Sunday, February 28, 2010

Week 12: Ceremonies

This week was full of preparations for the Diamond Jubilee (60 year) celebration of the Founding of St. Thomas College, where I am teaching. In the featured photo above is the first student enrolled at St. Thomas in 1950 being honored in the presence of its most famous alumni, the Honorable K.G. Balakrishnan, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India (dressed in the suit). For students and faculty at St. Thomas, having Chief Justice Balakrishnan on campus was an event in the same category of visits made by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (in 1954) and Indira Gandhi (who would later become Prime Minister). The event was full of pomp and formal ceremony, in an auditorium absolutely packed to capacity. Of course, Kris, Shaman, and I had reserved seats of honor in the second row of the audience....

In addition to helping prepare for the Diamond Jubilee, I was kept busy with keeping our household together while Kristine was attending a five-day retreat at Kurisumala (Christian) Ashram, an experience she will be reporting about next week. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, getting a backup electrical system installed, and accepting the offer of a neighbor who offered us his extra TV (to watch the Olympics!) kept me busy even as I contuinued teaching my regular courses -- and was surprised to discover that one I thought had been finished was being begun anew. It seems that just when I think I am clear about my duties here, something new arises (due to communication problems or simply very different institutional styles) which surprises me! Another example of this was when I was asked (just 4 days ago) to prepare comments for an Accreditation Team visiting St. Thomas tomorrow: another ceremony which will fill the campus auditorium! I was assured that my comments were to honestly reflect insights I might have relating to how education at this college could be improved.

Since my comments were requested in writing so as to be a part of the formal record, I have added them here for those of you who may be interested. To better understand my last recommendation (regarding free expression), it might be helpful for me to quote here an exerpt from the College document I refer to as guideline number 4: ``Students are prohibited from indulging in anti-institutional, anti-national, anti-social, communal, immoral, or political expressions and activities within the campus or hostel``. Out of respect to those who have shown great kindness towards me, I thought it best to frame my comments as:

Best Practices Statement: March 1, 2010.

Institutions of Higher Education may seek to develop best practices in at least four important interrelated areas: 1) student learning, 2) faculty development, 3) structure of administration, and 4) campus culture. In the 8 minutes allotted to me, I will devote 2 minutes to each of these four areas, including one salient suggestion for improvement in each area.

In the realm of student learning, best practices in the U.S. include adherence to the rule that, for each hour in a classroom, a student should devote two hours outside the classroom to study, reading, and research. St. Thomas College is blessed with students eager to learn and facilities built to facilitate this learning, yet learning rarely transcends note taking and facilities like the library are under-utilized. So: I would suggest that required reading be assigned in preparation for each class period and that access to all assigned readings be available in the library.

In the U.S. faculty development is encouraged as a substantial budget item, but not all best practices need cost a lot. St. Thomas College has many fine teachers with access to computers and research facilities that are also under-utilized. I would suggest that all faculty be required to achieve minimal computer literacy so as to use the internet to update course lecture notes and undertake academic research interests. This would improve classroom teaching as well as scholarship.

Educational institutions in the U.S. are finding that styles of administration that are more collegiate are preferable to structures based exclusively on command. St. Thomas College has generally been led by high quality administrators whose doors are open new ideas. I would suggest that the position of chair should be rotated among department faculty every 3-5 years so as to increase levels of collegiality. Courteous consulting of colleagues on matters of common concern often occurs more when one knows others will share some command authority in the future. Cooperative behavior patterns reflecting democratic values are then more likely to develop.

Freedom of expression is foundational to academic culture in the U.S.. While it is debated whether (or what time, place, and manner) restrictions may be needed with regards to this freedom, best practices uniformly agree that any complete ban clearly contradicts democratic values, critical thinking, and creativity. In this context, I would respectfully suggest that the General Discipline Guidelines published on pages 41-44 of the St. Thomas College Calendar (2009-2010) be carefully reviewed – and that those guidelines numbered 4, 8, 9, and 10 be either severely modified or eliminated. As a truth seeker, Mahatma Gandhi would not have silenced even his most vocal of critics – so why should we? Let us foster a campus culture that values a diversity of views, especially when those views are expressed in a responsible manner that is respectful of disagreement.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Week 11: India - La Vida Loca!

