How I viewed my Teachers

Being born and brought up in India, I had a very different opinion of Teachers with respect to what I found here in the US. Since my childhood, I was made to believe that teachers were infallible people; that they were responsible for maintaining discipline in the class and that they knew most on the subject they taught. It was unthinkable for me to argue with a teacher even if I knew that I was right. The teacher could punish me (even physically, at times) if I did something wrong and it was in his/her right to deduct points if he/she felt that I had crossed the line.

Strangely enough, this concept of the teacher being the disciplinarian did not change even when I went to middle school, high school and even as an under-grad. This idea was so home to me (and to most of my classmates) that I/we never pointed out the teacher’s mistakes openly. Even if he/she wrote something incorrectly on the black-board, we believed it to be our responsibility to correct that in our notes or in the worst case point it out at the end of the class. The norm was such that it was considered rude on the part of the student to stop a teacher during his/her discourse to ask “stupid” questions or (worse) to point out his/her mistakes.

So one can clearly imagine the great cultural shock that I was in for when I started attending classes in the US. Here, I found that students had the kind of freedom that I could not even dream about. They could interrupt a teacher during his/her lecture and ask questions which might be relevant to, but at the same time very different from, the topic being discussed. To be very frank, I was really amazed at the guts of these “American” students. They could think “out-of-the-box” and “argue” coherently in a manner that we (international students, in general) never thought was possible. They could challenge the so-called existing norms and (what was really surprising) more often than not, get away with it!

I feel that the kind of freedom that students get here is essential for the learner-centered pedagogy that we want to go for in the near future. Although I don’t advocate giving uncontrolled freedom to the students, I do believe that there should be a “balance of power” between students and teachers and more importantly, students should not be in fear of their teachers. I believe that the best way to disseminate knowledge in the 21st century will be to have an open environment, where teachers and students can interact freely; to create an atmosphere where neither side feels over-whelmed by the other.

Philosophy about being a Faculty Member

I grew up seeing my father, an electrical engineer from IIT Delhi (one of the most prestigious institutions in India), do his PhD and join university as a professor. Although, I did not know much about teaching and research at that time, ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to be a professor like him. I have seen first-hand how he captivates the minds of his students, how he guides and inspires them, how he works with them to come-up with results; and to me those are the most important qualities to have as a faculty member.

To me, teaching is all about capturing the imagination of my students – to make complicated topics simpler and simpler topics more fascinating – that will be my goal! I believe my role in a class will be to facilitate the transfer of knowledge through audible and visible gestures, similar to the conductor of an orchestra. I intend to treat my students as adults and give them the respect that they deserve. I plan to rely more on my personal appearance and voice, rather than slides or chalk-boards, as I have realized through personal experience, how much more powerful the former are in comparison to the latter. While interacting with my students/mentees, I will encourage them to think-out-of-the-box and explore new ideas so as to make them independent thinkers.

According to me, teaching and research go together – if teaching is all about capturing the imagination of one’s students, then research is all about capturing the imagination of one’s peers. I believe that my role as a researcher will be to solve problems and answer questions which will benefit my field of research and my university, in particular, and the society, at large. I intend to publish quality papers in peer-reviewed as well as open-access journals so as to create a bigger demand for my work. I plan to do inter-disciplinary research with colleagues from within the university and without so as to increase interest as well as applicability of my research. When conflicts arise, either with my students or colleagues, I will try to come up with a win-win solution while being as impartial and ethical as I can be.

This, in short, summarizes my philosophy about being a faculty member.

Difference in Expectations

People have different expectations from us and we in turn have different expectations from other people. Our friends and family members want us to be successful and live a happy life. Our teachers and advisers expect us to do quality work/research. We, in turn, want them to guide us and help us avoid the pitfalls in life and to root for us when the time so desires. The problem arises when these expectations become out-of-place. Moving from the general to the specific, I am referring to the expectations that we (as the future teachers) will have from our students (as the future learners). My primary concern being that these differences will become more and more acute as our classes become more and more diverse.

