How then to teach in a fashion that was helpful instead of hurtful? My unflinching decision was to make sure that the student should be at the center of the process, rather than the professor. The university decreed that a student’s final marks should depend on three things, a test, a project and class work, but did not prescribe the percentages. On the first day of the course, I told the students that they had the option of collectively choosing the percentages, in effect deciding what they wanted to give importance to. One class, for instance, decided 60 per cent should go to project performance and only 10 per cent to the final examination. Other professors thought it crazy to give such freedom to students, but I found students felt involved and committed to the course.
The Dean was fortunately a flexible person ready to go along with my innovations if she felt it would attract and motivate students. I let go of the classic lecture style and would begin a topic by inviting thoughts and questions from students. This in turn prompted students to study the theme in advance and prepare their mind. It also made the process highly participative.
The management institute was a different proposition. It followed, religiously, the case method of teaching and believed that that alone made the teaching process responsive to students. In reality, the culture of the institute was highly paternalistic and in class after class of other professors that I attended I found the process centered on the professor as the hero and savant. The students got the message and often focused on cultivating the professor and gaining an advantage. My inclination was to deemphasize the professor’s central role and place the ball back firmly among the students. I believed my role, both in the class and outside, was only to help the student’s own effort to learn.
The institute staff talked a lot about cultural differences, drawing ecstatic lessons from Japan whose upward curve was already beginning to sag, and, paradoxically, prided itself on its connection with a well-known US business school. It seemed to overlook that the case method, as practiced in a US institution, worked very differently in the Asian context, given pliant and overly deferential students. I argued with my colleagues that no method was a surefire guarantee of student enlightenment.
In both the institutions I tried to do two very simple things.
I took the course outline, largely modified and updated it, then wrote out a detailed framework, saying what really has to be learned and what the student can do to stay ahead of the curve. I suggested alternative texts but left it to the students to decide what they found relevant and helpful. I have never quite understood why educational institutions, who talk incessantly of student responsibility, seldom give them useful clues as to how they can prepare for a course, cope best with the oncoming stream of new knowledge and offer guidelines that can keep the learner from feeling overwhelmed. Pressure and tension seem to be watchwords of current practice. My aim was to make the student feel at home and find the peace and fun that true learning should entail.
The second thing I insisted on was to make myself accessible to the students in an extraordinary measure. I told them I would be available for consultation an hour before each class and two hours after. Since my university classes were in the evening, the ensuing two hours became a time for a party in my home salon. Students talked among themselves and with me, collectively and individually, when they wished. While I could not replicate the ancient Indian system of a student living in the Guru’s home, I tried to know as much as I could of their work and life, and it was the goldmine that let me shape every discourse based on their issues and problems. I have always disliked homilies that I could not relate to my life and experiences, and I wanted my students to know that education was worthwhile precisely because it would be germane to their life.
I am sure I failed in many ways and I could have done better for my pupils. But they were gracious and indulgent and showered me with affection I will never forget.