A former student of mine (let us call her Reema, to not name a real person) wanted to chat on Yahoo Messenger today. As most of my former students do, she wrote, “Namaste, sir, how are you… and how is your family?” I engage in the phatic communion sincerely. But the conversation takes the same old irritating path: “Sir, you were our inspiration…” Frankly, I feel good to know that I’ve inspired someone, but the fact that Reema says nothing of substance during a half hour chat bugs me, for several serious reasons. Reema completed the MA in which I taught her many years ago, she has become a teacher herself, and she has gained a lot of professional experience as well as disciplinary understanding. But Reema believes in a teacher-student relationship model that is frozen, locked, mummified at a moment where I was role-playing a teacher and she a student, in Kirtipur. For that reason, she is unable to consider me a colleague with whom to share ideas as a fellow teacher and scholar, even when I strongly urge that she does so. She actually says it emphatically that once teacher is forever teacher; she cites our old guru culture . . . and that mummified view of a culture which leads to mummified way of thinking and acting is what frustrates me.
Another former student emails me once in a while (let us call him Sabin). Sabin says, “Hi Sir, how are you? . . . How is ma’m? . . . I’ve heard that you have a new baby. How is he? . . .” That’s fine too. Sabin is a father himself, and he’s naturally interested about family life. But the problem is not what he writes, it is what he doesn’t write. He doesn’t write about his studies, profession, intellectual progress. He doesn’t respond to my earlier response to his “namaste, sir… yours sincerely” email in which I had suggested that Nepali scholars of English Studies, like he and I, both in the country and outside, should discuss our discipline in Nepal through an online network of some kine—or at least spend five extra minutes to add one or two things about education, profession, society, etc in our emails. In a brief chat one day, Sabin said that he doesn’t know the technology to be able to do things like discussion board or blogging—I said that writing a response to a blog entry or a discussion forum thread is easier than emailing, and that I could help him right at the time—to which he added that there is too much load-shedding in Nepal. Yes, I fully understand that serious problem, but here is a problem I don’t understand: estimating by the amount of his work on Facebook, it seems to me that Sabin probably spends about 2-4 hours a week online. What I suggested is a few extra minutes in his emails, if not half an hour or so in a month: “I will set up and manage the forum, and you simply periodically check in what others are saying—this is called “lurking” in technical terms—until you feel like saying something, then you can decide whether you want to do more.” To this, Sabin said, “Sir, I don’t have ideas like you do.” I know that this statement comes from the same old “guru knows it all and who am I before him?” attitude, but I go on: “No, Sabin, it’s not about writing an academic article or something online, it’s about taking interest in discussing ideas of common interest with your professional community, about modeling the discussion for younger generations. . . by simply saying ‘I find such and such thing interesting in this discussion because in my experience…’ and so on.” Even simply reading the discussion and mentioning it among your colleagues and students will increase the traffic, and you or someone might pick up the interest to join the conversation. Sabin then said, “I will try.” That was a perfect answer. Problem? Sabin gradually stopped writing his “Hello, Sir, How are you and how is ma’m and how is babu?” emails altogether. I sent him links to a discussion board last year, then after a few months a link to a blog, then recently I suggested that he join a professional mailing list of English teachers. Sabin did write once during the last year to say hello sir, and has been lost for several months now. I didn’t want that, although, honestly, I don’t very much miss the emails of a fellow scholar that said almost nothing anyway.
Then there are teachers, let us say my former professors. They are my inspiration—yes, I am recycling the students’ anecdotes above. I too still call them “priya guru,” “dear sir,” etc—there’s no problem with calling someone X or Y. Even though I am shocked, for instance, by one year younger colleagues calling me “Sir” just because I happened to study one year earlier, there is not problem with this or that word, partly because there seems to be no good alternative to these awkward words like “sir.” But I feel extremely uncomfortable to not say anything other than “Dear Sir, How are you? I am fine. Your obedient chela. Shyam.” in my emails. I write about what I am doing and studying, my professional progresses and challenges, my cultural experiences. . . besides quick mentions of personal and family lives. I get nice responses. Most of my former teachers love me very much, so they write back with encouragement and praise. But that is precisely the problem. After so many years of teaching me, they still don’t write to me in ways that indicate they think I have become capable of talking with them about anything serious—academic, disciplinary, professional, curricular, social, philosophical, pedagogical, etc. In response, I too lack the courage to ask them about their professional projects—well, even when I do ask them, as I have several times, there is no response to that part in their response, just “I know you are doing great. Keep it up!”
