The World as we see fit

It is no hidden fact that we judge people based on our impressions of them. We tend to classify them of being of a certain “type” / “fit”. However, what is of deeper concern is that these ideas are so-inbuilt in us that we often resort to them even at an unconscious level.

We have often heard phrases like “Indians are …”, “Chinese do …”, or “Southerners have …” and so on and so forth. These are just excerpts of a deeper train of thought which runs in people. As Shankar Vedantam puts it in his article The Hidden Brain, “the mind is hard-wired to form associations between people and concepts.” What is more interesting to note (and disconcerting as well) is that these notions are not “biologically based” but that they have been imposed on us through “culture” and “upbringing”. The discriminations on the basis of gender, skin color, religion, sexual orientation are just the manifestations of this inherent thought process. Moreover, these kinds of biases are the hardest to overcome, as they require both conscious effort as well as perseverance, over an extended period of time, and even then success is not always guaranteed.

For those of us who aspire to be teachers in the 21st century it is all the more important that we understand these “stereotypical” ideas that our students will have and devise means to overcome/counter them. Students usually ask their immediate seniors, faculty advisors or mentors regarding the courses that they should take in the upcoming semesters and about the professors that will teach those courses. So, even before they attend the first class, they would have formed an opinion of us based on what others think of us.

To conclude, I feel that we have to be aware of both the conscious as well as the (especially) unconscious responses that we exhibit both in and out of the class, as they will go on to form an “opinion” of us in the minds of students and colleagues alike, for years to come. It is therefore my firm belief that in order to keep a class of 21st century learners together, it is not only necessary to captivate their minds with our teaching, it is also our “duty” as learner-focused educators to recognize/address the diversity present in our class very early and respect it throughout the duration of the course.

Differences in Expectations

People have different expectations from us and we in turn have different expectations from other people. Our family members/relatives want us to be successful and live a happy life. Our teachers and advisors 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 get out of place. Moving from the general to the specific, I am primarily referring to the expectations that we (as the future teachers) will have from our students (as the future learners).

As a matter of fact, I was motivated to write this post because of an incident which occurred when I was TA-ing in my first semester here in Virginia Tech (VT). There was an international graduate student who was in his fourth year of PhD and who used to TA with us for the Open Engineering Lab (OpEL) of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department in VT. Being a new international student myself, we discussed different topics and got along fairly well. However, I noticed that he used to be exceptionally hard on the students when it came to giving grades; he would ask them rather difficult questions and if they could not answer him satisfactorily, he would give them low grades. Over a period of time, students became aware of this fact and started avoiding him to other TAs. 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 occurred to me then as well as now, 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 such focus and dedications/depths of knowledge from the students who 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.

How I viewed my Teachers

Being born and brought up in India, I had a very different view-point 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 in my heart of hearts 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 scenario 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 have always liked to admire the multiplicity of cultures that we find in this country and being a supporter of the doctrine that “no culture is bad”; I believe in absorbing the good practices of other cultures while rejecting the bad ones. 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 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, where neither side feels over-whelmed by the other.