Address from Prof. Saikat Majumdar, Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University

Picture by Tribhuvan Tiwari, Outlook Magazine

Most countries are now under complete lockdown due to coronavirus outbreak. The rapid spread of the deadly virus has pressed a pause button on life on earth. With the postponement of board exams, university admission and all other academic activities, students across the world are left in the lurch, totally vexed and uncertain about their future. We at got in touch with Prof Saikat Majumdar, Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University to get some insight into what the future holds for the student community.


A selected excerpt –


Q. With academic activities including exams and admissions now postponed, the student community is facing a lot of challenges. What according to you should be their approach to the challenges?


 A:  The important thing to pay attention to right now is that the learning process does not get interrupted, especially for students who will be facing crucial exams in the near future. To predict patterns of interruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, higher education research has turned to experts who have studied the impact of the summer break, which is particularly long in the US.


Jennifer McCombs, a senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation, who has studied the learning-interruption impact of the summer break, points to learning loss across the board, but particularly in mathematics, followed by reading, with the latter especially severe with low-income students. “Across the board in all of these studies,” she says, “from the very early studies through the more modern studies, low-income students are falling behind their higher-income peers during the summer months.”


Research on summer learning lacuna is the best available resource right now to predict the impact of the Corona-induced break in the schedules of exams and academic semesters, which in any case now looks ominously poised to bleed into the summer. One option here is transferring instruction to remote and online methods – about that more below.


Q. As you know students who were writing their 12th board this year are particularly apprehensive about the future course. What suggestions do you have for them?


A: Students in India 2020 need to become open new and evolving admission criteria and expectations. Back in the 20th century, it was a pretty straightforward affair. It was a matter of marks obtained in the previous board or university exams; sometimes along with a written admission test in a fixed format. While those options still exist, primarily in the traditional public universities, there is a whole range of private universities with innovative curricula and pedagogy, which require a whole different kind of admission preparation.


Over the last few decades, IQ and standardized tests have come to be seen as limited, to assessing skills already privileged, especially of dominant social groups. Subsequently, selection processes have sought to expand themselves, to evaluate not just narrow testing skills, but to reach out to the whole personality of the applicant as much as possible. Grades in board exams still play a role, and an important one at that, but there are many other factors now factored in: the personal essay, standardized and customized aptitude tests, on-the-spot writing, and crucially, the personal interview.


This is a good time to expand one’s strengths on the whole and cultivate other aspects of the personality so that you are ready for the new age admission methods as well, which will greatly expand their academic choices. This is especially true for students aspiring for admissions to colleges abroad, especially to the United States – though things on that front will be shaky this academic year due to the Coronavirus pandemic.


Q. How do you think students should spend this gratuitous leisure?


A. One very important measure to take at a time like this is to transition to remote and online learning. It is in any case a need for the future, even in good times. However, with the current pandemic backdrop, against the urgent need to withdraw, to practice physical isolation, online instruction via videoconferencing can be a real solution and can provide great satisfaction to both students and teachers. I’ve experienced this firsthand myself. Whether or not this pandemic is followed by a worldwide economic depression, suddenly more people may have time for that online course they always fancied but for which they never had the time. Better-equipped institutions have made a quick transition to remote and online instruction. Different instructors are adapting differently to virtual teaching, to say nothing of the unique demands of each discipline. However, here too, Here too, computer access, internet bandwidth, private space, and stable home conditions – in other words, the socio-economic conditions of students may turn out to be quick determinants of success in online learning. Institutes and instructors, whether of formal schools or private preparatory organizations, need to be mindful of the staggered ability to adjust to online learning that will inevitably characterize a diverse student body.


Q. Roal Dahl’s poem, Television is now relevant like never before. In his 93 lined poems, Dahl emphatically reiterated the importance of reading, especially for children. With ample time in hand, what should the student community read?


A. If you want a cluster of book and film recommendations, the best thing to do is to try to obtain the curriculum/syllabi of different institutions, even of colleges, to see what is being read, viewed, and studied. A syllabus is essentially a roadmap, a curated menu of items that an individual can follow even outside classroom space.


The most important thing is that students do not fall back on screen for nonstop entertainment and social interaction. That can be potentially devastating in the long run, as it will seriously debilitate learning and general cognitive functions. The screen should be used for good films, online instructions, and face-time interaction with friends. Outside of that, do read real books, engage in physical activity as much as possible, talk to people around you – many people are not so lucky as they are spending this time purely on their own, in pure, mind-numbing isolation.


Prof. Majumdar is the author of several books, including College: Pathways of Possibility (Bloomsbury, 2018), which explains career and career options in the 21st century. He tweets higher education news and analysis at @_saikatmajumdar.

Translate »
%d bloggers like this: