Lists and To-Do’s

Aadisht messaged me with a list of things he wished was taught in schools and colleges (mostly school), and asked me to come up with a list of my own. Which I will, shortly, but I also wanted to talk in today’s post about a larger point about education in our country. Higher education especially, of course, because that is where I work right now.


OK, short rant coming up:

We spend far too much time in teaching, learning, submitting assignments and writing examinations in college, without actually doing anything. That dulls the mind, captures all of us in a mindless routine that is exhausting, and we end up wasting the most precious years of a student’s life. It’s actually worse than that, because it’s not a mindless routine, it’s a mindless race. You don’t just have to do a whole series of mindless things, you must be seen as being better at it then everybody else.

For example, you having attended classes ain’t enough. You must be seen as having attended more classes than everybody else. Ditto for marks. Ditto for participation in college fests. And on and on and on. But I’ll build on this rant on another day.

First the explanation about listening vs doing, then a potential cure, and then the list.


Explanation:

Consider the program that I am in charge of at the Gokhale Institute. We have about 6-7 courses on offer every semester, and the way the programme is structured, all are currently compulsory. If you assume that each course runs for 40 hours – which it does in non-covid years – we’re looking at around 250 hours of classroom teaching every year. A typical semester lasts for about four months, out of which you need to discount about three-four weeks for holidays, college fests, internal examinations and so on. So about three months (12 weeks) of classroom teaching, into which must be shoehorned 250 hours of teaching.

That is not too bad in terms of time per week, especially considering the fact that we have lectures on Saturday as well. There’s a separate argument to be made about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does mean that the number of lectures per day averages out to be around 4.

More than the quantity though, it is the sameness of the day that worries me. All classes are the same. The professor talks, the students listen, and there’s some questions. Learning isn’t by doing, in other words, it is by listening.

There isn’t anything to do. Yes, there is the odd in class assignment, activity and what not – but honestly, most courses will involve at least 80% of the prof talking and students listening. And passive listening – my opinion – can only take you so far. In fact, back when I was a student, I didn’t do so well with passive listening. I still don’t do well with passive listening, which is why this last year has been so horrible for me. Attending a call with nothing to see or do except stare at circles that symbolize names is my ultimate nightmare – and I can’t for the life of imagine how students have been doing it day in and day out. (They haven’t, of course. Attendance rates have been plummeting in all courses across all colleges this past year, one way or the other. And that’s not such a bad thing, for a variety of reasons.)

But that’s the explanation part of this post: we focus far too much in our colleges in this country on listlessly listening, and there’s nothing to do.


Now for the (potential) cure.

These past few weeks, two of my BSc students worked with me on a paper that I and a colleague are writing on health in India. Forget the two students, my colleague and I have learnt more about microeconomics than we did in years of teaching the stuff. By extension, I cannot begin to imagine how much the students learnt about research, theory, its application, the nuances of theory and the benefit of working in groups.

Two other students worked with me on writing articles about the budget. Let me be clear, I did not foist this work upon them. Writing articles about the budget is a cottage industry that nobody ought to be a part of more than a couple of times – but if you’re doing it for the first two or three times, it can be a lot of fun. Again, in their case, I’m sure they learnt a lot more from doing the research to write these articles than they would have in class. The point I am making is that doing work when you have skin in the game teaches you far more than passive listening ever will.

There are other BSc students involved in building out workshops, launching podcasts, helping out with background research for tie-ups with other universities and a lot else besides. But the point behind all of them remains the same: my experiment this year is in trying to see if we can turn college inside out.

Throw students in at the deep end of the pool and ask them to do stuff. When they find out that in order to do stuff they need to know “x”, they now have an immediate, urgent desire to know “x”. And then there’s a point to attending classes that teach “x”!

So, in a not at all hypothetical example, a student is helping me write out a process document for the BSc programme. She has realized that building Gantt charts in Excel actually isn’t simple at all. What if she now attends an Excel session that teaches her about filters, tables and building out charts in Excel? As opposed to a semester in which she learns about Excel in the manner in which it would usually take place in a college. In which case is she going to be hungrier to learn?

We will teach you this, and this will turn out to be useful in life later, just you wait and see. (A)

Or.

Here’s what you have to do. Can’t do it because you don’t have the requisite skill? Cool, here’s the class on acquiring that skill. (B)

Colleges are all about approach A, and they need to be about approach B.

That’s the potential cure, and I’m trying to work on this approach in this semester.

It doesn’t scale, that’s the problem. At any rate, it hasn’t scaled so far. But I’ll keep you posted, and as always, suggestions welcome.


