Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Academic Goal

There is a growing amount of confusion regarding what academics should be doing in their profession. What ought to be their contribution to the world? This is an important question to ask. Equally important is the question: What ought NOT to be activities that they be expected to directly engage in? I think the latter needs our attention first.

Let us start from ground up. I am going to restrict myself to the framework of engineering education. But I suppose one can extrapolate these thoughts to other disciplines as well.

The first engineering degree that is offered is a Bachelors degree. When a student graduates with a B.Tech. (or B.E., BS, etc.), it is expected that he/she is capable of solving day to day engineering problems in his/her discipline. Furthermore, there is, in general, sufficient breadth of instruction in a good B.Tech. program to enable students to think across disciplines and be part of teams that carry out real world engineering tasks that are by and large inter-disciplinary.

Important realization 1: When one asks whether an academic institute has contributed towards solving day to day real world engineering problems of society, one must realize that the contribution made by the institute at this level is in training its undergraduate students effectively. Full stop. From there on, it is for:

(a) The graduating students to have the commitment to "give back" to the society and country that has nurtured them that far. This is particularly relevant for students who go through schools and colleges where education is subsidized. The subsidy is an investment the society makes with a trust that beneficiaries of the same will take the society forward when they are educated. And I do not believe it is enough to just give back monetarily - the investment is made so that the country moves forward in a given sector (i.e. moves forward technologically as far as engineering education is concerned and other relevant sectors for other areas of education). There can be exceptions occasionally of course as students discover what drives and motivates them over time and/or their interests diversify. But the underlying principle needs to be to take up the challenge of taking the country forward and thus "give back" to the society that has nurtured you. Will their be difficulties one might have to face? Frustrations to be dealt with? Quite possibly yes. But then many a people have faced their share of obstacles over the last several centuries to bring the country to where it is today. There is no reason me and you should turn our backs on our responsibilities now that its our turn to do our bit.

(b) The society to absorb graduates in meaningful professions and compensate them sensibly for their services. This absorption can happen in terms of government/public-sector enterprises or perhaps private companies. And while I do think our youth needs to be more committed than it perhaps is today, I also think we have fallen short on creating enough opportunities with the passage of time. Some of our organizations like ISRO and BARC have done well. But I do think our public as well as private sectors overall need to do much more than they have in terms of creating a scenario wherein highly talented and bright graduates can feel the fulfillment of participating in challenging assignments and feel like they are making a meaningful contribution. And the onus of ensuring this happens does not lie on the institute that trains students. It lies on the world outside the institute.

The job of an academic himself or herself is not to solve a society's day to day engineering problems directly but rather contribute by teaching those who can do so effectively. And no, this is not an easy task. It requires professors to be at the forefront of their respective disciplines and be able to transmit knowledge effectively. Well delivered lectures that cover the subjects in sufficient breadth and depth, exposure to appropriately designed problems that serve to clarify concepts and show how to apply them, meaningful laboratory experiments, testing a student's knowledge from time to time and providing feedback. All this is easier said than done and requires great thought and effort if it has to be done really well.

So the next time you ask: "What have these institutes done for the country?", realize that you are asking the wrong question. The institutes are doing their job quite well. The correct questions to ask are sitting in points (a) and (b) above.

Then comes the Masters degree. The objective behind M.Tech. level training is to prepare a student to work in advanced areas of technology. Teaching is at a more advanced level and there is usually a significant project/thesis component associated with this level of education that prepares the students to work on problems that are tougher, longer and possibly without any ready made solution at hand - thus requiring the student to think for him/herself and solve the problem at hand independently.

Again, it is not the academic's job to address every technological challenge that arises in various sectors directly. Rather they train those who can. And, again, it all sounds way easier than it really is.

We need to ask ourselves: "Have we created enough avenues to absorb people who have the talent and training to contribute at an advanced level in different areas of technology?". The answer is, sadly, nowhere near enough. Barring a few exceptions like ISRO and BARC, we haven't been serious enough about advancing our own technology sector. Rather we have stayed satisfied with simply buying technology that is developed in other parts of the world. And unless we address this lacuna, we can kiss our dreams of being a technologically advanced nation goodbye. [As an example of what I have just said: How difficult do you think it really is to set up factories where we manufacture our own aircraft for civil transport?]

Finally, the PhD degree. This is when those few who appreciate the value of advancing frontiers of knowledge associate themselves with a professor who can guide them, take them along in their respective disciplines to the point of "We don't know more than this yet" and engage them in pushing the boundaries of knowledge further. Thus entereth he/she into the domain of knowledge discovery.

Some of these students go on to becoming scientists (or equivalent full time knowledge discovery professionals in fields other than science and technology) while others may prefer to pursue an academic career where they participate in teaching as well.

Again, are we (a) training our PhD students well enough and (b) absorbing them to the extent we should be?

