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

When we encounter problems and weaknesses of Nepalese academia, we are quick to add those as new “data points” to the default negative narrative. This is most common with Tribhuvan University, the oldest and largest public university. Bashing it is an oddly popular pastime.

Newspeople report plagiarism by a few scholars–check–that’s so TU. Ghost-written theses by deceitful graduate students are shared on social media, with a few corrupt professors and staff members being involved–check–that’s entirely TU. If it is bad, it adds up.

In fact, you may have noted that I too checked off a few negative narrative points above: our scholars don’t continue to study, they play games instead of doing serious publication, and TU doesn’t have the policy to reward socially impactful knowledge production. Negatives draw more attention.

By contrast, when we encounter positive evidence, we don’t start or continue a positive narrative about Nepalese academia, especially about TU. That’s somehow harder.

Certainly, critique is necessary for acknowledging and exploring problems, identifying and prioritizing solutions, being humble and committed–if we don’t use critique for its own sake, that is. But critique can only be healthy if it comes from those who care enough about an institution to invest their own time and energy to contribute toward addressing the challenges they see. Critique that fails to paint a full and complex picture is not healthy or productive discourse. It is usually irresponsible and lazy.

Fostering positives

Yes, TU has challenges. It still adopts a system whereby curricula are still designed by a limited number of experts, with thousands of other scholars mainly summarizing contents of textbooks often written in and for very different contexts. This creates neither accountability nor sense of ownership among teachers, nor helps students look up to the instructor as an expert and mentor with a disciplinary specialization. Teachers don’t constantly update and improve the material, or methods of teaching. The university still runs too many things centrally and suffers many self-inflicted damages by refusing to adapt to the times. Many of these issues are common across our higher education.

Yet, anyone looking for positive changes can find them as well. As I’ve observed in a number of professional development programs organized by a growing informal network of Tribhuvan University scholars from across the country (and I have had the privilege to support it), TU campuses are abuzz with efforts to address the challenges as well.

Even from a distance, I have had the opportunity to support a variety of workshops and trainings involving hundreds of teachers from across the country, within and beyond TU, in public and private institutions. Since the pandemic started, these initiatives have addressed the challenges of online instruction, supported research and publication, and fostered professional development. TU has formally trained massive numbers of its faculty across the country for teaching online.

I’ve also found TU’s academic leaders quite committed to supporting and encouraging fellow scholars/educators when the latter take initiative.

Seeking change

Yes, our current policies reward selfishness in scholarship (or the lone hero scholar) rather than scholars who collaborate and approach knowledge production as instruments of social contribution. Yes, our institutions are somehow belatedly adopting very faulty “international” metrics of “quality” that are agnostic to the social purpose of knowledge; academic leaders and those involved in updating policies don’t seem to bother to explain how the “journal index factor” and certain “indexes” and their “scoring” will benefit a developing country’s economic, social, or cultural needs. The best answer I’ve heard is that the external indexes are hard to manipulate. That sounds like cutting the irrigation to a crop for controlling weeds.

And yet the same community of scholars, when given the opportunity and support, when networked and inspired by a broader cause, act magnanimously. Both formal and informal programs abound in TU’s landscape. When scholars raise policy bottlenecks, I have seen academic leaders readily acknowledge challenges and share efforts that are underway or they too find necessary. We see what we look for.

Yes, we still have academia modeled after a hierarchy-structured social culture. There are “big” scholars who “know” and small ones who only “learn” when in contact with the bigger fish. In fact, the hegemony of big and small people (in academe!) is so strong that emerging scholars prefer to listen passively, to be taught, instead of collaboratively exploring, learning by doing and sharing, co-constructing knowledge and co-cultivating experience. Imagine taking the attitude of “I know, you don’t, so listen” into the classroom and repeating it from one generation to another. That’s still happening.

Yet, if we are willing to look at the full picture and not refuse to take note, we also see the opposite. Younger scholars, female scholars, and scholars from marginalized communities perform better than their mainstream counterparts. When they find a little advocacy and support, I have seen them inspire the whole community. Improvements, big and small, are always happening.

Doing what we can first

It is easy to just declare that TU is dead, as a visiting TU scholar once did here a few years ago. It is easy to point fingers at others, offer critique and even advice (which even diaspora scholars are eager to do), and diagnose and analyze the academic culture. What is harder is to put our time and energy where our mouth (or keyboard) is and seek to make a small difference.

Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to contribute my weekends and expertise to Nepalese academia from abroad. Each collaboration has been more inspiring and impactful than the last. Colleagues across Nepal have inspired me with their dedication and productivity more than any group of scholars elsewhere.

When I was paused to read the senior scholar’s silly response to the prompt to do some new reading, I had the urge to generalize, as if out of habit. But I looked at the full picture. The responses of 70 out of 80 participants were stunningly good; the full group had scored above 84% on objective questions. Coordinating the external review, I was humbled to see the dedication by the organizers from TU and participants from it and beyond. They did extensive reading, watched videos, completed activities, contributed to social media discussions, then came to the training prepared to engage substantially. Surveys indicated that participants spent nearly 10 hours a week to prepare for the 90-minute workshops, early on Saturdays. I was reminded that this has been the norm across many similar programs I have supported. I was inspired to tell the bigger, better story.

Tribhuvan University, and Nepalese academia at large, have challenges. But we must not just point them out; we must also invest our own time and energy to address them–if we care.

As importantly, we must tell the full story. TU is also doing well, on many fronts.

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