Shout by PG student representatives on article in edition 17.2

It has been brought to our notice that our article in print edition 17.2, titled “TA Selection and Accountability”, was received unfavourably by certain PG student representatives, who interpreted it as a deliberate insult to the PG community at large.They believe a holistic view of the TA structure from the PG community will help to improve undergraduate education at IIT Bombay. For this, they responded to some of the points we had raised including

  1. Students expressing a generic discomfort with the communication skills of PG TAs
  2. PG students (especially PhD students) requiring money for their upkeep.
  3. TAs being often ill equipped to handle classes

among others. We wrote a detailed response to them, which did not seem to satisfy them completely. They sent their final replies with suggestions for reforming the TA system at IIT Bombay. The following article, written by these representatives, details the exchange and their suggestions for reforming the system. We have also added our view on the whole episode.

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Chief Editors: Mihir Kulkarni, Niranjan Thakurdesai
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The Concerned Article which we are protesting can be found here(page 3):

The questionnaire(Google form) which Insight used can be found here.

The response of their survey can be found here.

Draft of the Letter to Insight Chief Editor: (Dated Feb 7)

Dear Editor,

It’s very disheartening to see that you chose to publish an article which seems a deliberate insult to the PhD community of IIT Bombay. Since Insight is an in-house publication, it must be cautious not to create an environment of Us vs Them which the article ‘TA Selection and Accountability’ has sought to do. We must be tolerant and welcoming to students from all backgrounds and should treat each other respectfully. Every student of IIT Bombay is like a unit and each unit is important to make IIT Bombay better, greater and prosperous. Together we can create an atmosphere where no student feels being left out.

Here are the responses from PG Students to the hateful Article, TA Selection and Accountability’ published in the latest Insight Edition.
As per the survey chart the claims are as follows and serious thoughts should be given to these claims.

  1. Poor subject knowledge: Approx 55% voted yes for PG TA’s and for UG TA’s it is approx 15%.
  2. Poor communication skills: Approx 77% voted yes for PG TA’s and for UG Ta’s it is approx 23%.

There are other equally important claims which were made in the article.

  1. Claim: Most students expressed a generic discomfort with the communication skills of TAs (especially PG TAs).
    Response: First of all, this is a small survey encompassing very few number of UG students with no input from PG TAs. Many times these surveys are done through Google poll which give you less scope for quality control. In short, these are not scientific surveys and have high sampling errors.
    For a good sampling, a procedure as mentioned below may be followed-

    1. Stratified Sampling with random sampling from each TA course.
    2. Larger Sample size which reduces sampling error.
    3. The article reflects that the survey was conducted and misinterpreted deliberately to show PG TAs in a bad light. An unbiased survey puts its questionnaire in such a way that cognitive bias is minimized.

    Secondly, the term ‘communication skill’ is not well defined. Is it ‘communication skill’ in English or Hindi or a local language? Some PG students may have problem in articulating their thoughts and passing it to students in English Language but it is very hard to believe that PG TAs can’t convey their messages in a language of their preference. As the article mentions, “Communication skills are considered important only to the extent of being able to get the message across” and Insight Survey shows, “Students believe that communication skills are the most important criterion for TA selection”. So, please clarify if the authors’ intention was to show that PG TAs are poor in communicative English.

    Thirdly, PhD students generally are masters of particular fields and work in specific areas of research which highlight their good subject knowledge, but sometimes TAs are allotted courses which are unfamiliar to them. This situation may generate an opinion among students for which it may seem to the students that the TA(s) has(have) poor subject knowledge.
    This survey is thus very unreliable since Insight team did not consult any PhD TA which could have improved the overall perspective of the subject.

  2. Claim: PG students (especially PhD students) require money for their upkeep.
    Response: MHRD provides scholarships to PhD students to promote Higher Education and Research in the country (CSIR-Research Grants). To suggest that PhD students need money for their upkeep(emphasis provided) is an insult, to say the least. Many students (including some B.Tech students from IIT Bombay) prefer doing PhD outside India and decide to settle there. One of the big reasons for this ‘brain drain’ has always been high amount of scholarships and salaries being paid abroad.It is humiliating for PhD students of IIT Bombay, when the article hints that they require TAship for their upkeep, despite low stipend and high semester fee.Mumbai specifically has high cost of living. Here married PhD students do not consider of staying outside of the campus and IIT Bombay fails to offer married students any residence (one has to wait for 3 years before one gets a residence). Besides, PhD Students are not provided any annual Book Grants and there is a restriction on the number of times one can attend international conferences abroad. In these conditions, we feel it’s irresponsible on the part of Insight to even suggest that PhD scholarship is for the research community’s upkeep. Many students leave their lucrative jobs and come here for PhD out of sheer passion for Research.

