Being a Faculty Member-musings

A vedic shloka, from ancient India describes a teacher as an entity far superior than the Almighty himself. An individual who personifies an amalgamation of the three supreme forces accounted for creation of the world, sustenance of the world and possible annihilation of the world. This Sanskrit shlok, which is offered as a prayer to the teacher, captures in essence, the ideal qualities which an educator must embody.

|| Gurur brahma, gurur Vishnu,
gurur devo maheshwarah
Gurur saakshaat para-brahma
Tasmai shri guruve namah||

 The teacher clearly is a creator, for s/he shapes interest and intellect of young adults to help them better contribute to the society and eventually, the world. S/he is responsible for helping the students sustain a steady growth in terms of learning and responsibility bearing, while the teacher is also responsible for annihilation of all behavior or sentiments that foster negativity and potentiate distress.

An online dictionary defines a ‘faculty member’ to be an educator who works at a college or university. Faculty members, however, in addition to teaching have additional roles and responsibilities towards the collegiate environment they belong to.

Teaching, Research and Service. The VirginiaTech directives for faculty are clear, concise and apt. It is also manifold in the interpretations that one may derive from it. Depending on the type of institution, faculty may be required to indulge in teaching or research or both. Speaking, on a broader context, in my opinion, a faculty member needs to foremost be a good human being. This means that s/he needs to be able to be honest, hard-working, sincere, committed and humane. S/he should be devoid of any conscious or sub-conscious bias and must be able to equally facilitate all of his/her students and work towards the better of each one.

Faculty members also need to be able to be brave enough to take a stand against injustice and prejudice and help with administration to build an environment conducive to learning and community building. This necessitates the need for faculty members to have a strong sense of belonging towards the university in which they serve. It is necessary for faculty members to be an active part of the administration, rather than be detached or submissive to it. They need to have a voice in the framing of rules and regulations and ensure that their students are also able to voice out their respective concerns. For instance, with the Graduate Honor Society at VirginiaTech, wherein faculty members participate in meting out justice and fair treatment to students by being part of the judiciary panel and the like.

Faculty members should be accountable to the students. They should be able to engage the students with their teaching, research or through recreation. A faculty member should also be patient enough to help students effectively participate in the teaching-learning process. S/he should also be mature enough to not blindly influence the student to follow his/her footsteps but rather be able to think for their own selves and to be able to question existing norms and figure out the right path using their own rationale. Thus, a faculty member can serve to be a guide and a mentor but should not dictate directions autocratically.

Responsibility towards students apart, faculty members also must be able to represent the university to which they belong. Thus they must partake in serving to better the university’s repute in a professional arena as well as in the community. Faculty members need to be good citizens and globi-zens. As faculty members, individuals should be able to be willing to learn and embrace change. They should be able to adapt to newer technologies and implement them into their interactions to facilitate better communication with peers or students or administration. Faculty members must also try to be part of the hiring committees and ensure that quality of teachers and non teaching faculty are at par with the university standards and student expectations. They must also help newer and lesser experienced faculty to understand the working of the university procedures and processes. They should also be able to encourage graduate students to take up academe as a profession.

Presence and availability are key factors that faculty members must address A good faculty member being one who is accessible to his colleagues and students rather than virtually present. The faculty member thus needs to be able to effectively and efficiently manage time and resources to be able to fit optimal amount of tasks into a 24 hour work day.

In the present day and age, where-in the education system is tending towards being more and more commoditized and commercialized, the faculty members have an additional role in not yielding to solely monetary influences. The primary objective of college as a teaching-learning-community building institution should be understood and practiced. Grades and degrees should not be ‘distributed’ rather there must be an inculcation of a sense of ownership and pride for a degree ‘earned’ amongst students. This is also true for papers published. Faculty members should not let external influences such as tenure concerns back the motive for paper publishing. External influences can result in decreasing the quality of the end product and making research a compulsion rather than an interest. Sharing of knowledge should not be a task to check off of a list, but rather a long term commitment towards others in the discipline one is engaged in.

Faculty must also be good role models and have a stable work-life balance. Excessive commitment bordering on obsession towards ones work-life can cater to negatively influencing the younger (often) more impressionable students and peers that s/he is dealing with. The faculty member should thus be able to motivate a person towards additional interests apart from ones own discipline. S/he should be able to facilitate an interdisciplinary engagement and provide a holistic view of concepts and studies.

