Sunday, December 20, 2009

Under/Graduate English Education in Kerala

Let me begin by identifying what I see as the main issues in the present education system, that function as obstacles to an effective teaching and learning of English at the undergraduate level.
One, the surreal dimension of the student-teacher ratio in the classroom. Most often than not, individual teachers are forced to teach almost 70 to 100 or more students in a general English classroom, which actually limits considerably the teacher’s ability to meaningfully interact with the students or bring into the context of the classroom even slightly unconventional, let alone radical and innovative, teaching methods. The trouble is considerably accentuated when we consider the non-availability of audio-video aids for general English teaching, which is in fact an idea strongly suggested by the UGC for teaching in a classroom of this magnitude.
Two, the confusion regarding the status of English teaching at the undergraduate level in our university system. There is a widespread allegation, covert as well as overt, against the current English teaching, which often assumes the form of an indictment that our students as not capable of producing a single meaningful sentence even after the completion of the degree course. The tragedy, in my view, lies in the fact that we have not yet defined the purpose of English teaching at the undergraduate level. While most universities in the world view English studies as part of what can be called critical humanities, where the thrust is on the critical reading of a text, our undergraduate general English teaching, I presume, is geared toward developing the communication skills of the student. There is nothing wrong in our approach, given Kerala’s educational context and its requirements. In fact, it is laudable. But there is something terribly wrong when we try to develop the communication skills of the students with the help of texts that other universities would use as part of their critical humanities curricula. Or to put simply, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy or John Keats will not help the students of general English, whose command over English is abysmally low. They help only those who have a decent command over English, and also maybe, the guide lobby. Moreover, the present globalized political economy demands that students use an English that is slightly contemporary and is suited to the present demands, rather than a language of classical antiquity.
Three, the difference in socializations of students belonging to earlier eras and the present. The early mental world of the students of past generation was conditioned by stories, poems or songs that they heard in their homes. And hence they could conjure up a plethora of worlds out of such stories using their imaginative and intellectual faculties. The syllabus framed then fitted well into this mental-world. But today, barring the students from extremely marginalized contexts, most students of Kerala, which is fast becoming ‘a society of spectacle’, live in a world where there abound images all around them. They do not have to imagine a world. The world is constructed visually before them in the form of animations, albums, films, MMS, net tubes, etc. I do not mean to suggest that they are stupid on account of this (in fact, I have listened to some teachers categorizing the present students as dry. I do not buy that argument). Rather, the suggestion is that their imagination works in a different direction. The difference between the earlier generation of students and present one could be put neatly as the difference between imaging a world and performing a world. That is precisely the reason why things that could only be imagined in the wildest of dreams of the earlier generation, are being practiced by the current generation, on and off the campus. Whatever may be one’s moral persuasions, we have to agree that the current generation performs the world in tune with the world that is visually given to them. The general English syllabus of our university has so far been framed to satisfy the imaginative curiosity of the student. But insofar as it brings in a question of developing the communication skills, the existing approach has to be changed and the performative vitality of the student must be given preference.
Last, the failure of the current examination system to gauge the potential of the student. Most of you may agree that the current examination system is more suited to assess the memorizing ability of the student than to either test the critical thinking ability or linguistic skill of the student. If one has the ability to memorize things, in the current system one can, even without the application of one’s critical thinking faculty or linguistic faculty, easily come out in flying colors, creating a general impression that the student has used both. Worse still, in the present system, if a student has both analytical skill and linguistic skill, but he or she is poor at memorizing things under pressure, he or she may end up as big failure. It is high time we did away with memory-based examination system and introduced a system which would give more importance to analytical and linguistic skills of the student. This will have the advantage of taking much of the pressure away from the students’ already overburdened minds. I must also point out that the duration of examination is also bit strenuous for the students.

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