Mohan and I have been talking about our course and the problems that we face quite regularly. Quite often we have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the two of us do not always face the same issues and challenges.
We have four courses and each demands at least 2-3 assignments in the course of the semester. Some but not all ask for exams. Some make class participation part of the assessment as well. Some teachers really expect us to work a lot: weekly thought pieces, 1-2 readings for each class and active participation in classes while others just expect us to submit good assignments and come for a few classes. But there is a difference between what they expect and what they wish and desire. Teachers desire active and participating students, this means that the students must read regularly (2-3 hours a day), and be confident of speaking in the class. Some teachers also expect us to listen to them silently without disturbing them and not get distracted by phones and each other. So along with class what the teacher desires is around 35-37 hours of work a week. They probably expect one to do around 20-25 hours.
There are two kinds of good assignments: one that gets a good grade and one that is the mark of a good student. Mohan feels that it is easy to get a decent grade but much more difficult to be a good student. In his one and a half semesters in MA he has done two “really good” assignments. These take 8-10 days and he has to read at least 10-12 readings. Out of the 10 days 2-3 days went into writing. Some teacher, along with a long and extended bibliography wants to see a well structured assignment- an introduction, well referenced paragraphs, summaries of the arguments of different authors, etc. But what the teacher expects of a good student is obviously an original argument and not just a summary of different texts. Wikipedia is a prohibited reference for a good student. A friend also told me that in some way or the other teachers also expect decent to good English writing skills. One of our teachers had given him a lower grade because of his problems with English. Unlike DU, Ambedkar University does not give the option of writing exams and assignments in Hindi or any other language. Mohan and I both feel that to do any assignment properly one needs around 10 days at the minimum. However, if Mohan finds it possible to do around two good assignments in one and a half semesters, I produce around 4 of them every semester and get better grades than him as well. Mohan often points out that it is my background in philosophy that helps me score better.
I had joined the masters course in history because I felt that my bachelors in philosophy needed to be supported by something more concrete. But the masters in history programme in AUD was not what I had expected. I found out that it was in the bachelors that one gains empirical data and that in the masters it is really about debates in methodology and comparisons of the frameworks employed by different historians. But my philosophy background helped me a lot with my assignments and allowed me to engage much more confidently in classroom discussions as well. While in the beginning I was nervous about getting good grades in a new subject I soon found that getting a B+ was not a very difficult task. Mohan and others would often tease me about this saying “you philosophy wallas have it easy”. But it wasn’t just that. Both my parents had studied history from JNU and I would often take their help in writing assignments. Mohan also takes more time to read the texts assigned for the readings than I do. He finds it difficult to read properly for most assignments. I am not a very fast reader either but due to my family’s academic background in history the language of most assigned texts is familiar. Several of my friends in class have found it difficult to follow some texts and discussions in class properly because they aren’t familiar with theoretical vocabulary used in them.
But both of us felt that it is really not possible to do more than half of our assignments properly. Mohan said that the major problem was that a lot of the deadlines overlapped. But it’s not just that. If each assignment requires 10 days and there are four courses each with a minimum of 2 assignments this makes 8-10 assignments per semester which means 80-100 days in just assignments!!! Of course we are told that if we just read for classes our reading for the assignments will be reduced but so many teachers give us assignment topics which have not even begun being discussed in class!!
But that is the work a dedicated student strives and struggles to achieve. In times of high pressure, with the assignment due date getting closer, Mohan tries to finish the assignments in 1.5 to 2 days. He does this by relying on wikipedia, Google searches, tutorials from BA, book reviews on the internet. He finished one assignment by just copy pasting sections from a book and summarizing the arguments of another. This took 2 days to finish. Copying handwritten assignments takes longer because it gets really boring. In similar times I have asked friends of mine from JNU to send me their assignments. Otherwise I just read the introduction and conclusion of a book and summarize the major arguments. And make the bibliography look big by adding random Google-searched references. Mohan said that he has to resort to these tactics often as his reading speed is quite slow. I may not do all my assignments “properly” but I have had to plagiarise only twice in the two years of my masters. If I can’t spend ten proper days on an essay I tend to read 2-3 jstor essays, some sections of a book and use some book I had read earlier to quickly cook up an essay. This takes around 2-3 days to do. Mohan complained that even when he gets away with plagiarizing (and other tactics) and gets a good grade the sense of guilt remains. The need to resort to these tactics more often than others (like me) reinforces the identity of being a bad student. In contrast, I don’t feel the guilt very strongly as I end up doing at least half of my assignments properly.
Surprisingly when we talked about our experience of our classes our focus was not the syllabus or course but the teacher. We liked a course or disliked it depending upon on whether we liked the teacher or not. We realised that we both generally liked teachers who were not very strict about assignment deadlines. These teachers would not cut grades even if we gave the assignment 1-2 months late. They would also generally not be particular about bunking classes. These teachers often have to absorb the pressures that we feel because we tend to keep pushing their deadlines to finish the work assigned by other teachers who are less “friendly”.
But a friendly teacher is not necessarily a good teacher. Different students depending upon their backgrounds and different needs like different teachers and have different expectations from them. These different expectations often also go against each other. This antagonism can be seen in the classes when teachers who talk in a more theoretical language get attendance primarily from students who are, because of their cultural capital, comfortable with that language. The same students may not attend classes of other teachers who spend more time doing topics that they find to be “simpler”.
These conversations and others were important for me because before I had them I held a very elite idea of student-hood. Through them I realized that every classroom is segmented into students coming from different backgrounds. These differences in cultural capital etc. result in different experiences of and expectations from student-hood which are more often than not antagonistic.