My experience in living at the Honors Residential College introduced me to a different facet to being a faculty member. What happens if you have to live with 320 undergraduate students in a dorm, as a faculty member? In such a case, with residential colleges re-introduced into the college system, the roles and responsibilities of the faculty members are enhanced. The interactions with students and peers are not only in a formal set up but also in semi and non formal set ups. As exemplified by the faculty principals at the Honors Residential College, there is need to familiarize with everyone that they deal with at a more personal level. There is also an additional responsibility of being able to resolve conflict and change perspectives towards student engagement. There becomes a need to take more initiative and go an extra mile for something that one believes in.

Thus, in my opinion, lending the personal touch, by simple gestures such as remembering names and not just faces, remembering majors and interests and active interaction would help to know more about the collegiate community a faculty is part of and thus contribute better to the same.


Introspection- My Auto-ethnography Essay

‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’-‘the world is one family’ : These were early morning Sanskrit chants to which I woke up, every day during summer holidays at my maternal grandmother’s home. As I grew up and grew inclined towards the sciences, I learned that, about the 98% similarity in genetic make up amongst human-beings across the planet. How much could a mere 2% variation in the gene pool make a difference? Surely we were all the very same?

The answer, as I learnt, from experience, is not in the affirmative. And this is for the better. The dangers of a singular view and perception are many, while a variety of opinions and colors add flavours to the community, wherein we reside.

“I am…” a series of adjectives can be used to define my being, forming my identity, portraying an auto-ethnography. Those 2% changes in genetic constitutions define me as a separate entity and differentiate me from my surrounding. These distinctions are what make me the person I am. I pen these words, in an attempt to identify my cultural ethnography and relate it to my experiences in the world of academe mostly through the eyes and mind of a learner, hoping to become a preceptor.

‘We are a world of many colors,
we are a world of many hues,
we are a world of many faces,
sharing many different views’

Born and brought up in a multicultural, multi lingual, vibrant democracy by the name of India, I was exposed to a diverse set of ideas, personas, personalities and beliefs. Twenty years later, I travelled across the seves seas, to the land of opportunities, to find the very same mixed pool of culture, thought, color, creed, race, language, belief…

For most part of my early childhood, I was, a Hindu girl, studying in a Christian convent, while my mother taught at an educational institution for higher education for muslim women, my grandfather tended towards Buddhism and my best friend came from a staunch Sikh family. As a five year old in the bustling city of New Delhi, India, I had religious pluralism covered. Right there! It was interesting to hear about a variety of views about the world I lived in. While my grandparents told me of a world born out of a lotus bloom off the navel of a deity, my prayer classes at school recounted stories of Adam and Eve, to top this, my father, a strong believer in science and a practicing doctor, recapitulated theories from Darwinism at the dinner table.

Figure 1: Evolution v/s Creation

Having completed schooling, I decided to pursue my undergraduate studies in a college towards the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, close to 2500 miles away from home. As the climate changed, so did the language. While in India, it is expected of individuals to know three to four languages, the dialects between the northern and southern parts vary hugely.

Figure 2: Advertising

As a result, although my courses were held in English, many ‘after class discussions’ with the professors tended to stray towards a language which was unknown to me. The need to be able to adapt to survive, was now of prime importance. As I picked up bits and pieces of the language, so as to be able to converse with my professors ably in their preferred lingual choice.

 Figure 3: Talking about languages: courtesy Calvin & Hobbes

In a class of 150 with a sex ratio of closely 1:20 in my classroom and 0:15 amongst the faculty, my romance with Mechanical Engineering blossomed. Engineering is not a popular choice for the fairer sex, even in the 21st century. Especially when it came to heavy machinery, dirt and grime laden mechanical workshops, mechanical was a big no, for most of my friends from high school, who opted to pursue alternate career options deemed more suitable. I strove to excel, determined to prove my mettle in this competition. I found my instructors largely belonged to two categories. Either they disapproved of my being around heavy machinery and the like, hoping to drive me towards the ‘softer’ computer sciences or bio-technology or they were exaggerated in their sympathy towards the ‘sole girl child’, gifting me marks for mere attendance.

Women are emerging in fields traditionally perceived to be male dominated. My pride lies in doing my bit to rid the world of the stilettoe-clad status quo. Gone are the days when feminine intelligence and aspirations shrouded behind a veil of ignorance of opportunities. I hope to be better myself as an engineer, so as to eventually enter academe, and popularize engineering as a discipline.