Train Stations and Transport

As some of you have read in the past, we have referenced the trains
as the Super Fast ( their description) Cockroach (our addition) Express.
They are often running late (but not as late as the planes and buses). When I wondered about whether or not a train had been canceled, our friend, Stany replied: Oh, no! Trains are never canceled. They just come tomorrow. I am told that some people spend their whole lives in the train station without ever riding on the train. During Sabarimala, the annual pilgrimage for the Hindus, blanket-covered sleeping bodies were everywhere-outside the station, inside the station, and on the train platform. In India, they typically have large water fountains on the platform and there people bathe, brush their teeth, do their laundry. Sorta like the Indian version of camping in Oregon.

Other vehicular oddities are certain trucks and buses, which are brightly
decorated with images of saints/ deities and other artistic symbols. (They
often name their vehicles after saints/ deities). The closest thing that parallels the image in the US are the trailers used to transport circus or carnival events.


A house is being built next to us and thought that this might give some idea about the typical Keralan ambience. Guess what? No backhoe -just three guys with shovels digging the hole for the foundation. It looks like they put cement blocks with mortar for the foundation, and then adobe for the rest. Most homes here are covered in pastel colored stucco and topped with terracotta tile roofs. (There are some instances of neon green, orange, pink, or purple stucco, but the artistic sense here is impressive.) There the similarities end. No tract homes here. Plenty of variety- lots of patios, porches, balconies, terraces, breeze ways, porticoes, cupolas, bay windows, arched windows and doorways, etc... (Of course, there is the one-room, flat roof home that poor people have, but many Keralans enjoy a higher standard of living.)But no fireplaces except the sun. The tile work here is amazing. Even our humble apartment has tile flooring throughout and the kitchen counters are black,(flecked with white)granite. I would trade them for what I have in Oregon.

The places of worship are often beautifully done-the best buildings in the area. Hindu temples, especially the older ones are somewhat pyramid in shape, multileveled, with a flattened top. Encircling each level are brightly-colored carved figures of deities, animals, etc... that encompass sometimes, a hundred or more levels. The mosques and Christian churches are not as ornate but definitely impressive with high steeples and minarets that grace the skies. Christian churches are often white on the outside with lots of pictures/statues of saints (glass encased), gold gilded carving, and brightly colored veils hiding sections of the altar when formal worship is not taking place. The care in which places of worship are built and maintained evidence the high importance of religion in the culture. Also, there are shrines to saints and deities. Usually, they are phallic-shaped three story structures that have a glass encased image and an area where 2-3 people can kneel. So small, but tall!

In contrast, most places of business are either shacks or a version of garage. (They have a door which reminds me of our garage door and comes down when the place is closed. Windows are rare.) They are usually not that well-maintained. You usually ask for what you want in the front of the store and the shop keeper will get it for you. It is quite efficient if you and the shopkeeper are conversant in the same language. We should have learned Malayalam!


What is most colorful in India is the women! Saris and churidars of every
description and color-silks, cottons, gauzes, rayons, synthetics. Keralan females generally have incredibly thick, long and black hair which adds to the drama. The Muslims are usually more subdued in public, usually wearing a black coat and a large triangular scarf (white or black) which covers hair and the neck. At home, I am told they dress similarly to the other women. In the north of India, there is more variation. Muslim women would have more colorful head scarves, but often would have only their eyes showing. One women in Gujarat (Muslim) had a colorful short, gauze head scarf with only her eyes visible, but readily visible was her tight jeans! What really amazed me was to see women of every religion, riding motorcycles, saris and scarves blowing in the wind. Another Muslim woman, covered, except for the eyes, was driving a motorcycle with her boyfriend (husband?) on the back! Another study in contrast is to consider the typically filthy public toilets (a hole in the ground) and women who (with clothing that virtually touches the ground) are able to emerge from such places without stain or even a wet or dingy hemline.

Wild Life

In Kerala, I can hear the birds, but see few of them because of failing eyesight and the dense foliage. (I did see some green parrots in Ahmadabad, as well as white terns travelling on the train). Subsequently, they will be identified as chirpers, howlers, tweeters, cooers, whistlers, and screamers . Some of you may have seen our photos of domesticated elephants that often trudge down our main road as pack animals. I was disappointed that there were no monkeys in Pala. During the War Resisters Conference in Ahmadabad (a city of few million people), we were conversing during our outdoor breakfast when mid sentence, I blurt out: Monkey!! There, about ten feet before us was a large 4ft monkey. Not in the jungle of Pala, but in the urban area of Ahmadabad. There were whole families of monkeys. It started to make sense why there were locks on every door at the university. Monkeys are agile and have opposable thumbs. Shaman said one night they were making such a racket that no one in his dorm could sleep that night. Another city surprise was the camel. Like elephants, they haul cargo, and sometimes are hitched up to a wagon. It is amazing that they are able to cope with the formidable urban traffic!