  3. Claim: Biased checking of answer sheets.
    Response: As far as we know, PG TAs are more responsible while checking Answer-sheets (this was confirmed by Prof. Akshay in the article). Post graduate program (especially PhD) not only gives us insight into research aptitude but also nurtures our maturity and dutifulness and such lame comments come as a direct attack on the fabric of research and work culture in IIT Bombay.

  4. Claim: TAs are often ill equipped to handle classes.
    Response: Generally, it is the duty of the Department Administration to assign TA duty to a PG student in lieu of his/her expertise. But in reality, TA duty may not always be assigned based on a TA’s expertise. Sometimes, PG students(especially PhD students) are assigned a TA course which is alien to them. The odds to teach a completely new subject with no formal training are quite high. It may thus seem to the student(s) of a course that the TA is ill equipped to conduct the class, which in many cases may not be true. Moreover teaching students a specific subject which the TA has no prior experience is going to be difficult. So, it can be concluded that this particular problem is more of administrative problem.

Other criticisms of the article
The authors, in the end of this article suggest — “PG (especially PhD) students are to necessarily take up TAship, options other than teaching, like preparation of quizzes, quiz evaluation, assisting the professors in preparing the slides for the lectures and supervising laboratory sessions should be available”. By providing such an opinion they have made an utter folly by not surveying the TAship structure in different departments. The suggestions provided are already in practice in many departments. Teaching is necessarily not given to a PG TA, if the concerned faculty is available inside the campus.

So, we feel we deserve a written apology from the authors of the article and chief Editor of Insight. Please do the needful to address our concern.

Regards and Thanks,

Sk Ashif Akram,
PhD Student and General Secretary (Research Scholars’ Association of Physics),
Dept. of Physics,
IIT Bombay

Sammyak Mate,
PhD Student,
Systems and Control,
IIT Bombay

Majid Hassan,
PhD Student and Executive Member (PG Academic Council),
Mechanical Engineering,
IIT Bombay

Insight’s reply to our mail: (Dated Feb 8)

Hey Ashif,

I’ll just refute your arguments one at a time, before getting to your claims of this article having been a “hateful” attempt to “create an environment of Us vs Them”.

  1. Survey Methodologies
    For a survey that focused on the experience students had had in with Institute courses, this sample size is far better than you might think. For a quick verification of that, you can use this link:

    Our “population” was composed of 4000 UG students.
    We needed a 95% confidence level, and a confidence interval of 5-6.
    Crunching those numbers gives you a required sample size of 200-250.

    The only question now remaining is whether or not this sample had any systematic biases.
    For instance, if students with low CPIs were more likely to fill this survey, we’d be more likely to have their opinions reflected in the article. However, we saw no reason to believe that the population of students filling an online survey would not be reflective of the population of students at large, especially when the comparative analysis that we’re trying to provide between the efficacy of UG and PG TAs clearly shows that UG students prefer UG TAs.

  2. PhD students require stipends
    The average UG at IITB is 20 years old. His/her education at this point in their lives, is invariably paid for by their parents – and, thus, they aren’t provided stipends by the Institute as general practice.

    On the other hand, like you said, a lot of PG students leave behind their jobs, and have the burden of supporting their families while simultaneously studying / pursuing research.

    The article was simply stating that PG students, having greater responsibilities to deal with, need a stipend to support themselves – a fact that you seem to agree with.

    I’m really sorry, but I just fail to see why you seem to find the point offensive.

  3. Biased Checking of Answer Sheets
    The article states, and I quote, “A major bone of contention has been the biased checking of answer sheets. This could be reduced by allowing one TA…”

    Can you please elaborate what led you to believe that the article is, in any manner whatsoever, trying to imply that it is PG TAs that are biased? Like you said, the article goes to great lengths to point out that PG TAs are less biased than UG ones.

  4. TAs are often ill-equipped to handle classes
    Nearly everything you’ve mentioned has been covered in the article, under the sub-heading ‘What is the Selection Procedure’. Please do have a look.

    I agree that the problem of TA allocation is an administrative one, and that is what the article intended to point out too.

  5. Other Criticisms
    What we were trying to suggest was that the best practices from all departments be made the norm across the institute. I don’t think it was a folly on the part of the authors, considering that they accurately identified these practices. When they refer to “teaching”, they are talking about the TAship role that is offered to students on a semester-long basis, and not the relatively infrequent times that they have to substitute for professors.