Having graduated in mechanical engineering, I was ready to take my relationship with engineering sciences to the next level. I travelled across the seven seas, in pursuit of doctoral study in mechanical engineering. It was the first time I was stepping outside my homeland. The racial pluralism of this huge continent makes me feel at home. I have been lucky to be in classrooms, which speak about global collaboration and exchange of ideas. I had heard about the concepts of global village, never had I felt it. While I sit in a classroom with 3 Koreans, 2 Germans, 3 Asians, 2 Americans, an Iranian instructor and a Mexican TA, I know that, if not anything, the dialog shall be enriching, and indeed it is.

In America, I broadened my definitions and allowed for more inclusion. I understood and appreciated the diversities and different-abilities in my environment, whether in the physical domain, the spiritual domain or with regards the mental facilities. I learnt of the importance of choice. I learnt that individuals with different belief systems could and should work together for the greater good of humanity. I learnt how to be an Ally. I was proud to be an ally.

A huge part of forming my character, the past year, has been the Honors Residential College, at VirginiaTech. This is one of its first kinds on VT campus. I have seen how residential learning communities gain from each individual’s inputs. The late night discussions, the soup sessions, music, the movie screenings, the group blogging initiatives, etc. have made me learn with my undergraduate peers, as they have in turn, learned from their conversations with me. I have spent evenings relishing warm soup, sitting down with friends from my ‘residential college’ (we dislike calling it dorm, for it is much more!), talking about knitting patterns and Faraday and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and traditions, all during one single sitting, all as part of one conversation. It is fascinating how conversations lead to topics  which might be objectively quite unrelated! I have learned that a late midnight talk in the corridors, with a senior about a major, goes a much longer way than any classroom. It is when people are able to indulge in meaningful conversation, in a comfortable set up, that true education is nurtured. Having been associated with the Honors Residential College at VirginiaTech, and having resided amongst scholastically talented and driven individuals, who partake in ut-prosim has motivated me to go beyond my academics and in the past year as I have put in my little bit to build this global community that I am part of.

I was always given to believe the Gandhian philosophy of looking within ones ownself when seeking to bring about change. It was the past week, while attending a conference on emotional management by AEL, that I learned that introspection is enhanced by observation. To learn from ones own mistakes is one thing, but to learn from the mistakes of another and using that to better ones own behavior is also key to growth.

I have learned to be able to be more tolerant. As I heard my teachers in undergrad speak in languages alien to me, I realized the need to be consciously inclusive in my conversations with students, even in the non-formal sets ups beyond the school hours. I realized that accent is related to perception. What is ‘foreign’ to me, might be familiar to another and vice versa. We all speak with an accent, the key is to communicate thoughts. My best teachers have not been perfect orators, but they have been magnificent persons. I have learnt that humility is the biggest asset, when it comes to the classroom. I tend to respect a teacher who takes the time and effort to learn about a topic, rather than the one whose answers are born from ignorance and arrogance.

While it is true that I have not had any formal experience in engaging a classroom, I have been involved with teaching all through high school as well as during my undergrad. In India, it is not an common or expected of engineering students to take up summer teaching internships, while I was pursuing my education there. As a result, most of my work experience was beyond the four walls of the classroom.

However, these have been non-formal engagements, as indian educational institutions do not really have the concept of TAs or GTAs. I have also sought to teach in many a voluntary capacity to high-schoolers and middle-schoolers. These opportunities were in mostly STEM education related domains to monetarily underprivileged children during a summer break in my freshman year as as an undergrad as well as a Mathematics instructor for a group of about 13 students from a armed forces-family background. These needed the patience, persistence, commitment and discipline that a teacher in a ‘formal’ set up may be required to contribute.

As an aspirant of the world of academe, I can envision a class wherein the students formulate their own set of opinions, as soon as I walk into the classroom. ‘Asian’ ‘woman’ ‘soft-spoken’ ‘lenient’ ‘strict’ …I know that I shall be scrutinized and put through many a different lists, each of which would be additions to my ‘I am’ s, but more than anything, it would add to my own auto-ethnography, defining myself, ten years hence…

*this essay was submitted by the author as an assignment as part of GRAD 5104 : Contemporary Pedagogy auto-ethnography essay submission* 



The terms talented and gifted have been used interchangeably in literature to describe a wide range of exceptional performance.  Talent is often considered to be a specialized ability, a high level of competence in a particular domain while the term giftedness has generally been equated with a high IQ score.  The three necessary elements proposed by different researchers and scientists for characterizing talent are:

  1. high ability
  2. task commitment
  3. persistence

The term talent is thus an umbrella concept to encompass various facets of excellence or potential for excellence.  The exact meaning of the term talented and gifted is an object of constant debate.