As a matter of fact, I was motivated to write this post because of an incident which occurred when I was a Teaching Assistant in my first semester at VT. There was an international graduate student who was in his fourth year of PhD and who was Teaching Assistant in the same lab as mine. Being a new “international” student myself, we discussed different topics and got along fairly well. However, I noticed that he was exceptionally hard on students in terms of giving grades. He would ask them rather difficult questions and if they could not answer him satisfactorily, he would give them very low grades. Over a period of time, students became aware of this fact and started avoiding him. So one day, I asked him why he did what he did and he said that corresponding under-grads from his home country were expected to know the answers to the question that he asked and that is what he was finding out/ensuring.

Now, although I respected his motives, it occurs to me that his efforts were misdirected. Had he been teaching the course, his logic could still be justified, but since he only graded them based on the experiments they performed, I feel that it is not right for him to expect so much from them. Students brought up in this environment should not be compared with those brought up in other environments. International students especially have gone through a lot more stress and pressure in the formative years of their life so as to make it here (the US). It would be wrong on their part to expect similar focus and dedications/depths of knowledge from students who may have never been exposed to such conditions. I believe that we should evaluate the students based on what they do know and how well they know it, rather than on what they do not know. I have seen enormous potential in the students growing up in the schools and colleges of US and I feel that it is our duty (as future educators) to tap into this potential and not let it get bottled up or go waste.

Peer Review

I read an interesting article in the Times Higher Education [1] which talked about peer pressure from the peer review point of view. Most graduate students and tenure-track faculty members have to publish frequently to stay ahead of their contemporaries. The fact that they publish so many papers also implies that a lot of such papers get reviewed by their colleagues. The problem occurs when the reviewers are not experienced enough to provide a genuinely good review. In such a case, ground-breaking work may also get rejected because of the reviewer’s inability to comprehend the research that has been done.

Even from my personal experience, I wrote a journal paper based on my Master’s Thesis on Control of inter-area oscillations in power systems. It got rejected from a reputed journal because one of the reviewers said that we did not properly address “damping of wind energy conversion systems”. The fact that our paper had nothing to do with “damping of wind energy conversion systems” had completely escaped the reviewer. When we submitted the same paper to another reputed journal in my field, it got accepted in the first review itself.

Instances like these make me feel (and I am sure based on [1] that I am not the only author who feels this), if the peer-review process is really as reliable as we make it out to be? I agree that reviewing a paper written by someone else is a tedious task. One has to initially understand the underlying theories and assumptions, and then try to estimate the value of the work. But as academicians, isn’t this what we are expected to do? Isn’t that our moral responsibility?



Publish or Perish!!!

The academic world has been plagued with this dilemma for quite some time now. Wikipedia describes it as the “pressure in academia to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or further one’s career” [1]. Nowadays, it has become necessary to publish more and more papers as frequently as possible in order to demonstrate one’s academic talent. But is that the sole goal of doing research? Shouldn’t focus be given more to quality than to quantity? These are some of the fundamental questions that the present world of academia needs to find answers to.

This mad race to publish more and more had its origins in the late 1990s. Before that, scholars would publish only when the final objective of the research had been attained. In the 1980s, graduate students would publish papers only after their dissertation was over and/or when a considerable breakthrough had been made. Focus, at that time, was more on the content of the publication rather than the time it had taken to publish it. But as industry and money became more involved with research, scholars started publishing their results while the work was in progress. This resulted in the first paper becoming the precursor to the second, the second paper for the third, and so on and so forth; i.e. instead of one good paper encompassing the complete work, a plethora of papers emerged describing sections of the work done. Instead of doing “radical” improvement focus was shifted to doing “iota” improvement.

The justification that university administrators gave for stressing more on publications was based on the notion that it would act as an impetus for scholars to do cutting-edge research early on in their career. However, the flip-side of this argument was that scholars in their efforts to publish more and more gave less and less time to develop good research ideas. Moreover, in their efforts to publish, scholars were often forced to forsake part/whole of their teaching responsibilities resulting in a break in the knowledge transfer process which is so important in higher education. The fact that getting “tenure” depended greatly upon the number of publications one had, did not help either.

