'You need to give students freedom'

Interview with M. Davamani Christober, Principal.

Published : Mar 02, 2020 07:00 IST

M. Davamani Christober.

M. Davamani Christober.

M. Davamani Christober joined The American College as a lecturer in 1990 and rose to positions of leadership over the next two decades. He was an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and has co-authored several research papers and books on aspects of applied mathematics and education. As Principal of the college since 2011, he has fully involved himself in the rebuilding of the college and has focussed on making education relevant and catering to the needs of a society that is increasingly demanding industry-ready students. The several international collaborations that the college has entered into attests to the fact that the college has taken its role in a changing society with the seriousness it deserves. Preservation of the century-old buildings of the college and making the satellite campus realise its full potential are among his aims for the medium term. Excerpts from an interview:

How is the syllabus updated to ensure that the students are provided with learning tools that will be useful to them once they graduate?

The American College has always been at the forefront with regard to framing syllabi for academic courses. Last year we introduced outcome-based education (OBE). There was some resistance at first, the argument being that even engineering colleges had not implemented OBE, so was it practical to introduce it in an arts and science college? But in the end we were able to implement it successfully. We have our own textbooks, and they are used across the [Madurai Kamaraj] University.

This year, for instance, 17 students of the English Department passed the Tamil Nadu State Eligibility Test (TNSET). When you take into account the number of students who have qualified in this region, you will see that we have done exceedingly well. This shows that we are far-sighted in the way we frame our syllabus. This is the case with all other departments. For example, our Commerce syllabus compares well with that of the Chartered Accountancy (C.A.) course. Many of our students appear for the C.A. (Inter) examinations too.

“Big data” is the buzzword these days. We are the first college in south India to introduce the Data Analytics course at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. There is no need to do a foundation course in computer science to apply for this course. If you have studied mathematics or statistics, that will suffice.

How easy or difficult is it to communicate with students of the present generation?

It is not an easy task at all, although almost all students are very well-behaved. Students value freedom above everything else. It is also a fact that if freedom is restricted, then the spirit of inquiry diminishes. We are well aware of this, and work within the boundaries of what is possible.

So you need to give them that freedom and at the same time, make them aware of the limitations. Only if this balance is attained, and the students believe that the faculty is liberal and broad-minded, can students be moulded.

It is a fact that students these days are more attached to their mobile devices than anything else.But we cannot take these devices away from them because this is the digital era and these students are the children of the digital era. Here, we provide broadband Wi-Fi across the campus. We have restricted access to some websites with adult content and social media sites such as Facebook.

At a time of so much social upheaval, what role does a college play in informing and guiding students?

Our students are not restricted to gaining only bookish knowledge. They participate in several activities outside their classrooms, become aware of issues and respond to them. Each year, about 3,000 new students join. We make sure that all students are involved in some extracurricular activity or another apart from their studies. This helps in the overall development of the student.

Take, for example, the students of psychology. Apart from the classroom learning, they are also involved in counselling. We undertake a lot of well-being related programmes for the public. Of course, we have the regular non-curricular activity of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and the National Service Scheme (NSS). There are about nine units within the NSS; in the NCC, we have the Navy and Army wings.

We have a new component in our curriculum, called the Service Learning Programme. It has five divisions: Solid Waste Management; Vaigai Ecology Programme, which is a river cleaning programme; Village Ecology Programme, which focusses on health and hygiene; School Extension programme, which involves our students helping out students in identified schools; and performing Child Support Work in orphanages.

What has been your experience with the community college?

Ours is one of seven community colleges in Tamil Nadu. In 2019, we introduced the three-year BVoc programme. This is an undergraduate course like any other in India but with one significant difference. Students can enrol at any stage of their careers and leave whenever they wish to, too. There is no age bar. After the first year, for instance, if a student wants to take a few years off for whatever reason, he/she can do so. They can come back a few years later and continue the degree programme. At the end of the first year, students receive a diploma. Once they complete the second year, they receive the advanced diploma certificate. At the end of the third year, we award them the BVoc degree certificate. So there is a lot of flexibility in this programme and it has been very well received.

There are four vocations to choose from—aquaculture, medical laboratory, food processing and preservation, and media technology. The American College is in constant dialogue with industry and we involve our partners from industries in designing the curriculum, trading, internship and evaluation. There is constant feedback from the industry and we are also on the lookout for any improvement that can be made to our courses and facilities.

The American College has a qualified and experienced faculty. Industry leaders who have visited us have commended our laboratory facilities which provide hands-on practice on campus. The skills, based on the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) and the National Occupational Standards (NOS), are imparted to meet specific job requirements.

Is there any scheme for students from regular colleges who are not financially well-off?

Yes. We have two programmes. One is the lunch assistance programme, and the other is the earn-while-you-learn programme.

In the earn-while-you-learn programme, students can work for a fixed number of hours depending on their shift. A morning-shift student can work in the evening and an afternoon-shift student can work during the morning hours. For example, if a student of chemistry is in the morning batch, he/she can help out in the laboratory in the afternoon. Students can help out in the library or even in the botanical garden. They are paid on an hourly basis.

The lunch assistance programme, supported by our alumni and professors, provides lunch to students who are unable to afford it. In the beginning of the year, we put up notices asking if there are students who wish to avail themselves of the programme. After we verify, we give the student an ID card. He/she can use this to have lunch at the canteen, like all other students. There is no distinction between that student and the others. Because of this, except a few of us, no one will know who the student having the free meal is.

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