And with all of that said, my list:

  1. Disassemble and reassemble the following:
    1. The door to a classroom
    2. A switchboard in your classroom
    3. The clutchplate assembly on a bike
    4. Note that each of these are to be done with proper, capable supervision, and each being perhaps a three person job. While these are being done, conversations about typical pay, spare parts costs, typical expenses, commute, educational requirements, on the job training recommended. This point is applicable to everything else that follows on this list.
    5. Then have classes about division of labor, inequality, growth, specialization, pricing, sociology, calculus and statistics.
  2. Tend to the following:
    1. A kitchen garden plot in college.
    2. A butterfly garden plot in college
    3. A herb garden at home
    4. Develop and tend to (and that means everything, down to selling it yourself) a vermicomposting pit in college
    5. Then have classes about agriculture, resource management, pricing, government intervention, public economics, sociology, environment, urbanization and the history of the Indian economy.
  3. Learn double-entry bookkeeping and apply it for your own finances. Preferably in Excel/Google Sheets.
    1. Then have classes about statistics, finance and accounting.
  4. Build and deploy an expense tracker, with a dashboard. Preferably in Excel/Google Sheets
    1. You get the idea by now, surely.
  5. Publish in the public domain. Could be a video, a blogpost, a podcast, a photo-essay. But you don’t get to hide behind submissions to faculty only. All your submissions are mandatorily on public domain, viewable to everybody. Non-negotiable rule. Of course, by extension, this rule applies to faculty. All of our question papers and assignments to be put up for public scrutiny too!
  6. Write. Write every single day. You don’t get better at writing without writing every single day. Trust me.
  7. Ditto for reading.
  8. But also learn to take the odd day off every week, and do nothing. Including unlocking your phone. I’m a hypocrite, because I haven’t been able to do this even once in the last five years. I’m talking about not unlocking the phone, to be clear. I’ve taken plenty of days off.

What’s your list?

Links for 12th March, 2019

  1. “We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”
    Umberto Eco on an exhibition that he is going to have at the Louvre… on lists. He explains why he likes the idea of lists so much – and says it’s not just him. Listicles are as old as humanity, and are around because we want to make the infinite understandable.
  2. “The drama started earlier this week, when Warner “revoked a previously agreed-upon publishing license” for India, according to Spotify, “for reasons wholly unrelated to Spotify’s launch in India.” Existing global deals don’t cover expansions into new territories, so when Spotify enters a country like India, it has to make a separate deal. With Warner pulling out, Spotify attempted to side-step a direct deal with the label using a controversial amendment in Indian law, which says “broadcasters” can obtain a license for copyrighted works even if the copyright owner denies use. In response, Warner fired back with a request for an injunction, forcing the case to the Indian court system.”
    I have subscribed to the service, and am quite happy with it so far. I also subscribe to Google Play music, but find Spotify’s playlists better organised, especially be genre. Google Play Music, as I see it, has two advantages: it allows you to upload up to 50 GB of your own songs to it’s servers, and you can then play them from anywhere. Second, it has the WB catalog – which Spotify doesn’t, and this article explains why.
  3. “Using the Excel app, you can take a picture of a printed data table on your Android device and automatically convert the picture into a fully editable table in Excel. This new image recognition functionality eliminates the need for you to manually enter hardcopy data. This capability is starting to roll out for the Excel Android app with iOS support coming soon.”
    I have tried it, and it works – albeit imperfectly. But if you have ever struggled with the beast that is MOSPI – or anything like it, this is likely bring a tear to your eye.
  4. “I think we’re at the point of no return. The omnichannel train has left the station. What would I do if I ran a retail business today? First, I would accept the fact that customers now love to shop both online and offline, and they expect two-day shipping for certain products and near flawless execution. The bar has been set high by Amazon. Then I would create a game plan that leverages my existing physical assets like warehouses, distribution centers and stores to offer new services like ship-from-store or pickup-at-store. I would also build new fulfillment centers specifically to fulfill online orders and ship to customers’ homes.”
    More useful for the infographic atop the excerpt above. The fourth section of the infographic is a mix of optimism and handwaving to me – unless you replace the word “will” by “should”. Also see the Stratechery article about value chains.
  5. “It is worth noting that individual citizens of some of the world’s most volatile regions have asked WMI for cloud seeding services. A growing body of research addresses the idea that many wars and conflicts are stoked by environmental problems, which are often underlain by weather problems. Increasing drought across north-central Africa has ruined crops, starved the populace and is thought to have enabled Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s invasion of northern Mali in 2012. A paper published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal stated that drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 was the worst since instrumental record-keeping began, and caused widespread crop failure, mass migration and helped spark the Syrian conflict.”
    A Longread article on cloud seeding or “weather mod”. Worth it to understand what technology optimism means in practice, and to understand how long the attempted history of weather modification has been, and also for the photographs. For the photographs, I would recommend viewing this on the desktop.