Finally, the wild life that is most precious to me are the many butterflies-not just the small white survivors, we see in the States but yellow and orange monarch types, white with blue or other bright colors, yellow with orange speckles, black or dark blue, with iridescent markings. On occasion, they have wing spans of over 6 inches. When I remarked to Stany about how it was so wonderful to see butterflies again, he sadly shook his head. In the past there had been many more and the larger variety is now more rare. What a shame that development comes at such a price! They are one variety of big bug that I miss seeing in the US.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Week 10: Northern Kerala

Pictured above is the Beach Hotel/Heritage Inn in Kozhikode (previously know as Calicut), in northern Kerala. Built in 1890 to house the Malabar English Club, over the years it has seen the birth of the Indian Muslem League, and has served people like Somerset Maugham, Indian Prime Ministers Jawaharala Nehru and Indira Gandhi, as well as the Sonnleitner family. Yes, the infamous Sonnleitners celebrated the 22nd birthday of Shaman there for three days last week. He cared less about the history of the place than the fact that it was located across the street from a beautiful Arabian Sea beach and had a fully functional bar on premises!

All travel expenses for the 3 of us were covered by The Mathrubhumi (a malayalam language newspaper which means The Motherland) and is known for its patriotic and anti-American sentiments. A reporter had covered a talk I gave at Kerala University (in Thiruvananthapuram)last month -- on The Green Movement and Gandhi -- which apparently had impressed the organizers of an event in Kunnar commemorating the historic visit of Gandhi to the newspaper main office 75 years ago. I was one of two primary speakers who would have 20 minutes each in a program devoted mainly to honoring about 30 Freedom Fighters from the Independence Movement (all of whom were aged 80 or more). The Mathrubhumi (circulation 1.2 million, with a readership estimated at 8 million), gave front page coverage to the event in its Sunday newspaper.

I confess to being surprisingly moved by the presence of the Gandhian Freedom Fighters. As these nonviolent soldiers sang out LONG LIVE MAHATMA GANDHI, it was as if I were for a moment transported back to the pre-1947 struggle against British colonialism. These Freedom Fighters had suffered for that cause, while refusing to inflict suffering upon their oppressors. They had emerged victorious, inspiring with hope nonviolent movements all over the world ranging from the civil rights movement in the U.S. to the overthrowing of dictatorships in Chile, Poland, the Philippines, and Serbia. They had earned my respect and I felt very humbled in their presence.

After my short speech, in which I described Globalization as a new colonialism which requires a new (and word wide) Independence Movement, several people described themselves as moved to tears (with one person telling me while he had hatred for America, he could no longer feel hatred for all Americans). Gandhi, I reminded the crowd, would hate no person, but would oppose policies deemed to be evil through disciplined nonviolence. Noting my own hypocracy by displaying a Samsung cell phone made functional by Reliance Corporation (a huge Indian multinational corporation), I challenged others to see that countries and corporations are not the primary problem – if we as consumers continue to cooperate with their often inflated profits. Given the reality of our ecological interdependence, in short, we must seek to live more simply, that others may simply live. The International Green Movement may well evolve into a new Independence Movement in which not our liberty is at stake, but also life as we know it on this planet.

Dear reader, please forgive the extremely serious tone of these comments. Survival is at issue, especially for the 2.8 billion people in this world (700 million in India) who live on less than $2/day – and this is serious for us all: as Martin Luther King Jr. would say: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere... That said, cannot we take time also to enjoy life? Neither King nor Gandhi require us to be sour-faced. Let us take time for needed relaxation and laughter too – or the world we may successfully save may not be one we want to live in (ha)! Three nights at a fancy hotel on a beach (with a little ice cream for when temperatures top 100 degrees) definitely helps restore a smile to an otherwise sweaty face!

