A democratic process

Print edition : December 28, 2012

The eminent historian Romila Thapar, Professor Emerita of JNU. She says teachers should enjoy a certain degree of independence in a semester system.-T. SINGARAVELOU

WHILE Delhi University is debating the relevance of the semester system at the undergraduate level, which has been hastily implemented there, it is important to learn about the experiences of other Indian universities that have successfully managed an effective semester system. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, rated as the best public university in the country by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, is one of those universities where the semester system has not only contributed to better learning and research but has proved to be a model worth emulating. In 1970, when JNU was established, the idea was to have a university that provides students from all strata of society equal access to higher education and encourages institutional engagement between academic learning and nation-building.

Speaking to Frontline, Professor Emerita Romila Thapar, the distinguished historian of early India, recalled those exciting times when teachers and students were integral to JNUs vision. We were given substantial time, close to a year, to frame syllabi based on our new concepts of courses, suited to a semester system. In the Centre for Historical Studies, before we began to admit students for the M.A. courses, members of the facultywe were about 10 initiallyconstantly debated and discussed what should be included in our courses. We were told not to imitate the curricula of other universities; that there had to be an emphasis on interdisciplinary courses; and that JNU should design a new course curriculum and its own pattern of examination. [JNU relies as much on assignments and tutorials as on written examinations.] We would discuss different proposals intensively, including or excluding many modules according to the requirements of the discipline and what we thought were the needs of the students. There were disagreements, compromises and agreements, and it was also one of the most intellectually exciting years for me inasmuch as I was forced to think analytically about many aspects of the discipline of history.

The idea was to encourage critical and analytical thinking. That was our vision, and the then JNU administration fully cooperated with us, she says. You do not create semester courses by cutting a year-long course into two, the way it happened in D.U. [Delhi University]. Doing that breaks the link in the graduation of what is taught in different semesters and does not permit the semester course to be built around a set of questions. Ultimately, students suffer while the university does not achieve the aim of advancing knowledge. The courses should, in a sense, be designed organically. The semester system, as practised elsewhere in the world, is not based on courses that are long general surveys of the subjects. A small number of courses may be surveys, but most focus on asking questions; the intention is to understand a particular body of knowledge. It is also about how the understanding of the subject gradually evolves through the full term of the degree course, she adds.

Romila Thapar says that teachers are integral to this process and they should enjoy a certain degree of independence in a semester system. We ensured that in our M.A. programme the easy courses came during the first semesters, while the complicated courses were introduced to the students gradually. Even after the courses were designed, we could adjust them to some degree by marginal changes based on updating information and improvements in teaching. Our intention was to encourage analytical thinking among students, promote research and also facilitate the transition to understanding the purpose of history among those students who were from backgrounds other than history, she explains.

The JNU experience thus provides an illuminating and sharp contrast to the way the semester model has been implemented in Delhi University. Romila Thapar reiterates the need for revamping the syllabi to facilitate the smooth transition to a semester system in universities making the change. You can retain much of what is being taught but the courses and the subjects will have to be structured differently, she says.

She maintains that for a semester system to work, two things are absolutely essential. Firstly, the student-teacher ratio should be enormously better than it usually isas it was initially in JNUand secondly, the library facilities have to be drastically improved. She adds: I really feel very strongly about libraries. If you want a world-class university, as the government constantly reiterates, these two things should be the first priority.

These are among the most important points that the Delhi University Teachers Association has been raising against the slew of reforms in the university.

Another point that Romila Thapar makes is the importance of attracting serious students; for this, adequate residential facilities on the campus, like that in JNU, are crucialan issue that Delhi University teachers have been demanding for a long time. She says that the government cannot go on opening new universities without going through a proper exercise in each case based on adequate requirements. She also feels that higher education cannot be improved without providing quality school education. You have to think in terms of preparing a school student for a B.A. degree. Today, a student encounters two drastically different methods of teaching in school and college. In such a scenario, a hurriedly put together semester system as has happened in D.U. could prove counterproductive, she states.

Most importantly, she says, the reforms should be discussed democratically. I remember when some of us were trying to introduce social and economic history in D.U. in the 1960s. These were new streams in the discipline of history, and we faced a lot of opposition. We were largely defeated, the majority opinion at that time opting for the status quo, although in later years the syllabus underwent a positive change. But all this happened after constant rounds of sit-ins and dialogue. Such changes have to go through a democratic process. I think that the semester system could be implemented well in D.U. if it goes through a rigorous exercise similar to the one that JNU undertook.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

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