TU is Well [Republica Repost]

Published in Republica on February 11, 2022.

Nepalese academia, including Tribhuvan University, has challenges, but we must tell the full story, including what it is doing well.  

I paused, somewhat sad, while skimming through responses submitted to the weekly reading assignment in a professional development workshop series last December. I was supporting the organizers, an informal network of Tribhuvan University scholars from across the country, as a resource person. One participant, who indicated was a senior scholar, had written that they “of course” didn’t need to “read about this issue … any more.” For the final workshop on “new opportunities for scholars’ professional development,” the task was to read some material provided and do some further research on how to prepare effective applications for scholarship/funding. The prompt said that everyone should share what they learned “whether it is for yourself or for supporting your students.…” This senior scholar’s refusal to read, it seemed, was due to “status issue.”

“Our son has finished reading” (padhisakyo), say our proud parents, meaning that he has completed a degree. “Reading” does refer to “studying” and “finishing” terminal degrees. But the reality that many scholars “stop reading” much once they enter academic careers makes the semi-metaphorical expression look very ugly. Discontinuing to read in a profession defined by lifelong learning is a real shame. Sounding like last year is not what a real scholar should do. This unfortunate condition is partly due to a misguided notion of status but it is also caused by current policy: while scholarship is required for promotion, serious study and production can be bypassed by using various shenanigans. The situation is improving but publication quality can still be skipped, especially by those who are politically active.

However, the reason I write this piece is to show that the above is only one part of the story about Nepal’s academe, including about Tribhuvan University. The rest of the narrative must also be advanced. Let us do that.

Flipping negative narratives Continue reading

Unteaching Tyranny [Republica Repost]

It is possible and necessary to use technology to empower and inspire, not be tyrannical. If nothing else, the harrowing global pandemic must help educators come to our senses about the overuse and misuse of authority.

When a fellow professor in a teacher training program said last month that he takes attendance twice during class since going online, I was surprised by the tyrannical idea. What if a student lost internet connection or electricity, ran out of data or was sharing a device, had family obligations or a health problem? We’re not just “going online,” we’re also going through a horrifying global pandemic!

At a workshop on “humanizing pedagogy” for a Bangladeshi university more recently, when asked to list teaching/learning difficulties now, many participants listed challenges due to student absence, disengagement, dishonesty, and expectation of easy grades. When asked to list instructional solutions, many proposed technocratic and rather authoritarian methods. The very system of our education, I realized, is tyrannical and most of us usually try to make it work as it is.

Tyranny, now aided by technology, goes beyond formal education. “You can only fill your bucket if you’ve brought it empty,” said a young yoga instructor in Kathmandu, on Zoom last week. She kept demanding, by name, that participants turned on their video feed. We kept turning it off as needed. Someone kept individually “spotlighting” us on screen. But we were always muted, even as we were constantly asked to respond to instructor questions by chat, thumbs up, hand wave, and smile. Technology magnified autocratic tendencies, undermining the solemnity of yoga.

The quality of yoga lectures and instruction didn’t match the technologically enforced discipline. “Our lungs remove ninety percent of toxins from our body,” said an instructor. Surya namaskar fixes both overweight and underweight, said another, as well as cancer and diabetes. Googling these claims led to junk websites. I quickly became an unengaged learner, waiting for lectures to be over. I read a book on yoga during lectures, or took notes on how technology can magnify tyrannical elements of instruction and academe. I reflected on how to make my own teaching more humane.

This essay is a broader commentary on the element of tyranny in education. But to show that the idea of making teaching more humane is not just a romantic ideal, I share how we can operationalize the concept, including and especially during this disrupted time.

Operationalizing humanity

Continue reading

Magic Tools and Research Integrity [Republica Repost]

Published in the Republica on March 23, 2021.
Plagiarism is a manifestation of a deeper problem in academia: Of publishing for the sake of publishing, and of rewarding it regardless. 

“Do I need to cite a source if a plagiarism detection tool doesn’t show that I’ve borrowed an author’s words?” asked a participant at a research workshop recently. “I will have to rewrite much of my article if that’s the case.”

I was not surprised. Instead, I started wondering where the question was coming from. In op-eds and other discussions, I’ve seen plagiarism treated as a problem of stealing words (rather than ideas). For instance, in a recent, highly nuanced, proposal for apology as a mode of redemption for those who have plagiarized in the past, the author casually claimed that there are now technological tools for “easily” identifying and preventing cases. Academic leaders and institutional policies alike, I remembered, exude the same incredible hope.

What’s even worse, issues about quality and integrity of research, not to mention its social value and responsibility, are overlooked in discussions of its originality. Across South Asia and the rest of the global south, there is an increasingly misguided focus on the product of publication—rather than on the ends to which it is a means—reflecting what current policies demand and reward. Even when “impact” is talked about, it simply refers to proxy measures of quality of the product, such as the number of citations (which may be mere name-dropping, including one’s own). Indeed, that is what “journal impact factor” means. When “quality” is used explicitly, that too simply means that the venue is “international” (or not locally located) or that the product is in English (instead of a local) language. If these critiques sound radical, it’s because the status quo is absurd. It is because it rewards publications that may have no significant value.