Now, the problem is not with my teachers or me or my students: it is with the conventional relationship between teacher and student in our society where teachers rarely talk with their students about their own professional projects, their intellectual explorations, their teaching, their writing, their reading. There is by default a gap—a gap created by the guru culture which we never question—which makes teachers see their students as some sort of forever kids. Because this philosophy is not only accepted but also respected, I become, for instance, the forever lovable young MA student in Kirtipur in the eyes of most of my former teachers. That evergreen image of me is fine in the romantic sense, but it is dangerous from professional perspectives.
Nepali academics talk about how older political leaders of our country stand in the way of younger generations and hinder them from taking leadership and even from making significant contribution. We all know that our country wouldn’t be in the forever broken shape if the oldest and often dumbest politicians would make way for younger, often brighter people. Ironically, we don’t even question the same culture among us that we lambaste among the politicians! In other societies, “older” people seem to not forever want to lead the flock in order to be respected. Because they are happy when their ideas are respected, they seem not to be afraid of being nobody when asking new people to lead, as long as they can somehow contribute. We don’t seem to realize that it is not age but ideas that we need.
“Oh, no, you are against our age old culture!” Well, what about updating it? “Now, you are talking about the entire academic system! We can’t do anything about it.” Well, why not? We can reject the underlying cultural worldview about who can and cannot design a course. Afraid? Let new people mess it up, in new ways. The silly worship of few heroes intellectually hurts the worshipped heroes themselves–on top of preventing possible opportunities for anything new, different, and better. Few among us care to think what happens when young intellectuals who have different ideas, approaches, and skills do not even speak up. Guru devo bhava.
We tout our knowledge of western intellectual, cultural, and political ideas; but we seem to never pick one or two good things from other cultures in our own practice. We know in the cultures whose literature, philosophy, history, and education we study about, there is no hierarchy among people; mature university students and younger colleagues are not seen as inferiors but intellectual cohorts. But our students and younger colleagues are forever students. I remember one of my professors in the English Department literally yelling at me on the first day of my teaching there, “What the hell, Ghanashyam, why are you standing at the door? Just come in, sit here, and start asking questions!” A thesis viva voce was going on. That was an isolated incident of someone telling me to not take forever to act like an intellectual and professional. But as long as I believed in the ideal of guru-culture, I didn’t really ask my best questions in front of my forever teachers. Many of my former teachers might have wanted me to behave like a colleague, to engage in professional discussion, to propose to write an article together, to lead them organizing a conference, and so on. Many of their former students, now colleague, might have liked that change as well. But the change has never happened, and it is not likely to. This dead thing called guru-culture—yes, I called it dead—instead of any other form of professionalism that would better suit our intellectual status in the world today, this outdated bogus worldview, is keeping us from letting change happen in practice. By “guru-culture” I don’t mean the religious garbage, nor the disgrace of caste-based culture where some people, however lazy, were considered intellectually superior, because they were born to the learned class/caste. The guru-culture, which in the context of Nepalese university does the work of “fixing” people’s relationship in one still point of time, is completely out of sync with what education means today, with what we are doing with education, with English studies or anthropology or modern medicine. In a world where the very ideas of “student” and “teacher” have been radically redefined and adjusted to vastly different professional conditions than the original context of guru-culture, it is foolish to not start looking at our students as fellow intellectuals. We must tell our students to stop respecting us for nothing and start respecting our ideas instead (which is the best form or respect anyway). We should be looking at our former teachers as fellow intellectuals/professionals and tell them honestly if they are not making any sense. Yes, we must start talking about our assumptions, cultures, practices in ways that make us uncomfortable, that unsettle our existing values, and that allow new and better kinds of professional relationship possible. And one way to open up that possibility is to bring up issues like this in public, in chiyapasals, in blogs (instead of or after posting pictures in facebook), in conferences, at department meetings.