Studies on related literature shows that there has been a dissatisfaction with the unidimensional notion of talent and this has led to a concern for individual children’s unique strengths, interests and development and an acceptance of diverse expressions of excellence.  Howard Gardner talks about his theory of multiple intelligence and says,

In the heyday of the psychometric and behaviorist eras, it was generally believed that intelligence was a single entity that was inherited; and that human beings – initially a blank slate – could be trained to learn anything, provided that it was presented in an appropriate way. Nowadays an increasing number of researchers believe precisely the opposite; that there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints; that the mind is far from unencumbered at birth; and that it is unexpectedly difficult to teach things that go against early ‘naive’ theories of that challenge the natural lines of force within an intelligence and its matching domains.

Another point for consideration in understanding talented children is that while some concede that these children are a distinct group of exceptional children who share certain unique cognitive and socio-emotional characteristics, others think that talented or gifted performance should be understood in a more dynamic context and can be attributed to contextual influences as much as personal characteristics.  Rooted in this dilemma is a more philosophical question…Is it a social construction rather than objective reality?

As the phenomenon of talented and gifted is subject to many interpretations, consequent are the different strategies for assessment.  The traditional approach, which focuses on a set of static attributes or traits largely relies on testing.

In contrast there is the dynamic assessment approach, which looks at processes, strategies, errors etc. and attempts to understand the micro-level analysis and clinical insights regarding child’s performance.

Such an approach raises an issue of subjectivity in measurement and assessment.
Would talent be limited to abilities that can be measured only by objective tests or does it also need to include subjective judgment as well???


‘Ethically speaking’

Etymologically, the  word ‘ethics’ (epsilon theta iota kappa sigma) originates in the Indo-European root and travelled westward to Latin (ethica) to French (ethique) and Middle England (ethik). In its core however is nested the gist ‘ethos’ which deals with the nature, disposition or primary value(s) that is specific to a person, society, people, culture or movement. It reflects the spirit of the individual as well as the collective attitude of the people.

Philosophically, ‘ethics’ determines the value system of the individual or the society as well as demarcates the boundaries of acceptable conduct. It is a code to be followed by the people. A ‘code’, that stems from social, cultural, religious or civil needs. A ‘code’ based on honesty, justice, righteousness and integrity. A ‘code’ that is felt to be essential for the smooth functioning of the society.  A ‘code’ that encompasses fitness of thoughts, decisions and actions.

Absence of ethics in actions or deeds is not essentially illegal or even sinful and at times not even amoral. It the chain of thoughts pursued by the upright, series of actions performed by the brave. Something that is right and righteous and hence beautiful.

Ethics and aesthetics are essentially flowers of the same bed.

Ethical dilemmas confront man or society regularly. Casuistic quests may frequently tempt anyone and mislead judgements. It challenges with choices between ease and thorny, between right and wrong.  It is a question of playing with a straight bat, (as the English would like to put) or ‘doing the right thing’ (as their cousins from across the Atlantic would say). Choosing reason over pleasure and sacrifice the hedonistic privileges on the altar of ethos. The pursuit of true joy is not possession of physical belonging but the satisfaction of having walked the right path in spite of the lack of paving and at times making your own way. Ethics have the power to make man approach divinity. Its absence makes him mere creature.

Ethics as a part of college curriculum was routine in the early part of last century but post Second World War it slowly retreated perhaps as a result of the tremendous advancement in science. It was merged within language or literature, often too much buried in the mass of words. Ironically, it the world of science and the scientists of today, who are confronted with these ethical dilemmas and needs the training in ethics, the most. Many a decisions specially those affecting the society at large has to be evaluated and weighed in terms of ethics. At an individual level too these dilemmas plague the students constantly. Hence training in ethics if felt ethical.

In my native land there are beautiful parables in its ancient literature. One particular series which is very popular involves a wise King tasked with getting a human cadaver from a tree located a remote place to the cremation ground before the night ends, without uttering any word. The corpse was the dwelling of a ghost which travels along the king and tells him stories each ending with difficult moral quandary. The just king is forced to answer the query thereby releasing the body back to the tree. Forty attempts were needed to complete the task generating forty different stories each exposing the readers to ethical see-saw.

These stories are told by grandparents to the young people of the house hold there by developing the sense of right and wrong and thus prepare for a life where such ethical challenges are likely to be abound…

On assessment and evaluation…

The present education system is flawed; this system of education fails to understand the child, doesn’t cater to its needs, dissociates the child from its natural tendencies and above all fails to create a questioning mind.

This imperfection originates from its evaluation system. The evaluation system, rather than the teaching- learning process is the core of this malady. In the present market oriented world, the end product determines the strategies.

Similarly, the evaluation system tailors the teaching- learning process. The evaluation system rather than helping to build up on the knowledge of our own self and recognize our strengths & weaknesses; it distracts us to comparisons, comparing my abilities to my peer group!

How useful is this?

Does it really matter that I know much more than what ‘P’ knows  or less than what ‘R’ knows, unless I know what I should know given my abilities and potentialities…

Some inadequacies in the present evaluation system:

  • it is not dynamic.
  • too much emphasis on rote memorization and ignores the meta-cognitive abilities.
  • not the real measure of student’s potential.
  • limited scope for diagnosis and remediation.
  • whatever is tested is taught and whatever is taught is tested i.e. examination centered.
  • perpetuates psychological fear and tension.
  • no scope for creativity.

So, how do we improve this system???

to start with:

  • lets make the process and product of evaluation meaningful from a child’s perspective.
  • lets integrate evaluation as a CONTINUOUS part of the teaching-learning process, both formally and informally. Let’s not restrict it to a one-day, end-of course activity.
  • construct evaluation as a comprehensive process which makes use of multiple tools and techniques to gather information on different aspects of learning.
  • compose evaluation as a cooperative process, collaborate with peers and parents and teachers. Much of the learning, takes place beyond the four walls, lets accept it.
  • invent evaluation as a dynamic process.

if the above aspects of evaluation are kept in mind, there is no doubt that it will lead to bringing about qualitative improvement in education…

Contemporizing Pedagogy

Four weeks into class and this is my first post. Makes me wonder, how contemporary my own adaptability skills are.

Coming from the school of gears, chalkboards and machines; which churns out mechanical engineers, how am I to eloquently place my opinions out into the void?

What have I learnt?
Am I augmenting my learning or am I still stuck on the unlearning curve for this class? My first blog seeks to be a reflection.

Traditionally a teacher is the pedagogue and a teacher centric educational transaction is ‘pedagogy’. Most adults (and this holds true right from the day of Graduation) acquire a developmental trait of earnestly believing that ‘they know the best’. They take it upon themselves to draw and demarcate the boundaries of learning for their young ones. They seek to direct teaching or learning based upon their experiences with the concept.This results in repetition of the same content through the similar methods of learning that the teachers themselves have undergone. As a result, the subject matter itself takes precedence over the learning.

Thermodynamically speaking ( abiding by the mechie status quo), one spends too much time and effort on characterizing the process based solely on kinematics (ie. the effect of change of state) rather than dynamics (the path followed during the change ). Thus, the learner is subjected to a higher degree of entropy, without having any clue as to how s/he attained it. Had similar an approach be followed at the particle level for understanding matter, there would be no possible way to explain life-forms on the planet.

Teaching – learning like any other discipline is essentially evolving and metamorphosing and hence any process that discourages newer thoughts is engineered for decay. The main beneficiary of this null-transaction is the learner, who more often than not, has nothing to say (or do, or blog…) in the proceedings.

There is no scope for addition, alteration, modification, tailoring or customization of the content or the processes to individual variations and attributes. Such a process may work for worker-ants but is woefully inadequate and certainly inappropriate for the ‘globezens’.

A student-centered approach encourages the child to ask questions.The ‘where’, ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘why’ and most importantly ‘why not’ are the basic building blocks of learning, which is subdued and sacrificed at the alter of teacher-centricity.

In the middle-ages questioning was not hugely encouraged.
Indoctrination was practiced and knowledge and certainly questioning was considered to be ‘forth with dangers of subversion and radical thoughts’.
‘What if someone starts seeing the earth as something but flat?’ What if somebody starts questioning the rotations of the planets??, What if anybody gets up and gets quizzical about the almighty HIMSELF???

For every Galileo and Copernicus was at least a thousand who were not allowed to query.
Some of us who may still labor under the misconception that such suppressions do not occur any longer, have to just walk into the classrooms of many schools in almost any district of any city of any country on the face of this planet, and learn the truth.

Changes are the grammar of existence, the language of life and therefore the harbingers of such changes, the developing young minds have to be unshackled and set free to unabridged knowledge and untamed exploration, to inquire, seek and search independently, with just a little help and guidance from the adults, not dictates.

The adults should also never abandon their rights to question faiths, seek answers, challenge dogmas and evaluate beliefs.

Only then will there be a lifelong learning.

And with this, I let off my first blog post onto the mother ship, hoping that as I evolve as a blogger, I shall unlearn my own reservations and biases and learn about a  whole new way to voice myself and hence to contemporize myself as a 21st century learner as well as evolve as a ‘learnee’…