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.