Guru karma in virtual timesNepali professors strongly believe in chalk and duster. The shift to virtual learning will be challenging.
The coronavirus pandemic has seriously hit the modus operandi in the domain of pedagogy. Nepali educational methods appear to be affected seriously. Search for feasible and functional options are underway. The most likely, perhaps the only viable alternative, is deemed to be the use of the virtual teaching system. Educational experts, teachers and students are debating about the processes and effects of the same. The prominent educationist Mana Prasad Wagle has problematised the use of the virtual method by posing some important questions in Kantipur on April 29.
Are the schools and colleges prepared for the virtual method? Do all students have access to those facilities? Are the guardians prepared to pay the high cost of the internet system when their wards go online? Wagle also warns that any decision taken in this regard should be guided by the fact that only half of the population of this country have access to the internet. Another senior journalist, Devendra Bhattarai, warns that this system will polarise society between the classes who can afford this and those who cannot. And that will devastate those guardians and students who cannot afford it. (Kantipur, May 5). A serious debate about the pragmatics of the virtual classes has begun in earnest; this is a very necessary development.
I want to return to my own experience at this juncture. I taught an MPhil class in English by using this method just the other day, and I had done so for the first time in my teaching life. Hosted by the course organiser Dr Shiva Rijal on behalf of the Central Department of English, I sat for two hours in the virtual session. To be honest, I felt like jumping out and greeting in the open the participants—most of whom were my erstwhile students. I realised that, unlike the problems discussed above, virtual classes at this level, with a limited number of students, are feasible and effective. But the story does not end there.
Education in this country and South Asia used the basic tools to teach because pedagogy was the greatest humanistic karma exercised through proximity, sharing and idealism something the virtual teaching cannot even imagine to achieve today. This is not an advocacy for the old, but an attempt to stress on maintaining the age-old values in education by recognising the tradition that spans a couple of millennia.
This literature-oriented essay is written by a guru of the subjects of humanities who has taught English literature and literary and art theories at the graduate level for nearly half a century. And this narrative of experience is written at a time when the methods of pedagogy have been drastically changed—especially when it has become impossible to physically meet students in classes. But in reality, the karma of the gurus of the humanities and those of social and pure science subjects has suddenly begun to share a common challenge—teaching through the virtual method.
Presenting a short narrative of our familiar practice will be appropriate here. We started teaching with two most recognised tools—chalk and 'duster', a handy item that was used to erase the chalk marks on the blackboard. They had almost become iconic in quality, and also metonymic when instead of saying 'I am teaching' teachers said 'I am using chalk and duster'. That became our being; philosophically speaking, our ontology. I understood that karma more when I read Martin Heidegger's philosophy, which shows the power of ordinary tools and their power in use. We erased the times and the untoward challenges with the dusters. We erased through the entire Panchayat era with the duster and scribbled lessons an umpteenth number of times on the blackboard with the chalk. Teachers imparted good education with these dual items since this practice started nearly 150 years ago. One late colleague whose feelings were hurt by the remarks of another colleague earlier said to me once, ‘no duster in the world will erase from my mind the impression caused by his nasty remarks!’. The teacher's visible presence in the class was considered a power. When the teacher returned to the department with both sleeves full of white chalk dust, it was tacitly believed that great karma was accomplished.
Here I am talking about higher education classes. The pattern of teaching at all the classes of the tertiary education system was more or less similar. Colleges or campuses as educational spaces dominated. They still occupy the central space. It was like a theatre where educational performances were staged in the class. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell in his essay ‘The idea of a university’ famously says, ‘University is a place’. In his opinion, there should be physical proximity between teachers and students in a place to qualify it as a university in the real sense of the term. But that sense of space has to be seen from a slightly different perspective when we are talking about the virtual system of education.
Our education system has been teacher-oriented, and it has been considered the only method. Virtual education has not been carefully planned especially in the faculty of humanities, or even the social sciences. The structure of universities is mostly classical, and I think will remain so for a number of reasons. The incorporation of the virtual techniques will take time, especially in the humanities, to operate in Nepal. Greater emphasis is given these days on the use of digital humanities that has become the mantra of democratising knowledge by using the digital tools to open up greater access. We have been using this system with the graduate system on a limited scale in the form of finding access to digital data, books and articles. But Russell's 'space' occupies the central stage.
The other conspicuous and somewhat uncanny feature of the education system at a higher level has been the overt politicisation of students. Most students are counted either as communists or as Congress supporters. That has destroyed the fabric of a serious pedagogy at the graduate levels of humanities and the social sciences. It will tell on the smooth use of the virtual system that we are seeking to introduce now.
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