So it is that the trip to Kannur included three days at the beach in Kozhikode, with my participating in a Gandhi Seminar at Calicut University and an International Seminar on Technology Enhanced Language Learning (where yes, I provided a Gandhian critique of reliance any exclusive upon programs offered by Rosetta Stone and the University of Phoenix). Thankfully, Kris and Shaman can pick and choose what events they care to attend – and do not have to get sick of me talking too much.

Having now returned to Pala (via a 9 hour train ride), it is safe to say we are all exhausted – and seriously overheated with high humidity too. Today I purchased another fan, hoping it might allow for better sleep tonight – if the power does not cut out due to too many other people plugging in more fans too (ha)! Global warming is very real here, with even the locals sometimes finding it difficult to cope. No need for hot showers though: the cool water is mosty welcome relief. It would seem wise now to continue my writing duties (as requested by those for whom I spoke last week), in the relative cool of the morning. Tonight will be time for me to take advantage of a neighbors TV set to see some of the Winter Olympic Games. Need to think COOL....

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Week 9: Nedumkandam

A highlight of this week was the visit to Nedumkandam College in rural Chembalam, Idukki District, Kerala. This college is one of 32 supported by the Muslim Education Society, an organization also responsible for running 72 other educational institutions, 7 Hostels, 3 cultural Centers, and 3 orphanages. In the featured photo above, students & staff at Nedumkandam are pictured following my presentation (one hour plus an hour for questions) on The Green Movement & Gandhi. The event was arranged by the Principal, Dr. A.M. Rasheed, a friend and classmate of Dr. Stany Thomas (my colleague at St. Thomas College who provided transportation to the event -- over 3 hours each way).

My talk was recorded (and I was given a copy, if anyone would like to hear it), and I have agreed to a future interview with Dr. Rasheed to be published in a magazine as well as to to write an article (based on my presentation today) suitable for publication. Put briefly, I supported a thesis that 1) the earth is facing threats to the environment on many fronts as never before, 2) these threats are linked to Globalization which can be seen as a New Colonialism, 3) Gandhian Thought is clearly reflected the 4 pillars of the Green Movement, and 4) the International Green Movement is a major force for a New Independence which may help save life as we know it on this planet.

Kristine and Shaman took a break from listening to me talk, with Shaman staying home in Pala (still recovering from the activity of the Ahmadabad Conference last week), and Kris taking time to visit with Shanty (Stanys wife) and her family who live not far from Nedunkandam College. Without Stany and Shanty many of our experiences in India would either not happen at all, or would have been far less enjoyable. They and their extended families have effectively adopted us and so we have been provided a psychological (and physical) support system which none of us dreamed might have been ours in India. Exhausted after my presentation at Nedunkandam, for example, all urged me to take a nap at the Shanty family home, and I did! Very nice.

Other activities this last week included 3 hours with my Gandhian Thought students at St. Thomas College, 5 hours teaching International Relations to postgraduate students preparing for Government of India Civil Service Exams, and a 2 hour lecture/discussion at Mahatma Gandhi University (scheduled as the first of a Tuesday afternoon lecture series regarding Nonviolence that may continue up to ten weeks -- if there remains an interest). All totaled, I was involved directly in some kind of teaching activity for 12 hours this week (less than my normal 16 at Portland Community College) -- and none required any creating or grading of assignments on my part! While there is work, this really is quite a vacation too!

So that all may not be seen as fun and games, my personal email account at hotmail was hacked this week, with the result that I have not been able to access it since. Far more irritating than that, the hacker sent out a bogus letter appealing for money from those I have previously communicated with from that account. Hopefully the thief received no funds from well meaning friends. It is not easy to clean up such a mess -- and hotmail has thus far been none to speedy in helping this happen.

While Shaman and Kristine choose a somewhat slower activity level than myself, we all seem to be weathering the increasing heat and humidity (with the help of additional table fans) and the mosquitos (with the help of netting at night). Kris went to a doctor located at a hospital only a short walk from our home. The total cost of 2 doctor visits plus prescriptions was under Rs 200 (4-5 dollars) = up to two days wages for a very poor person, but very little for a middle class Indian. The sobering fact is that, unlike in the U.S. where health care remains a privilege, such access is available to every person in India (citizen or foreign visitor) as a matter of Right. Can it be that the economically wealthiest country on the face of the planet may have something to learn from one of the poorest? It is true that India has great economic poverty, but in spiritual values actually put to practice, the U.S. may be seen as more seriously poor.