A Leaf from the Diary of an Average Academic

"Teaching is a noble profession."

Have you heard that one before? It was a usual phrase I heard while growing up. Two decades later, the conversation is that students have changed; they don't respect teachers the same way. But then, respect is not a matter of right. How can it be? If it is demanded, the underlying emotion is either fear or favouritism. Generation Z and now the Alpha generation are, more often than not, accused of not respecting elders. They are labelled self-centred and bratty. But it may be about a change in perspective than a lack of respect. After all, they are a different generation. As generations change, attitudes change, and so does the nature of relationships.

Teaching became labelled as a noble profession because a teacher shoulders tremendous responsibility. Teachers deeply impact students; I believe they still do. What a student observes in a teacher may make her feel strongly about it. Culturally, values like respecting parents, older relatives, and teachers are ingrained in us. So, even today, as the nature of a student-teacher relationship has evolved, teaching, in some sense, is still referred to as a noble profession because teachers are handling impressionable and delicate hearts and future minds.

The profession seems lovely from a distance, but it gets complicated as you get into the shoes of a teacher. As the student perspective evolved, teachers evolved too. The generation of teachers also changed, and so did their expectations from the profession. In an economy trying to emerge from fundamental problems and a society juggling between western and eastern philosophies, sometimes ending up with a bizarre concoction of the two cultures, there are many dilemmas facing the noble teaching profession in contemporary times. I have encountered these already in my career, spanning only a decade. I call these the innovation itch, compensation conundrum, feedback façade, jugglery jack and monk's mindset. These fancy-sounding terms are real-world problems of an average, novice academic balancing old-school discipline and new-school coolness quotient. I dig into detail as follows.

The Innovation Itch

The widespread expectation from a teacher is to innovate - create novel ideas and implement changes in curriculum, delivery and assessment. The popular opinion often written and discussed is that our education system needs to be updated, and we need innovative ideas to change it. However, as a teacher tries to innovate, a flood of challenges kills the motivation. To begin with, the system resists by imposing bureaucratic hurdles. The peers criticise or remain silent spectators; only a few give healthy feedback. If one has enough Bollywoodish, larger-than-life spirit to fight these diplomatic demons, one might end up being betrayed by the central character, i.e. the student. The real battle is answering questions like - "Where is this content available online? What will I write in the exam? How do I score in this exam loathed with uncertainty and experimentation?" Everyone appreciates innovation but from a distance. It's all great until it knocks on your door, just like revolution, death or LGTBQs coming out of the closet!

The Compensation Conundrum

The second challenge is career growth and compensation. In an interview I conducted for my thesis on business schools in India, a professor mentioned that academia in India is a "refuge of the rejects." To be precise, those rejected by the industry join academia. I felt sad as teaching was always my first choice. But academic salaries move in limited space, and there are clear ceilings. Also, moving beyond these ceilings depends on multiple expectations other than teaching and involves judgement. The reality is, by all means, salaries in academia shall never match industry standards. So, there is hardly any career progression and growth; intellectual growth is the focus and is wholly based on individual efforts and choices.

The Jugglery Jacks

The new age academic is not a teacher. She is a rare find, someone you would fall in love with in the movies. The minimum expectations are:

a story-teller who must be able to hold on to the young, uninterested, and hormonally challenged audience day after day; a researcher who can dig out questions of practical and theoretical significance amid the debris of uncertainties; an administrator with the technical and conceptual expertise to make decisions based on facts and figures barring the emotions; a therapist who can lend an ear to students, colleagues, and staff with empathy and patience; a communication expert with the ability to attend meetings at an alarming rate and still absorb, comment and read between the lines; a clerical prodigy with the ability to organise papers, maintain and track records efficiently and finally a virtuous, kind-hearted soul in a soberly dressed, free from the vices of life body.

By far, this is the broadest possible range of qualities, tough to be found in a single individual. Despite the expectations, the profession ends up being labelled as "easy" and "comfortable" for the ones looking for a "work-life balance." We could easily rename the teachers as the jugglery jacks of modern times.

The Feedback Facade

If multi-tasking is not enough to dampen your spirits, a feedback form is waiting for you. Almost all higher education institutions today have a system of recording anonymous feedback by students for faculty members. While the intent is genuine, as the power equation does not favour the students, anonymity can unleash more challenges. As a teacher, it is common to be the most useless and the best teacher in the feedback comments of the same course. There is also feedback on accents, looks, and other personality traits. It could be overwhelming for someone starting in this career to be judged and given information that is not useful for improving course objectives. The feedback is affected by non-academic reasons beyond one's control as a teacher.

The Monk's Mindset

In the middle of these expectations and attempts to understand the roles one has to play, the primary expectation is cultivating a monk's mindset; to be someone who does not attach to individuals, situations and institutions. Suppose at one moment, one was expected to think like a shrewd businessperson getting the best furniture deal for the office, and the next moment, one may have to go out of one's comfort zone to help a struggling student understand her worldview. While one must connect emotionally to the students, one must not expect anything in return. It is as transactional as other professions.

So, then why be an academic? Is it money or the basic need to survive? Is it finding one's calling or absolutely nothing? Is it about a lack of options or following one's heart? Is it about learning or unlearning? Is it the love of students or respect? To each their own. If the grass still seems greener, come over and join the bandwagon. There is no guarantee of respect or nobility, but there will be great stories to tell. In no way do I undermine the perks of a teacher's life or the challenges of a student's life, but once in a while, it is okay to look at the dark side; it makes the bright side look brighter.

These notes are from a diary on one of the darker nights; the content is contextual and personal, and generalisation is not the intention.

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Assistant Professor, Malaviya National Institute of Technology Jaipur. PhD, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee.