To new beginnings
I have been teaching for more than a decade and yet the joy of entering a classroom, the rush of blood, and the nervous energy which takes a hold of me every time I begin a lecture is indescribable.
It is 9:30 in the morning on July the 20th. This is the first day of the new academic session at the University of Delhi. The Ramjas college parking is almost full, but I somehow manage to squeeze my car into a cramped spot with a skill that comes with having to drive in Delhi. Usually, this would irritate me, but not today. There is something fresh about the air, as though it was brimming with delightful buoyancy, and the sounds and sights whisper with cheer in abundance.
As I wade through all the lively chatter and anxious faces, a growing sense of déjà vu starts gnawing at my mind. It’s a familiar feeling that takes hold of all teachers, once a year, at the start of the new academic calendar. If anything could be familiar and not boring still, this is it. The whole campus is awash with colours showcasing what is trending in fashion. Or what meets the cut in mobile phones. There is bustling energy all around. There is some palpable tension, a whiff of anticipation, that lingers on in each moment. This is a moment that I have lived, again and again, every year. Yet it never grows stale. Even the buildings and the walls shine with a new glint, as though they have shed their old skins to usher in new birth. The monsoons, too, help. Those intermittent rains, the green tinge, the clouds above, and the moist soil beneath, together, make a melody that pours an earthy smell into everything; it is the smell that is a harbinger of new beginnings.
I slowly make my way to the foyer which is teeming with students. They seem regaled with energy—there is a spring in their steps and a smile on their faces. It’s easy to tell them apart from seniors who are invariably nonchalant about the goings-on. Or bored. Or asleep. These are the newly minted freshers—eager beavers, surveying the college on their first day. It is their day out. Some of them have parents in tow and are visibly embarrassed about it. Others are enjoying their first hint of freedom from the fetters of old school life; a life of discipline and conformity. College, among other things, means no uniforms, no morning assemblies, and no homework. It is a different planet altogether. They can come and go to the classrooms as they please. There is a new-found sense of adventure in everything. It’s a fresh start—the first taste of the real world, as it were. I was leisurely soaking all this in, lost in my thoughts, as I lay my eyes on a sea of faces, mostly flush with hope and enthusiasm, and occasionally foreboding too. I hear spontaneous laughter in the distance and I am awoken from my reverie. I walk past the corridors and finally reach the staff room.
The staff room, however, is a different space, altogether. It is abuzz with chatter, though. In here, idealism melts away quickly in the sombre conversations about how the government does not care a fig about the state of higher education. There is no anger. Just a wisp of remonstration. A tone of resignation, an acknowledgement even, that nothing will change. The mood is rather gloomy as teachers know very well that—and this dawns at the beginning of every session—they have a herculean challenge on their hands. It is unthinkable but true that all colleges in this prestigious university are faced with what can only be described as an unprecedented crisis—more than half the faculty is on contract, with no benefits, motivations or incentives but having only the misfortune to labour indefatigably at their dead-end jobs for years on end. On top of that, there is an acute shortage of teaching hands in all departments: another unmitigated disaster waiting to strike at the earliest.
This dark underbelly of Delhi university—a decaying system that is on the downward spiral of interminable atrophy—escapes the public eye in the glaze of astronomically high cut-offs and a mad rush for admissions. But this bitter truth does not escape anyone in the staff room which almost seems like a stoic oddity in the general mood of festivity that waits on this new tribe of students, who exude characteristic effervescence, as they pour in from everywhere, in their numbers. I head straight to the Political Science corner in my feeble attempt to take refuge in the company of my colleagues. Our “corner” is somewhat notorious for loud debates we keep having amongst ourselves, but today things were a little muted. We learned that the department of political science had admitted more than 175 students in the first year even though the cut-off was a mind-boggling 97 per cent. Since we only have a sanctioned strength of 65, we are all at sea about how to manage this deluge of students when the administration will steadfastly refuse to appoint additional teachers. Our resources will be strained, our infrastructure will be pushed to its limits. We brace ourselves for the tough times ahead as we quickly finish our cups of tea and rush to the designated room where an orientation has been planned for the newcomers.
The rest of the day passed in a jiffy. One secret, though, that I can let you all in is that when you put a teacher in their classroom, the world ceases to exist. The problems that beset the university, the unfair treatment that is meted out to teachers in matters of service, promotions, or employment, or the increasing bureaucratisation of academics, and the attempts to curtail freedoms on campuses—all seem to dissolve in the unrelenting passion that gushes through the veins of any teacher who cares about their craft. I have been teaching for more than a decade and yet the joy of entering a classroom, the rush of blood, and the nervous energy which takes a hold of me every time I begin a lecture is indescribable. That is my motivation.
To be able to shape young minds is a privilege. The first battle is to make students unlearn. To provoke them out of the deference for the written word. To help them think for themselves. To engage them in a world of ideas. To stretch the limits of their imagination. To let them embrace possibilities. To encourage them to question—for that is the beginning of it all. And then, one begins to learn from students. The pupil becomes the teacher. The thing about youth is its capacity for hope and idealism; its untrammelled flights of fancy, its undimmed courage. This is the elixir that teachers get the opportunity to feast on when the mutually collaborative enterprise of academic labour is performed sincerely in the classroom and beyond. It is a window to a new world. It is also the highest reward.
So, it begins.
Syed Areesh Ahmad teaches Political Philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.