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.

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