Monday, July 06, 2009

Musings on contemporary academic culture -II

Guest Blogger

Pratiksha Baxi

For the comments posted here and many emails, much gratitude to everyone for reflecting on my previous post. Although the individual accounts of angst have not been shared with everyone on this blog, I am gratified to have been the recipient of many a confidence and indicate these here without naming individuals.

Some have been curious as to why chose to write this post, what was the trigger? In it self it is an interesting question when do people decide to “out” an issue that has troubled for a lifetime? Perhaps it is the idealism of hope – a hope that things can and will change if we talk about it in a collective and constructive way.

Why frame the issue around rights or right to information – perhaps simply to begin to find the language of rights for the experiences collated below:

Racism: Friends and students from the North East who have often complained of automatically being considered “stupid” and faculty expressing surprise when they discovered that they were actually were brilliant at their work.

Casteism: The idea that a student who gets a fellowship on the basis of caste or tribe criteria is a “parasite” is a loathsome form of discrimination practised everyday in the academia.

Sexism: Brilliant women scholars have been denied professorial positions in the social sciences.

What then happens when these scholars appear for job interviews? What happens if the candidate is a good scholar but unable to speak eloquently in English? What happens if the candidate has the ‘wrong’ politics, wears odd clothes or is ‘too fat’? This is just the tip of the iceberg since most interview committees have no clue how to interview candidates with various disabilities, if they ever decide to fill this quota. Ashley Tellis tells us what happens if you are a good scholar, meet the criteria, and speak well – but you happen to be gay and encounter the homophobia of a committee.

Another senior academic advices us in a mode of irony, “whatever happens, do not write bad book reviews, if you want a job”.

Many a friends spoke about feelings of humiliation at interviews – I have my own share of stories to narrate – but biography is often reduced to gossip. At any rate it is hard to prove discrimination and harder to fight sexist, communal or casteist comments at an interview. Surely it is difficult to come up with a witty rejoinder which does not offend everyone to a question such as: “what is the economics of rape?”, “you are a muslim, do you support Pakistani terrorism?” or “why do you live alone?” The best is when the same set of people who interview you again and again ask you, why you have no teaching experience – duh! It is harder still to tell a male professor in your department that he is sexist to the core when he says, “you can not teach in an undergraduate college because you are too thin”. Or to another professor, who says “you are too soft spoken to teach – you will need a mike” [those with disabilities will never make it in such a context].

Can we not do something about the process? Or as another friend suggested, should we innovate and introduce the American method of job talk? A job talk would entail a departmental seminar, interaction with students and the committee to actually engage intellectually with the candidate’s work. But graduate students, friends in American Universities, also narrate how broken they are by the system and struggle to find the confidence to write again. What is the critique of the US job talk model?

Until this discussion happens in India, why are there no guidelines as to how to conduct an interview? Maybe minor etiquette could be a small beginning which accords the candidate with dignity. We could script it as follows:

1. Introduce the committee to the candidate
2. Offer her a glass of water and perhaps even smile joyfully at the candidate
3. Read her CV, SOP and publications in advance
4. Ask questions relevant to her research and teaching
5. Do not frown, yawn or sleep through the interview
6. If the candidate does not wish to answer a question or is nervous, find another good question.
7. Do not raise your voice or fight amongst yourself in front of the candidate
8. Do not make sexist, caste-ist or communal remarks
9. Do not ask about the candidate’s personal life
10. If you are well mannered you may even escort the candidate to the door.

Is it at all possible to give constructive feedback to candidates who wish to re-apply and make them welcome again to another round of interviews?

And if you are very clear that someone is never going to make it to your department, please do the act of great kindness a senior professor in my department once showed me, by advising me to apply for jobs elsewhere.

I agree with Hutom Pyacha that the problematic is not confined to Universities. [Read this to know what Hutom Pyacha stands for] Research Centres and many Law Schools do not even follow the minimal guidelines which are a norm in the UGC governed institutions. Abysmal levels of accountability exist wherein academic on contract jobs persist for the longest period of probation ever known in the academia. I have heard of faculty being punished for raising issues of accountability in Law Schools – do the National Law Schools have student/teachers unions or redressal mechanisms that exist elsewhere? Could LAOT share experiences about Law Schools with the rest of us? Do we know how many women are professors or heads of institutions in the field of law? Neither JNU nor DU has ever appointed a woman as a Vice Chancellor.

Why do people not speak out? Not surprisingly many share the view that sadly Universities often remain anti-academic and punitive spaces. To quote a friend, it is ‘a totally reactionary institution, one that evolved with the modern military and Catholic Church in the middle ages and has not changed much since...’ While our experiences of University spaces are complicated and contradictory, and it is hard to generalise but nonetheless the responsibility of crafting a vibrant University space remains ours, and maybe someone out there who matters will listen and care about our fling with the academia. I am grateful that LAOT provides this space.
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