Stem rot of ‘arranged’ academia

Conferences, meant to be direction-finders, have become about numbers driven by academic cronyism between poor academics

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 28th Dec 2017   12:08 am Updated: 27th Dec 2017   10:16 pm

In response to my piece on populism as a reason for inflated grading in academia, my friend and colleague Professor Anna Kurian pointed me in another direction — one that again troubles the previous, ostensible aspirations of a tertiary-level educational organisation. She pointed out that conferences, lectures, talks and such are ‘arranged’ primarily to facilitate Faculty acquiring the necessary Academic Performance Indicators, or API, now the easily most significant acronym in the life of a faculty. What she was pointing to is a basic structural condition now common in the Indian academia.

The faculty could, of course, accrue higher API points by publishing in Grade A journals, with enormous international reputation. Since they cannot write for such journals – indeed many cannot write – they need to acquire points from somewhere. Populism kicks in to save them, and hence these conferences and talks have to be ‘arranged’.

Quantity Beats Quality

The populist conference, talk or lecture works on the number principle: X numbers of conferences organised (for the institution), Y number of papers presented. For the faculty, X and Y represent a crack at the promotional ladder because Y multiplied by 3/5/10 points will help her/him make the next grade. The quantitative assessment, which drives this populism, has absolutely no interest in the quality of the papers presented (in English department conferences, the papers are often not even in English). There is no assessment of any kind: whether these further the students’ learning or the field of study, whether there is any rigour or even sense in the talk.

Conferences are meant to be direction-finders and coherent, collective addresses to specific themes. Globally such conferences have set the agenda for entire fields of enquiry (think of the Macy Conferences or the English Institute Conferences), mapping the frontiers of knowledge. But here, conferences are about numbers, being accommodative and driven by academic cronyism between poor academics. They seek only to attract large numbers of paying participants (Registration fees that pay for the lunches and jute/khadi bags, now standard appurtenances of the ‘conference kit’).

Lacking in Research

Paper presenters are encouraged to ‘summarise their findings’, like forensic detectives testifying in court, in three minutes rather than read their full paper. Paper readers are happy, for they very often only have an abstract, and no paper (we know one faculty member who carried her income tax papers to the microphone, and extemporised rubbish there, because ‘nobody would know the sheaf of papers I am carrying is not my talk’). Papers are often ‘written up’ on the obverse of train tickets or boarding passes, and the talk would begin with ‘when I was travelling here, I had an idea…’. Very Wordsworthian who allegedly had his supposedly poetic ideas when stumbling around Windermere Lake, surely, but not academic.

Second, the question of focused academic enquiry. A conference now carries everything in it, reminiscent of the old travel-item, the ‘hold-all’, irrespective of the stated conference theme. Indian academics being eco-friendly often recycle their papers (the same paper is read across many conferences, and therefore will be titled ‘some aspects of…’ or ‘some reflections on…’), but as a result they have a large number of (identical) papers, none furthering the enquiry in any way.

There is a geographical morality to conferences: papers one would not be seen presenting before respectable audiences can be, and are, presented at the conference organised at the institution organised at the distant-est, or most attractive, tourist town. Geographically away from the questioning audiences of reasonably enquiring intellect, any paper is acceptable.

A Big Sham

So, conferences, talks, symposia are actually organised to benefit faculty. The UGC has allocated points for various ‘levels’ — papers at national and international conferences, invited talks at international/national/local levels. Faculty seeking to acquire the minimum points every year, therefore, rush around conferences and cadge invites — from their alma mater in their hometowns, where they go during festival season and claim to have been ‘invited’ for talks, or local high schools. This example is not to belittle the school, but rather to point to the desperation: since nobody halfway sensible would invite them, the faculty will go to anybody who will.

Consequently, the conference is not meant to serve the students. Students are the unwilling props at such conferences, whose scope, themes and interests are rarely useful, stimulating or even mildly entertaining. Student attendees’ mode of survival at such events is through the services offered by smartphones and the www (truism: a conference organised at a venue with poor connectivity will not have student attendees!).

So, as in the case of inflated grading, the loser in this ‘scheme’ is the student. The papers presented, of abysmal quality, do not help them prepare for their exams. They do not open up new fields of intellectual exploration. They do not advance a theory or interpretive model. They do not demonstrate a methodology (I speak for and from within the field of English Studies): if they do, it is usually how to ‘cut-and-paste’ from multiple sources.

So the larger questions are: have tertiary level institutions withdrawn from their primary audience, the students, and whose primary focus is to enable their salaried members – the faculty – to higher cadres through these mechanisms? Have they also withdrawn from the goal of furthering knowledge?

These ‘activities’ are publicly funded, but do they return anything to the knowledge-economy of the public, or are they self-serving for the faculty – also, indisputably, members of the public! – alone? Is the quantificatory system of assessing teachers generating a breed of ‘travelling teacher’, not very different from travelling salesmen, peddling their ‘wares’, hopping from venue to venue? The jury is still out. Or is it? Ask the students, please. Don’t ask me, I am off to a conference…

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)