It is not just that someone can reap rewards by simply paraphrasing or summarizing others’ ideas. They can also make progress by fabricating or manipulating data. Either way, the magic of technology fails whenever scholars fail to ask what specific tasks specific technologies can do and how, where they can be bypassed, what to learn from using them.

Continue reading

Languaging Research [Republica Repost]

Published March 15, 2020

We must develop new indexes that can measure social impact of scholarship, inspire more scholars to publish, increase public access to knowledge, prompt action and community research, and promote translational research in science and medicine

“English is . . . the language of higher education, mass media, information and communication technology, business, tourism, science and medicine,” says the introduction to the recently published English language curriculum for 11th and 12th grades. Built upon this combination of half truths, ignorance, and ideologies, there is another pervasive belief that English is also the language of scientific publication, if not all significant knowledge production in the world. This essay seeks to debunk the latter assumption, going on to discuss the social costs of passively accepting while actively contributing to the conditions behind the assumption, as scholars in developing countries like Nepal are doing increasingly.

As Theresa Lillis and Mary Jane Curry, experts on the issue, point out, the claim that English is the “global” language of scientific and scholarly publication is actually based on English-language databases that include roughly 27,000 journals, leaving out similar databases containing 9,000 journals published in other languages—not to mention thousands of other local venues that are advancing knowledge with even more local value around the world. China, Korea, and Russia are now developing their own citation databases to address the problem, realizing that current understanding is analogous to going into an apple farm to find oranges. In fact, even within the patently English-dominated Scopus list of science-leaning publications, for instance, 12 percent of journal articles overall and 23 percent of those in the Arts and Humanities have non-English abstracts. Continue reading

How do we Measure Knowledge? [Republica Repost]

Published Dec. 5, 2019

To foster a meaningful culture of research and scholarship, we must reject crude measurements of scholarly production which are based mainly on the number of citations and are already questioned or discarded elsewhere

“If you only need good grades and not the learning,” I tell my students, joking, “don’t bother using the library, learning how to use academic databases, finding and reading complex scholarly articles, and representing others’ ideas substantively and carefully in your writing.” “Just hire a good ghost writer or find another effective way to cheat me.” Students get the point quickly, and they start doing serious research and writing.

To my dismay, the above joke essentially comes into being, more frequently these days, in articles published by academic journals from South Asia. Recently, I assigned one such atrocious article, for analysis and discussion, to a Writing Support Group of Nepali scholars. Colleagues in that online workshop series quickly pointed out bizarre levels of misunderstanding and abuse of academic standards in the article: Vague generalities instead of specific issue or objective, pages filled with irrelevant summaries of scholarship, evidently fabricated research findings, and contribution of no new or significant knowledge to the profession or society. The article, on academic technologies, highlighted at the top, a journal “impact factor” of above 5.0—an impossibility for a venue that would publish such work. Continue reading

Rethinking Research [Republica Repost]

Published Sept. 22. 2019

We must make research a number-one social mission of higher education, make funding for public universities contingent on research productivity and revamp faculty evaluation and promotion to advance research 

Saila Dai is a thirty-something man in Gairigaun, Gulmi. He is passionate about developing and promoting plant-based pest control and fertilization methods for small-scale cultivation of vegetables and fruits in Nepal. His social mission is to not only prevent toxic runoffs into the Kali Gandaki River but also to inspire new generations to eat healthy and to grow organic food as a viable economic opportunity.

Saila Dai is currently compiling notes about how to minimize the area of garden space for marigold plant, which, he’s found, keeps bugs away from many of his crops. For the rest, he has finished listing pests and microbes under six categories, corresponding to different combinations of herbal materials that have worked well, such as tobacco, neem, chili, and turmeric powder; salt; onion, garlic; and mugwort leaves and flowers. His findings from last year show that he spent 10 percent more in organic pesticides compared to market-based chemical pesticides, a loss he wants to overcome if possible. He has figured out ways to make organic fertilizers less expensive than chemical alternatives, and he’s now focused on maximizing its quantity, as more villagers from across the district come to learn from him. Continue reading

Localizing Knowledge Production [Republica Repost]

Published July 25, 2019

Universities in developing countries must create new knowledge as their primary mission, especially for social progress and in the national interest

Exploring the Business Brain Model after I installed solar panels on our house a few years ago, I was fascinated to find out that even in the dead of winter, the system produces nearly as much electricity per hour of sunlight as it does in summer. Upon doing some research, I learned that this is because solar energy was developed by scientists in the colder global north. Mainstream technology taps into the amount and angle of light and heat have a negative role. Its focus has been on harnessing light energy, and while new methods are emerging to exploit heat as well, the market is yet to create similar demands for heat-based or heat-included solar panels.

