Parting Shot: A letter by Dean AP, Prof. Narayan Rangaraj
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A message for students, a few weeks before my tenure as Dean Academic Programmes ends. The original intent was to clarify a few things about course feedback, but like most profs, I got carried away and wrote quite a bit more!
A big part of the institute’s activities and a significant chunk of a faculty member’s responsibility is teaching. It is important to keep track of this and to continuously improve. Honest and timely student feedback (students being the main beneficiaries of this activity) is essential. The current form for the purpose of feedback was designed some 5 years ago and perhaps it can be further improved, but with whatever imperfections the procedure currently has, this is an appeal to students to participate in this task.
It has already been said that course feedback is the sole criterion for the Excellence in Teaching awards that the institute gives teachers. In addition, student feedback is compiled by the Head of the Department and a few senior faculty members as part of the annual performance appraisal of faculty, which has been recently introduced. In extreme cases, when there are complaints, for example, the Director or ‘the administration’ can take some actions based on course feedback by students. However, the most important aspect of course feedback is to provide individual faculty with constructive and specific inputs, which allows him or her to grow as a teacher, improve pedagogy, adjust contents, pace and support activities, and overall make learning a better experience. Unfortunately, this feedback will begin to impact only subsequent batches and offerings of the course. For immediate or mid-stream corrections, by far the best thing for students to do is to talk to the instructor and convey politely and specifically any problems they may be facing.
It needs to be said that individual faculty members do go through their course feedback reports with attention and often are able to take corrective measures.
Two points to reassure students. One – course feedback is completely anonymous and the identity of the student (including the comments section) is NOT available to faculty. Two – course feedback does not affect grading in that semester, and is made available to faculty only after grades have been submitted to the institute.
Nowadays it is common to go out for meals (especially at weddings and high-end buffet restaurants) where one can sample a number of different dishes and perhaps then eat a little (or a lot!) more of one or more cuisines. The term ‘course’ may confuse you a little (main course, four-course meal, etc.) but course registration in a semester should be planned a little differently and with some commitment. You may like to consult the instructor, faculty advisor, senior students, whomever before you register for a course.
The tone of a course is often set in the first week and it is very discouraging and disconcerting for faculty to find many students dropping out later and also seeing some others drifting in after a few lectures, hoping to find something of their interest in a languid way. While flexibility and tagging and additional learning is all very well, it has reached levels where too many electives are being tasted and dropped, and there is huge traffic in dropped courses, withdrawn courses, additional learning courses with low impact on CPI, to the extent that students have only a hazy idea of what they may do in a semester, even in the first week. This seems wasteful and the ‘real’ world later on will not permit such a casual approach to work commitments. There could be some hurdles for serious students to plan their work – for example, incomplete information about courses to be offered, slot information, timetabling, but we can work together on those.
Research at the dual degree and M.Tech level
The M.Tech (and M.Phil) courses of the institute, and the B.Tech-M.Tech dual degree courses have been planned with an expectation of significant research participation (14 months of work by a well-qualified individual who has made it through a tough system) and it is now clear that the delivered output of this is somewhat low, to put it politely. Faculty are debating how best to redesign these programmes, but in the meanwhile students should really make the best of this opportunity to do something significant.
The students in these programmes are often “placed” (an annoying word, more suitable for pawns on a chessboard, but what to do?) in a big whirligig of pre-placement, internship, aptitude tests, interviews and endless CV-polishing, with a little hint of incestuous relationships with seniors who have gone through the same hoops a year or three ago. I have seen with interest how students have convinced themselves that all the desirable qualities that are required to get placed are somehow at odds with the contents of their degree!
Used to be a time when good performance in a Master’s project would help in getting a good job – now it seems like IF a student gets a good job, and is sufficiently relaxed, THEN he/she may deign to work a little on a project. This is not what we had in mind! While wishing all the students the best in their careers, this anomaly needs correction. We are doing what strikes us as faculty, but students should come forward, too, as it is a question of good use of time during a very productive period of their lives.
We have increased our focus on doctoral research and the number of research scholars is slowly growing. A doctoral degree is the highest academic degree awarded by the institute, and it is given for some significant contribution to knowledge. Experts in a field assess the thesis, and the assessment is necessarily subjective and qualitative. It takes some maturity to do the kind of research that a doctoral degree needs. Some students who come in may not meet requirements, because of area mismatch or because of their background and performance at this stage in their career or for some other reason. All departments are increasing their standards and expectations from the doctoral programme and students would have to accordingly adjust. In particular, breadth through course work and other means, and also the ability to communicate (both technically and in non-technical matters) are very important for your future careers.
Finally . . .
With all its warts, IIT B is a place where students and faculty come to study and work from all over India, and in a small way, from across the world. One should strive not to lose the openness as well as intellectual rigour that make it a good institution, and there I am most hopeful that our students will keep these institutional values intact.