lose interest. As long as the tangential topic is relevant the students will listen.. but when a professor tends to just go on and on.. the students dont bother keeping up.

I know professors who realise their tendency to shift their focus and leave the main topic behind and thus request the class to bring them back on track. But I also know professors who take it as their right to actually shift the topic and discuss irrelvant topics in class to try and make their point. This is something that most students dont appreciate and hence lose interest in the class and eventually in the subject. I think if professors restained from doing this the classroom can prove to be a forum of greater debate and exchange of different ideas and interpretations - which to my mind are crucial to any english class.

I dont wish to sound rude or point fingers at anyone. Only trying to give an opinon...hope it shall be taken well..

Anil Pinto said...

I agree with you that it is important to remain closer to the topic under discussion, esp. in the given system.

T said...