To sum up, the article seeks to identify the problems faced by the students, and hopes to address grievances of the students. The analysis, infographics, and arguments made in the articles are based on facts, and facts alone. Aside from the survey, the authors also spoke to a large number of students, TAs, and professors – some of whom have been directly quoted in the article as well. If you think that PG students were given an unfair hearing / were willfully misrepresented, I would like to point out that one of the authors – Pradeep Padmanabhan, is currently a PG student at IITB.

At the end of the day, Insight is a student body that stands for all students. It is in no way our intent to create a rift between the UGs and PGs on campus. In fact, we’ve worked very hard throughout the year to try to do whatever it is we can to bridge the gap that exists between the two communities. However, as student journalists, it is also our duty to report the facts – and I’m fully convinced that that is precisely what the authors of the article have tried to do.

With all of that said, if you are still convinced that this article if offensive and/or hateful, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for that.

Anshul Avasthi and Chirag Chadha,
Chief Editors, Insight.

Reply to Insight Magazine: (Dated Feb 14)


Sorry for late reply.

Let me refute your arguments one by one.

  1. Survey Methodologies:

    We don’t know about your sample size (It will be nice if you can share your raw survey data-sheet with us) but assuming that you consulted 250 UG students (It seems you have used online survey forms and your sample size has moderate reliability), your reasoning that low cpi students tend to give poor feedback to TAs doesn’t enthuse us since cognitive bias among UG students across cpi spectrum can still be there. From my own experience, I’ve seen many UG students who suffer from incorrigible superiority complex (This may stem from the fact that they are good rank holders in JEE Exam). This is a kind of confirmation bias where by default, a PG student is inferior if he is not a B.Tech. from a reputable IIT. I don’t know how your survey tackled these misapprehensions.

  2. PhD students require money for upkeep:

    Our argument is that not all PhD students do their PhD for upkeep or being enticed by Stipend. Many PhD students are real gems who do their PhD out of passion and they can’t care less about the amount of scholarships they are being paid, it’s too small. Many students could have gone abroad but they didn’t, for variety of reasons.They didn’t choose IIT Bombay to be insulted frequently by its UG Community, but to be respected and treated equally.

  3. Biased Checking of Answer Sheets:

    We are satisfied with your reply.

  4. TAs are often ill-equipped to handle classes:

    Your reply does not clarify our doubts.Blooming charts and diagrams say otherwise. If you really have focused on administrative problems you should have consulted PG TAs and quoted them to great lengths in the Article which you didn’t. Your claim that one of the writers is a PG student does not change the fact that your Article contains numerous biases. A writer may not toe the Editorial line or the Editors may choose to ignore the arguments of its authors. In this case, what good does it make whether one of the authors is from PG community or not.

    In case of 5th point, let us give you a benefit of doubt.

It will be nice if you can tender a written apology to the PG community on your website, facebook page and the next print Edition.

P.S. We have been informed that Insight consulted many professors who talked well of PG TAs but Insight chose to focus on the quotes which show PG TAs in poor light.



How to reform PG TAship:

Here’s our responses:

  1. TAship should be assigned based on PG students’ skills and areas of work
  2. Departments should organize a mandatory TA orientation session a week before the course begins
  3. There should always be a check on the TA load assigned (to prevent few students from being overburdened)
  4. Preferential TA allotment may be exercised for TA efficiency
  5. There should be regular interaction among TAs, TA coordinators and Faculty on ‘How to improve teaching quality and teaching environment’.
  6. Mutual respect between TAs and students is a prerequisite for a healthy environment.

Insight’s view

The problem of TA allocation is primarily an administrative one, and that is what the article intended to point out. We find it highly unfortunate that it has been interpreted as an insult to the PG community or as an affront to their capabilities– rather than an attempt to point out the many faulty ways in which departments allocate courses to PG students despite knowing that it isn’t their subject of expertise. As elaborated in our reply, we, as a campus newsletter, have never sought to bring any sort of divide between the UG and the PG communities and have merely reported the facts, without bias.

While it is possible that students filling in the survey may have had cognitive biases, it is important to note that the survey results stand despite these, and these biases must be kept in mind while interpreting results. Furthermore, as mentioned in the article, the team spoke extensively with professors, TAs and students during the writing of this article; and considered every individual’s opinion before publishing this piece. We also had two PG members on the team, to prevent any wilful misreporting/misrepresentation of facts. All the team has tried to achieve is to report the facts as they were, and we believe they were successful in this regard.

We also feel that the major issue, that of improving the TA allocation procedure, has been not accorded enough importance in the midst of all of this, which is unfortunate. If possible, we would like to rally together with PG student representatives in the near future to push for reforming the system.