Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Does Alma Mat(t)er?

I was asked the other day if I felt nostalgic about my alma mater, the institutions in Kolkata I did my bachelors and masters from. Was I planning to visit them during this trip to Kolkata. My answer to both questions were, Hell, NO !!!

My passionate NO must have confused my friend somewhat, and frankly it surprised me too. So I thought it would be a good idea to write about it.

Till date, I have studied in 3 schools, 2 colleges under the university for bachelors and masters, and one institution in the US.

Schools, I definitely feel nostalgic about. I miss the churches, the sisters, the discipline, the friends, the school assembly, and all those thing we did as children and starry eyed teenagers. My US alma mater- it’s too soon to miss it. However my colleges are a different story. As a teenager fresh out of high school, I got the rudest shock when I entered college. The process of getting into a decent college was as grueling as getting into an IIT, but only without it’s benefits of a secure career later. For back then (and now perhaps), colleges under the University of Calcutta have no respect or consideration for students from ISC/CBSE boards. Back then, for every 40 or more students from the state board getting in, only 2-4 students from “other boards” would get in. We were definitely the “scheduled castes” amongst the lot of new comers, only with lesser respect and even lesser rights. No wonder more than half my high school mates had fled to Bangalore, even taking the “donation route” to get into the lesser known institutions in and around South India rather than staying in Kolkata.

The next shock awaited me as I started college. It was a complete culture shock, getting along with the fellow students, professors, the kind of syllabus and examination patterns. Nothing matched up to my fantasy of a college life derived mainly from Bollywood, with hunks riding bikes and classes being fun. The boys and their social skills were hopeless, and barely deserved even a smile. The class would predominantly consist of “Bangla-medium” students who had no clue of spellings or grammar, and it was a nightmare to get the class notes right if I ever missed classes. The professors themselves (mostly) was no less, trying to gravitate to Bengali during lectures whenever they could. My first class in Botany was a nightmare because the professor taught in Bengali for the entire class and I had no clue what “Shalakshanslesh” was till mother told me it meant photosynthesis. St. Xavier’s would have probably been my kind of college but they didn’t teach Biology then and I wasn’t willing to move to something like Physics or Math just because it was taught at St. Xavier’s.

The mode of teaching was another disaster. Most professors spent hours dictating notes photocopied from some nicely covered anonymous textbook they wouldn’t name lest we locate the mines those wonderful gems of knowledge came from. We were told from day 1 that the students at Presidency College better colleges would have an upper hand since they were good enough to make it to Presidency College better colleges, and no matter how well we did, we would always get lower marks than them. There were rumors of university questions being drafted by Presidency College professors from well known colleges, and unless you found the “right people” to increase your exam marks from to take tuitions from, you had to be content with a mediocre performance. Only a handful could score a first class (60%) and those that scored less had no chance of making it to the university for a masters.

The examinations were a disaster in itself, always held in the middle of the summer that dragged for months with huge breaks in between. It was like playing an even longer and boring version of test series cricket. Exams never happened in your own college, you were sent to some Godforsaken college in the middle of nowhere to go write your papers. It wasn’t just a test of knowledge, it was a test of nerves. 8 honors papers, 6 pass papers, and other papers on English and environmental sciences that students mostly passed studying from “guide books”. Professors on exam duty often snoozed or chit chatted in halls, and moved at a snail’s pace and often frowned and scowled if you asked for extra sheets of paper. We were sufficiently forewarned that a situation might arise where we didn’t understand the question at all, because it often happened that the person framing questions had no idea what the syllabus was. While the best written answers would score a 6.5 on 10, the average answers would range from 3-5 on 10 (which meant the effort to score 65% is double the effort to score 50%, and one shouldn’t ever hope for getting something like an 80%).

The practical classes were a nightmare in itself, with the lab reeking of decomposing stuff all the time. I wonder what good it did to me that I learnt to dissect and display the pituitary gland of a fish or the male reproductive system of the cockroach, or the fact that I was taught to distinguish chicken bones from snake bones. I seriously wonder how it has helped me knowing these skills in the last 10 years.

I never dated a guy from college. I would look at those boys and girls bunking classes and chatting all day in front of the college gate and marvel at these specimens and their scintillating future. It’s not that I’ve never bunked classes to watch a movie, but some faces were perennially found in front of the college gates or in the students’ union rooms (Union-baazi being another thing I kept away from). I’d ponder over my insecurities as a graduate out of my university, possibly jobless or trying to adjust in a job environment where people spoke only in Bengali and scowled at people who spoke in English. I wonder how it’d feel to be posted to some remote village with a teaching position. They often said that unless you had lots of money, a college principal for a father, the right political connections to back you up, or all the three, you were finished. I couldn’t date a guy who was in as much shit as I was in, his future not secure for lack of the right connections or because he happened to study in this university.

I thought I’d take 3 years of this and get going. I could get into a good masters program in Delhi. I made it to BHU but then again my university didn’t publish my results on time and BHU refused to admit students whose results were not out by a certain date. So I was back to Kolkata for a masters, ready for another 2 years of being grilled. This time I couldn’t break free, but the next time, I had to.