“But, sir, we don’t have the access to the web.” What about the little amount of time we already are getting to spend online? What if one out of a dozen among us take interest in professional networking so whoever has the access can at least read? We all know that in spite of the terrible material condition (especially of power supply), professional networking (on and off line) is going to redefine the nature of our discipline. We can no longer daydream a better professional future–individually or as a community–without defining our own intellectual and professional identity, without substantially increasing professional work like refereed journals, international forums and conferences, and now professional networking on the web. We know that we should be modeling the practice by spending what little time or access we have in order to encourage new generations to build upon the resource and network that we create today. A few colleagues in NELTA (Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association) recently started ELT conversations through mailing group, wiki, and blog, and in just a few years, networking has become a standard project among folks in education. I am proud to say that I have worked as an active participant of that networking. On the side of Humanities English Studies, we are good at blaming those in power, not saying anything, and not responding to/encouraging new ideas or efforts. In my experience, many people in this community see politics where there isn’t any, create imaginary camps and lump people on this side or that (I never knew which camp I belonged to, but others, mainly students, did the work of guessing/deciding that for me), and are good at climbing the stairs through personal favors or political influence. The moment you open your critical mouth, people will start guessing whether you are striking against this camp or that camp. Then, there will be a Kathmandu Post war. The audible and inaudible, the real and imaginary wars that I have seen in the past two decades mostly involved taking sides of people and much less often of ideas. We are afraid to upset the camps, so the underlying values that keep both sides unprofessional remain stable. As you read this, if you are trying to guess which camp or which particular teacher, colleague, or former student, etc this guy is trying to criticize here, sorry, save that energy: I love and respect each individual member of the community as individuals. But I have serious issues with the outdated cultural ideology underlying the structure of relationship among intellectuals in our society. THAT IDEOLOGY MUST CHANGE.
Why should it bother the teachers among us that our former students forever say Namaste and nothing more? Why should it bother today’s students that our teachers share nothing about their work with emerging scholars? Because these are manifestations of deeper, larger cultural problems that need to be addressed. The model of once teacher forever twam-saranam could have been appropriate in the past—say between several milennia to a half century ago—where knowledge was seen to be flowing one way. That conception of knowledge posited knowledge as a set of stable, permanent truths. If a teacher said Brahma created the earth, that was it, forever. You just took it from your teacher and gave it to your students, and they did the same, which was supposed to continue until the end of time. We live in a different world today. But unfortunately, we are using that conception of knowledge and education to do a vastly different thing—for example, for teaching students who become knowledge-workers in a global knowledge market. No, we can’t use the jug and mug model of education to prepare engineers who will lead development projects for the UNO, business women who must compete in a global market by continually developing new business strategies, physicists whose professional lives in the US or UK will be determined by their innovative approach to research, and so on and so forth. Even when we think of the narrowest professional scope such as that of teaching in ten plus two, our university should be seen as preparing teachers who are shaping whole new generations of knowledge workers for a global economy. My first badge of ten plus two students is now all over the world, and many of them who are at home are working in positions where they prosper by generating new ideas, not transmitting what I told them. In their real, professional lives, they have little to do with grammar rules or Wordsworth’s poems—the cognitive model of learning which claimed that people would become more intelligent by studying poetry is pathetically out of date—they don’t summarize “Structure, Sign, and Play”—the disconnect between academic and professional life must make us teach theory and philosophy differently—they never ever write 40 pages of answer to 10 questions set by someone within 4 hours—the very education system we designed decades ago needs to be significantly revamped—and they don’t get forever locked in professional relationships where one person says Namaste and the other person says hello and it’s over. They compete, they overtake, they leave the country, they explore cultures, they create a company, they network professionals around the country, they generate and write new ideas and get things done every day. They figure out on their own (or never do) what to make of the same grammar rule that was taught 12 times over, of Derrida, of the talent they developed for taking four hour exams, of mummified relationship with people.
It is time to face the ugliness, the inaction, the nonchalance—bhaladmipan. It is time to stop blaming the system and getting away with the easy excuse of “well, we can’t do anything about it.” It is time to face the empty conversations in the name of our “great values” (because unquestioned ideals too often hide a lot of bogus in any society). This work of rethinking, challenging, upsetting some of the ideas and values and practices and outlooks that we repeat like Sisyphus are overdue. Let us look in the eyes of what we’ve taken for granted for too long.