Asking why

As a visiting lecturer at the Department of English, University of Colombo, I have taught a Masters course called ‘Digital Discourses’ since 2014, which is essentially on how people communicate online, over social media and using their smartphones. The course has proven to be very popular, and each year, I am told, over one hundred apply, out of which only a handful are selected. I have lectured as part of a post-graduate diploma course at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, and at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, I taught for some years several modules as part of a course for mid-career professional journalists. I was for some years part of the visiting Faculty at the University of Lugano, in Switzerland and have also lectured at ETH, in Zurich. A fundamental difference between all the classes, across the years, I’ve taught in Sri Lanka and the students I have interacted with abroad isn’t linked to location, syllabi, age, background or gender.

It is to do with their ability to ask a question.

It seems the simplest thing to ask for, and a no-brainer for any student to respond to. And yet, batch after batch, I have stood at the head of class in Sri Lanka in pin drop silence after I’ve asked the students to shut their notebooks, put down their pens, and ask me a question based on whatever I had covered until then in class. The silence has extended to minutes, over which time no one makes eye contact with me, and look at desk, hands or feet, hoping that I give up and go on lecturing. I do not. And so, after a few awkward minutes, a question is asked. It is usually incomprehensible, because the student asking it has never engaged with a style of teaching that gets them to critically engage, reflect, interrupt, argue with reason and question with a ferocious curiosity. From primary on to secondary and then in tertiary education, or when they attend professional development courses, all they are by default able to do is to take down copious notes. No matter what the lecturer says, they will take it down diligently and without question. The lecturer is always assumed to be right, and if there is some suspicion she or he is not, it is never openly brought up.

Abroad, the classes are almost combative in comparison. There is a different level of preparedness, to begin with. Students look to a lecturer to help chart a course for self-exploration around an issue or topic, and less as an all-knowing being there to impart learning to a mute class. It is utterly refreshing to be able to converse, debate and thrash out a point, especially when the class and I differ on interpretation, merit, approach or significance. They learn, but so do I, and the entire system is geared to test not what is memorised and mindlessly copied, but what can be argued with reason, evidence and conviction. Some of my highest marks have been reserved for imaginative approaches to the subjects I have taught that disagree with my own take, yet where robust academic discipline is combined with lateral reading, critical analysis and original thought to produce compelling writing. That level of interaction is a world away from any class I’ve taught in Sri Lanka, over a dozen years.

What must be changed to make sure we can compete in a global marketplace of ideas? I start with my class, and my engagement with students. My first lecture, if it is one of a series, is not just about what I want to talk about, but also encourages students to stop writing and start thinking. I compel them to ask questions. I ask them questions, and push them to answer honestly, and openly. I play off one student’s opinion with another, and ask them to debate. They are often shy at first, and sometimes even angry they can’t just sit in silence and passively take down notes. I encourage the quietest ones to talk, and ask those who soon thrive in an environment they can share their opinions and ideas to help fellow classmates formulate their own thoughts. I often have an eclectic reading list, drawing from best-selling fiction to mainstream and arthouse movies, a range of web content anchored from the serious and sublime to the comedic yet educational. I get the class to install and use relevant apps on their smartphones, draw maps, locate themselves geo-spatially and virtually, ask them to take on new identities through online avatars, and talk with each other using new expressions, and languages that have evolved around the limitations of handheld devices. I ask student to reflect critically on what they do daily over social media, and then use their own content as class material for teaching and deconstruction. I never allow them the luxury of switching off by turning page and expending ink, and by the end of it all, they either love me, or they are very glad to see the last of me.

More than anyone class, my greatest opposition has come from other faculty members in Sri Lanka, especially at one of the institutions noted above, concerned that I set an example they couldn’t and importantly, didn’t want to match. I leave behind all my presentations, and all the content I use in class, in full, with the students. Other lecturers have their notes, and never share them completely with students. Comfortable in the usual, stale pedagogy, I am often a maverick they don’t quite know what to do with.

Which brings me to institutional culture. The Department of English at the University of Colombo is a refreshing departure from what one usually associates with outmoded, outdated approaches to teaching in our tertiary system. I have enjoyed teaching there the most, and also because the Masters course I helped design and now teach is unlike anything else offered by other University’s in the country. Having interacted with a number of media, communications and journalism lecturers and faculty over the years and the obvious fellow mavericks aside, the issue seems to not just be with grossly outdated syllabi, but with Faculty who are sometimes so far removed from and ignorant of contemporary developments in the fields they teach, their students are ahead of them. Coupled with decades old syllabi that hasn’t been sufficiently revised and pedagogy that treats university students as one would toddlers in kindergarten, the dominant institutional culture at tertiary institutions is in fact deeply anti-intellectual, and openly opposed to critical questioning or independent analysis. In what is a perfect storm, the conditions in universities conspire to leave most students with academic qualifications not worth the paper they are printed on.

A radical overhaul is needed, and long overdue. Perhaps a few of us, already embedded in the system, can start a revolution without waiting for the Ministry of Higher Education, University Grants Commission, the Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework, or internal governance mechanisms in University’s to design, approve and implement new approaches and frameworks. The joy of teaching is not in hoarding knowledge, but seeing it grow by giving it freely away. I love when I have to come back and do research around a question a student has asked me, and for which in class I have not had an answer. While we often blame students for being lazy, including intellectually, less openly discussed is the fact that teachers encourage this disengagement with critical thinking, because it means they have to work harder and longer. Given the pay-scales, I can understand the resistance to do anything more than the minimum effort required, but if we don’t change the way students learn what they come to know more about, we are in effect producing biological robots across a range of disciplines – able at best to mimic, regurgitate and repeat, but never creatively respond, imagine, create or iteratively learn.

I believe both the necessary and urgent step to arrest this terminal decline is a relatively easy one. It gets students to ask a simple question.

Why?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 16 April 2017.

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