On the occasion of Teacher's day, Prof. Saikat Majumdar of Ashoka University speaks to Outlook about teaching in times of Coronavirus pandemic and how it has shaped relationship between teachers and students in virtual classrooms. Excerpts:
Outlook: Does Teachers’ Day feel different this year?
SM: Teaching is not just about offering content; it is also about offering, accepting, and celebrating contact. It is about the presence, the togetherness of students and teachers, the breathing warmth of a community. It is about watching the smile, the flesh-and-blood expression of the “aha” moment and the Eureka effect. The littler they are, the greater the need for contact. You need to hold the hands of little ones as they learn cursive writing. Where is all that now? We’re told our very breath holds the promise of sickness, and probably it does! Are students mere zoom circles on our laptops and iPads? Is the teacher the large blabbering face on the screen from whom you can hide by just turning off your video?
Outlook: Is it all downhill?
SM: No, of course not. The sheer volume of effort students and teachers are putting in to make this virtual system work is an affirmation of teaching and learning spirit everywhere. Shortly become the end of the summer break, I came across an Instagram post that said something like this: “My mother is 56 and she is putting her heart and soul into learning the new technology of online teaching. Class begins tomorrow. She’s extremely nervous! Please be kind and bear with the mistakes this dedicated teacher may make.” It just melted my heart! Indeed, what use is teaching and learning if we cannot navigate new worlds together? And more importantly, new challenges and difficulties? The world hasn’t felt a challenge of this nature and scale since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Will there be learning loss? Yes, of course. But times like these teach us that learning is not just about acquiring information, but more importantly, acquiring readiness to deal with the alien – be it other people, different situations, the absurd 180 degree turns life is notorious for taking.
Outlook: What are the key lessons students and teachers can take away from this crisis?
SM: You know, I’m in this not just as a teacher, but also as a parent. The other day my six-year old was bouncing around in bed after his morning class. “Don’t mess up your shirt,” I told him. “You have another class at 11.” He kept jumping without a care in the world. “Don’t worry, papa,” he assured me, “I’ll just touch up my appearance on Zoom.” I was quite speechless! If this isn’t a brave new world, what is? The good news is that we’re going to emerge from this at least five years ahead of our time in terms of technological literacy and perhaps even tech development. Have you noticed how many new features the online class-venues have added, and how quickly? Maybe in a world where we can travel again, we can teach in transit, from airports, from any locations, if emergencies arise. Right before the pandemic hit, our single biggest problem at Ashoka was what to do about the deadly pollution weeks in November – declare a break, shift classes, change the semester-structure? Now the problem of these two weeks is fixed with a stroke on the keyboard, safely zoomed inside the virtual space.
Outlook: This has affected the whole world. Has it brought teachers and students across the world closer to each other?
SM: A friend of mine who teaches in a university in New York recently made a post on Facebook where she wondered about her student in Vietnam who had to attend classes at 4 am. She was brainstorming of the ways to make this a more realistic experience for this student. Asynchronous learning – where the teaching and learning happens at different times (and of course, places), is one of the solutions. Most classroom sessions are now being recorded. I let every lecture of mine be recorded. We have colleagues at our university who are teaching from different parts of the world – and their commitment and dedication is staying up at the oddest of hours to teach is impossible to believe unless you see it! At this rate, webinars will bring together speakers from Mars and Pluto in real time – and this too, is an acquisition we won’t be letting go even after we get our physical lives back!
Outlook: Are there students and teachers who are particularly vulnerable in this crisis?
SM: So many lives and livelihoods have revealed themselves as frail and precarious. We all saw the news report a few days ago, that guest teachers of art and music were let go by Delhi government schools as classes went online. What kind of a teachers’ day did we prepare for them? Why is art, music and other creative activities the first to be axed in any crisis? As for students, by now we’ve seen pictures of vulnerability that have never come to the fore like this. It was probably best illustrated by that little girl who had to climb on the rooftop of her thatched village hut to get workable signal for her online class, on the only device the family could afford. On this teachers’ day, let’s promise to will and work for such students and teachers, in every way we can. We will come out of this beaten, bruised, but stronger.
(Saikat Majumdar is Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University and the higher education columnist for Outlook. He tweets @_saikatmajumdar)
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