Such cases illustrate that while scientific knowledge may be universal, its development (and not just application) is driven by socioeconomic forces and often cultural contexts. Not only do scientists’ social backgrounds and value systems influence what research they are likely to pursue (such as in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Polish Physicist Joseph Rotblat, who resigned from the Manhattan Project when it sought to develop atomic weapons). Local conditions also influence, often beyond conscious choice, what scientists do.

The above reality is even more pronounced in social sciences, law, medicine, and engineering than it is in basic research or even applied research in natural sciences. Continue reading

Making Education Three-Dimensional [Republica Repost]

Published on Oct. 23, 2018

Higher education must be a three-dimensional deal, one that includes acquiring knowledge, developing skills for the workplace, and having meaningful experiences that shape the learner for a lifetime.

Last summer, I had a unique opportunity to visit one of the most successful business families in Dhaka, Bangladesh during an academic trip there, along with another New York professor. The family, one of whose members I had taught here in the States a few years earlier, has an impressive business empire in the country. At one point, when the conversation turned to education, one of our hosts lamented that their company too often had to look beyond Bangladeshi universities for top talent. I asked why?

Graduates of local universities, he said, had solid academic knowledge of the subjects. “But if I give them a business problem and ask how they’d solve it, they give me a textbook answer.” That remark made me think about the challenges of higher education across South Asia for quite some time.

Knowledge isn’t Enough

Analyzing a business situation, one could say, requires skills that can only be learned after joining the workforce. Colleges are designed to impart knowledge, one could argue, to lay the foundation of the disciplines. Indeed, this view of college should not be considered outdated. Colleges should not be asked to just prepare students for jobs; they’re centers of learning that must shape habits of mind and inculcate productive perspectives on society and profession for a lifetime. Job preparation can be done by a career center on campus. Continue reading

Normalizing “Research” [Republica Repost]

Published July 3, 2018

“I like your poems,” said a former student, after I published some poetry I had been writing about social issues in my twenties. “But they are rather easy to understand.”

“That’s the whole darn point, dear,” I wanted to say. “In fact, the final poem in the book mocks snobbishly vague and abstract literature.” For courtesy, I instead thanked him for reading.

My generation grew up thinking that “authors” and “scholars” are some extraordinary beings who must think far above the level of everyday humans like us–not to mention poets themselves. Especially the idea of “research” and “publishing” one’s work was reserved for the special, mysteriously capable few.

Today, we no longer live in a world where writers and readers are separate, where production of new knowledge is the domain of only the select few. We all explore issues and write about them, and we constantly share and spread our ideas in many ways.

Unfortunately, the elitism, the abstraction, the mystification, and the general fear about research and publication still persist–keeping everyday writing of the masses fully separate from the publications of a special class of “writers” in the academic sphere. Perhaps relatedly, too many of our academic scholars make a variety of excuses about their inability and unwillingness to do research and to publish new findings and ideas. Continue reading

Producing professionals [Republica Repost]

Published On:  May 30, 2018

Higher education cannot be just teaching, especially just transfer of knowledge. It must foster disciplinary identity and professional development 

Two years ago, I invited a prominent American scholar to lead a webinar discussion for a group of professors at a regional university in Nepal. I wanted the expert to help my colleagues with how to develop writing- and research-intensive assignments and activities that would help foster disciplinary identity in students. He had a brilliant plan for the evening (morning in Nepal).

Our facilitator started by asking participants, who were professors of engineering, natural sciences, social sciences, management, humanities, and education, to write down what made them the scholars they were. “What about the way you read and genres you write, or the material you call evidence or methods you use for research, makes you an engineer or scientist or scholar of humanities?” he asked. “In other words, what gives you the disciplinary and professional identity that you have? You may start by thinking about why you chose your discipline when you started your career.”

When time came for sharing what they wrote, participants didn’t say much. The question didn’t seem to resonate very well with them.

After the facilitator provided some more guidelines, there was some breakthrough. A few of the ten or so participants shared stories about when and why they became teachers. An English professor, for instance, had found private schools a good choice to use his English language skills. As I learned more later, the science and engineering instructors had taken up teaching jobs as an alternative path to further education that may not have worked out. The sociologist and economist, who were women, seemed to have found teaching relatively flexible to fit their family commitments. Even the education scholars focused on teaching more as a job than a discipline. I wouldn’t blame them, given that the system requires too much teaching and rewards little else.

Larger problem 

Here’s the larger problem. Few of our science professors, for instance, seem to consider themselves scientists. There’s little incentive for developing that professional identity. There’s not much opportunity or obligation to approach knowledge-making “like” scientists. Indeed, the very design of our university—especially the model of professional development, curricular and pedagogical cultures, and role of faculty—does not prompt professors to keep updating themselves with new research methods, to maintain rigor, to rethink what counts as knowledge as their disciplines evolve. Continue reading