So the question to be answered is – what can be done to avoid falling in this trap? How can we do quality research and still publish (at a decent pace) to maintain our academic prowess? Well, one innovative approach that IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) [2] uses to address this issue is to split publications into two groups – conferences and journals. Conferences are more in number and easier to publish in; Journals are much less in number and are much more difficult to publish in. However, getting a journal publication is considered much more creditable than having a conference paper. Thus, those scholars who want to publish more can do so in the form of conference papers whereas those who want to do high-quality research have the option of getting their work accepted in a journal. Another option that is becoming very popular is “Open Access”. Wikipedia describes it as the “practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles” [3]. Through Open Access, scholars can attain a higher citation index for their paper as well as disseminate their work more easily to the general public. It is believed that by making more people familiar with one’s work, researchers (especially tenure-track faculty) can increase their funding opportunities considerably.

To conclude, these options are creating a win-win situation where both the individual, in particular, as well as the academic world, at large, is benefited. I feel that separating publications into conferences and journals as well as Open Access are great ideas and that more and more disciplines/institutes should follow these tactics to ease the load on their respective scholars/members.





How comfortable are you with your own voice??!

The genesis for this blog post comes from an interesting experience that I had last week.

One of my professors had asked me and a colleague of mine to prepare videos on the usage of two power system software simulators that we used very often in our field and with which both of us were very familiar with. He wanted us to add as much details as we could in the videos as he intended to show them to the students of the course that he was teaching and who were not yet familiar with the two simulators. After we prepared our videos and sent them in to the professor, my colleague and I started talking about how each of us went about in making the videos. It was then that he told me that he had completely removed his voice from the video that he had made and had replaced his talk with written sentences which would pop-up on the screen when he wanted to “say” something. This was something which struck me as odd, so when I asked him the reason for it, he said “I am not comfortable hearing to my own voice.”

I did not give much thought to it that moment, but now as I contemplate on the things that we have gone through in preparing ourselves for a future professor position, I feel becoming comfortable with one’s own voice is something that is really important. Now, I know for a fact that it is weird to listen to oneself talk, but I feel that in the teaching profession, it is imperative that we do not shirk away from it. In today’s digital world where we talk about online classes and giving lectures over the internet, it becomes necessary to not only speak, but speak confidently about the work we have done/the course that we are teaching to audiences who might not be able to see us or communicate with us in any other way. For them, our voice and our video/slides will be everything. Our voice and video/slides will interest them, guide them, challenge them, and inspire them. In such a scenario, if we deprive them of our “speech”, then we are reducing by at-least 50% (maybe more) the knowledge that we could have transferred.

To conclude, I feel that although we are not accustomed to hearing ourselves speak, we should take every opportunity that we get to “talk” out loud. In the current academic environment of higher education, it is our responsibility to make things easier to learn for our students, and “talking” to them in a “comfortable” manner is one of the simplest ways of doing it.

Power of Expression

Whether it is in my home country (India) or in the US, one thought that has often occurred to me when it comes to teaching has been the “power of expression” of the teacher. It plays such an important role when one has to transfer knowledge from himself/herself to a wider audience.

I have often seen that it is not the most knowledgeable teacher that becomes most popular amongst the students but the teacher who can best “explain” oneself. Moreover, I have also felt that teachers/researchers who know the most or have done a lot of work in their respective field are not very comfortable talking about their own work in front of the “uninitiated”. It is in these respects that I feel that the “power of expression” becomes so important.

In lieu with this thought, when I attended the class on “Communicating Science”, I re-realized how learning to better communicate with others will not only help the “others” but will also help oneself. The fact that in order to bring money in the form of projects/grants requires being able to explain one’s work to the “lay” man/woman and make him/her interested enough to invest in it clearly summarizes the importance of the “power of expression”.  To conclude, in the current academic environment of higher education, I feel that being able to express one’s work is as much important or (more often) more important, than being able to do the work in the first place.

Indian Education System – an insider’s view

(Although I had written this blog entry for the Contemporary Pedagogy Course in Spring 2012, based on the discussion that we had in the last class, I feel that it is relevant for this course as well.)