Students in my masters class prepared for the NET/GATE/IAS/CAT exams, but I knew that was not for me. I didn’t really know what I wanted for myself, but I knew what I definitely didn’t want for me. So I started dreaming of a US school, a place where I hear there were no distinctions based on your background, the power game was more fair, and the probability of making up answers for a question I didn’t even understand was less. The college felt like a prison and I knew US was my only escape route, even if I was going to some remote corner of North Dakota or Alabama (which thankfully I didn’t). I bunked classes and used that time to prepare for GRE. The process from applying to getting there was so costly that I couldn’t afford to screw up a single step. Even then, I had quite some adventure running around to get recommendations from the same professors from college who no one in the right mind would want to go to. I barely interacted with the students in my class, most of who were girls who did a masters because it would get them a husband with a better profile than that they would get with a bachelors degree.

The day I made it to the US, I knew I would never ever want to come back and visit these institutions again. I meet people with fond memories of their undergraduate institutions, claiming that they attribute their basic learning to their undergraduate institutions back in India. I am afraid that is not my story. Even as I travel by the roads and places where my college was located, I feel washed with dread and unpleasant memories of insecurity I felt in my early 20s, not knowing if the future had anything worth looking forward to. When I meet old friends from school on Facebook, I jump with joy. However when I see friends from college, I don’t really feel much joy or curiosity. My college boasted of something like “We teach students so well, they make it to the US” during a counseling session for the newcomers to lure them into joining the college. This was after I got into a US school. I can claim any day that my college had nothing to do with helping me get into a US school. If anything, the insecurity and the frustration it caused me gave me the necessary push to “break-free” and get into a good US school.

So back to the question, no, I don’t think I am interested in visiting my old colleges (though I have visited my ex-school where I worked multiple times). I have nothing to show off or prove to them. I and my college don’t really have any differences, but over the years, we have developed a certain indifference.



dipthought said...

I "escaped" to JU, and never during my undergrad, I had to worry too much about class notes, attendance, exams or marks. And I learned a lot, got enough inspired to take Physics as a career.

alpine path said...

Oh man! It was like reading something that I'd have written. Though my undergrad institution was a lot better (and supposedly one of the best in the country), it still had the same socially inept specimens and indifferent people. Not getting into somewhere I loved fueled the fire. The last day was a mix, I was so elated I was finally out but so sad that I didn't experience the bliss that other people (esp my dad and uncles about the same college) talk about. Are our expectations screwed up? Would we have been better to just take what we get and be happy with it? Too many questions and not enough answers :( And indifference it is, till then!

Anonymous said...

Alma mattered enough to kick up the drive to goto a better educational institution.

Anonymous said...

understand what you mean. i had to compromise on my choice of subject to get into a well reputed college life was far from satisfactory.there was a marked "class divide" in the classes - people who came from the ultra elite schools flocked together and people from the not so elite schools/mid rung/unknown schools teamed up. i felt like an outcast, belonging niether here nor there. a painful 3 years. was gland when college life came to an end. i do look up to my college and its rich heritage, but do not have fond memories of my time in college. alas!

Anonymous said...

far cry from how a model education system should be....Thank God you freed yourself from the clutches and found just what you needed. Wishing you many more laurels! I have had such wonderful times that i cannot help but keep thinking of those jolly times over and over again!

mirror99 said...

Well, as i read your post, it reminded me of my cousin brothers and sisters back there in West Bengal, who are into the exact same stuff that you mentioned. I mean from the bengali student point of view. So each time i visit them, i get so frustrated at their education and the whole process they take so much pride in.

I myself got into BHU , infact IT-BHU for my undergrad, and the best thing about the college was, it was a batch of students collected from all over India and everyone was treated fairly and equally.

Of course it had its own problems, (though IITs are considered the best colleges in India), but when i see my cousins in West Bengal and the problems they face from getting a job to being social to being able to stand up to an average guy from an outside(WB) college, i definitely thank my parents that they did not bring me up in WB.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I feel your blogs are quite repetitive. You mentally think about past again and again and you keep blogging about it.

Anonymous said...

No doubt the education system is screwed up. However, I don't understand your disdain towards Bengali speaking people. Of course, if you are ashamed of being a Bengali by birth, then there is nothing more to argue about.

sunshine said...

Thank you readers for your comments and for sharing your experiences.

Anonymous 4- So what's wrong with blogs being repetitive? And what's wrong with thinking and writing about the past?

Anonymous 5- You misunderstand me. Why would I disdain Bengali speaking people? It's a different story when this leads to classes being taught in Bengali when you have never studied Bengali as a subject. And in case you failed to see, this isn't a disdain towards Bengali speaking people, but a disdain towards the educational system with people who were so lazy, they never incorporated changes for the better to keep the system at par with other renowned schools and colleges.

DeePDiveR said...

faced culture shock too....but then after some time realized these bengali speaking dudes and dudettes were after all ppl....though they appeared awkward at times....they were flesh and blood...with dimensions of which I was not accustomed to....thats the greatness of adjusting to diversity...noone's superior or inferior....just unique

Musings of a Geek said...

Your point regarding the educational system is well taken, and I completely agree with it.

"It's a different story when this leads to classes being taught in Bengali when you have never studied Bengali as a subject."

Being born a Bengali, you have never studied Bengali as a subject! This is one more example that shows our educational system needs urgent reform.

Btw, your blog rocks. Best Wishes :)