To understand the manner in which an academic contributes to society, let us ask ourselves the following question:

"Do we value knowledge - both for its power to improve the quality of life if applied wisely and the role it plays in satiating our curiosity and inspiring a sense of wonder and awe in us? Are we curious? Do we want to understand the world we live in and the laws that govern this universe? Or are we content with sleep walking through our lives? Some food, some booze, some sex and that is that.

Important realization 2: And this is where the essence of an academic lies.  An academic is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. That is his/her real goal. And that is also the means through which he/she most meaningfully contributes to the world. It is for the world to grow up and be mature enough to realize how valuable this is.

To understand where things have gone wrong in our country from the viewpoint of knowledge discovery, consider this: Pretty much any book dealing with any field of science and technology (I don't know enough about other fields to comment on them) that you pick up today contains knowledge that has by and large been discovered outside our country. Our input, either in terms of modern knowledge or aspects of traditional knowledge that may still be relevant and worthwhile, is pretty much non existent. One of the reasons this has happened is we have misunderstood the academic's role at a very fundamental level. We have turned things upside down. Our (mis)understanding is that professors are meant to primarily be in classrooms i.e. they are teachers first then anything else. What this translates to is professors (at least in science and technology) in our country being required to simply assimilate knowledge discovered elsewhere and spend hours and hours in the classroom to pass it on to the next generation. Then comes all this noise about how professors should be solving problems that in fact our bachelors and masters degree holders should be. At the end of it all, this is how much value addition happens in terms of knowledge discovery: Zero.

If we don't correct our understanding now, we will still be in the same boat fifty years from today. We will still be reading books that contain knowledge discovered by other people elsewhere. Neither would we have made a significant contribution to the global knowledge community in modern knowledge nor would we have been able to revive those aspects of our traditional knowledge that may still be relevant and worthwhile but can get lost in obscurity due to not being studied systematically. And if we don't consolidate our identity in the field of knowledge, we are going to stay behind overall. We will always be the world's backyard. Many may come and "Make in India" but we will never really reach the level where we "Create in India" and capture the world's imagination. You can be absolutely assured of this.

An academic is a discoverer of knowledge first, a philosopher first, a thinker first, then a teacher. An academic's primary job is to be at the very frontiers of knowledge and take our understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in further. Academics need to be given the space to immerse themselves wholly in knowledge, spending almost all their time in their offices and labs, contemplating deeply on fundamental problems and challenges in their fields, guiding their research groups, and from time to time (no more than 3-4 hours a week), delivering lectures of the highest quality to students. If a higher number of academics need to be hired to maintain this emphasis on knowledge discovery and keep teaching loads under control, so be it.

[Among other things, this will most likely also break the "spoon feeding" culture that has overwhelmed our supposed "teaching philosophies". A whole lot of learning has to be done by oneself. Students need to realize this. The act of reading would be a good a starting point. I doubt most students, at least in India, read even one book in their subjects cover-to-cover and try to solve the given exercise problems in their entire undergraduate or postgraduate academic programs. The expectation is: come to class, the prof says it all, you take down notes, go to tutorials, the tutors solve it all, you take down notes, cram for exams at the last minute, somehow pass. I'm convinced this is not how it is meant to be. Read books! They have been written so that you may read them. Solve problems! Pretty much every book has solved examples to get you started. Struggle a bit. Try and grasp concepts yourself. Discuss your doubts with your fellow students. This is what a "hostel atmosphere" should be like. Create it!]

Some of the knowledge an academic or a scientist uncovers may feed back into applications that (hopefully) improve our quality of life and the planet. But perhaps of equal, if not more, value is the viewpoint that knowledge is also valuable in itself. It satiates curiosity just as food satiates hunger. If we are awake and curious to start with that is.

The day we become clear about what academics really should be doing, how they can be most valuable to us, we will most likely stop jumping up and down and making all sorts of noises which neither make much sense nor lead us to solving whatever problems we think we may be facing. We will let them get on with they should be doing and ourselves get on with what we should be instead of crowding at their gates and demanding in one loud tumultuous din: "Why the hell aren't you repairing our mixers, ACs and cars?"

[Please note: My use of the term "Professor" above has nothing to do with the academic hierarchy of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor. It simply reflects the essence of a role played by an academic. These designations (ideally) reflect the growth and maturity of an academic as he/she perseveres in his/her quest for knowledge. But hierarchical considerations are best set aside when it comes to the actual work being done. So when I say "Professor", I am including all three levels in the term.

It wouldn't be necessary to point this out explicitly in more sensible academic communities elsewhere. All this is understood. All faculty members are addressed as "Professor" in a typical US university for example. But I think it is necessary to elaborate in the Indian context where the University Grants Commission (UGC) has wrecked havoc with these hierarchical divisions.]

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