Indian students are generally forced to choose between one of the two fields – engineering or medical. “3 Idiots” ( is an Indian movie which has depicted this fact beautifully. One of the dialogues in that movie goes like this – “My father wants to know the sex of the unborn child as he wants to know whether there will be an engineer in the house or a doctor. If it’s a boy, he will be an engineer and if it’s a girl, she will be a doctor”. Although it might sound funny to people who are not used to statements like these, believe me, when I say that it’s one of the most commonly-held sentiments in an average Indian family.

The general view of the masses is that only an engineer/doctor can bring prosperity to the house. People (especially boys) who want to pursue a life in arts/humanities are typically termed “losers” and in order to succeed, they not only have to compete against their peers but the society (social stigma) as well. Considering the fact that India is the second most populous country in the world, one does not need the brains of an Einstein to figure out the immense cut-throat competition that a child has to go through to survive the first twenty years of his/her conscious existence.

However, there is a positive side to this as well. The individual who comes out of this highly pressurized system is ready to face any challenge that is thrown at him/her. Irrespective of the stream that he/she has followed, once he/she emerges successfully out of this “system”, he/she becomes an asset to the company/firm that he/she joins. He/She can hold his/her own against the toughest of opponents and the hardest of situations. It would not be wrong to say that he/she is the “coal” that has metamorphosed under immense pressure and strain to become what the world cherishes – a “diamond”. Thus, although this kind of an “education” system might be unbalanced and painful for those in it, in the long run, it does benefit the individual, in particular and the society at large.

My experiences with NCEPU Students

Whereas my last blog (Higher Education System in China – as viewed through the eyes of a Foreigner), was directed towards higher education in general, this blog entry is focused more on the students that I have come across here. By here, I mean the North China Electric Power University (NCEPU) situated in the 5th ring of the bustling city of Beijing, the capital of China.

Till now, I have had the opportunity to talk with quite a few students who are pursuing their higher education here. We have had discussions in the presence as well as in the absence of their advisers, both inside the school as well as outside. And the quality that was most salient during all these discussions with them was the high level of motivation that they possessed. Irrespective of their individual fields of interest and number of years in school, their hunger for knowledge was as apparent as was their level of sincerity and dedication.

I have given two presentations till now and both of them have been followed by very specific and to-the-point questions. It was really amazing to see them pick things up as fast as they did and then try to apply it to solve their own problems. Their curiosity to know more about what people from other parts of the world are doing and their eagerness to learn those new concepts and incorporate them in their work are definitely the reasons why they are coming up so fast. As for me, to present about one’s work in front of such a talented group of students has been a rewarding experience in itself. As is to be expected, the discussions that have followed these talks have been highly mutually beneficial. I am eagerly looking forward to more of such interactions in the next few days.

Higher Education System in China – as viewed through the eyes of a Foreigner

During the course of this semester (Fall 2012), I got a chance to visit the North China Electric Power University (NCEPU) located in Beijing, China. I came here to give a talk on the research that I had done in my field at Virginia Tech. This trip provided me with a wonderful opportunity to view up-close the higher education system of the power group at NCEPU and through it, that of the nation itself. The fact that I am writing this blog while still on Chinese soil is an indication of the influence that it has had on me.

On my first day here, I got a chance to interact with the students who were working under the guidance of the professor who had invited us to China. We started talking about courses, research and classes. They had three, 2-hour courses for every subject in a week. I found out that here, more stress was given to the teaching done in class rather than homework/take-home assignments. There also appeared to be no mid-terms and surprise tests; just a final exam (although these could be specific to the program they were in). A lot of stress was given on publishing the results and making others aware of the work that they had done, as was apparent from the number of papers that the group had written in the recent past. Novelty of work was also emphasized as their PhD committee included two people which were unknown to the students and who would independently judge the quality of the dissertation.

Regarding the students themselves, the first thing that I noticed was their sincerity and dedication towards their work. The language was indeed a barrier initially (the courses being taught in Chinese, and all) but once we got over that, I found the students to be very bright and exceptionally fast on the uptake. The questions they asked were to the point and valid and the discussions that ensued were beneficial to both them as well as myself. I was also amazed to see the amount of respect and devotion that the students had for their professors/advisers.

It has been an interesting two days that I have spent here and am really looking forward to knowing more about the “Chinese way of imparting education” in the coming week.