A Gullgotia’s Diary – 3, English Vinglish

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A Gullgotia’s Diary – 1A Gullgotia’s Diary – 2

It struck me that, like this inappropriate building, I too had (been) parachuted in from abroad. I had some experience of higher education in India, having done my B.Sc. and M.A. in Bangalore, but that was as a student, and it was two decades ago. I was nervous about my unfamiliarity with the system, for sure, but also about my unfamiliarity with the culture, the language, the people. For a while there, I lost all confidence in my spoken Hindi, as I struggled to make sense of the rural U. P. accent I heard in Greater Noida. I assumed that I would spend a few months after I arrived at Galgotias University, perhaps a year, getting acquainted with the place. At work, I had hoped to find other faculty to collaborate with, and to ease gradually into the job I thought I’d been hired to do–help build an interdisciplinary programme in the humanities and social sciences.

But the idea of slow and steady organic growth is alien to the corporate university, whose main objective is to make a lot of money, and make it quick. Acquiring all this farmland (whether by hook or by crook, who knows?), constructing this Canadian-designed campus, and getting the U. P. state government to “deem” it a university, not to mention all the fancy advertising and PR, must have cost the Galgotia family a pretty penny for sure.

So the owner’s objective, as was communicated to us often, was to “break even” as quickly as possible. This meant expanding student enrollment faster than the infrastructure or the staff were able to handle. By the end of the year, there were perhaps 4,000 students crammed into two buildings. And it meant getting degree-granting programs off the ground at a pace that made thoughtful and appropriate curriculum design impossible.

In the corporate universe, advertising precedes existence. Galgotias’ two-page ads in various magazines advertise a wide variety of programs; it looks like a fully functioning university. Much of it is smoke and mirrors (at least it was so at the time), and to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of the government regulator of higher education, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and accreditation agencies, they had to fast-track the creation of programmes they claimed they already had. The ads claimed, for instance, that GU offered Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in English, while in fact they were only just beginning to get the Bachelor’s programme off the ground. One day, ahead of some sort of visit by UGC inspectors, a couple of classrooms were given a new sign on their doors, and voila! we now had a School of Nursing.

Emptiness: The Magic Trick, magician & assista...

Magic! (Photo: Wonderlane)

So it isn’t with pride that I say that I designed the curriculum for the B. A. English Honours programme in all of ten days (three days longer than the week I’d been given). Mind you, I hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom yet , hadn’t met any students yet, and there I was, designing the curriculum. Foolishly, I went along with it, eager to prove my usefulness; I succumbed to the pressures of the fevered rush to get the programme off the ground. I must admit that the curriculum was, like the building we worked in, a mismatch and inappropriate for the students who enrolled in the programme. But more on this later.

I had supposedly been recruited, as I said earlier, to help Galgotias create an interdisciplinary programme in the humanities and social sciences. Prior to this, I had been teaching postcolonial and British literature for several years. So you’ll pardon me, I hope, for feeling more than a little alarmed when I found myself teaching elementary English grammar to classes with 65-70 students each, most of whom were monolingual Hindi speakers. The syllabus I was handed was an absurd mix of elementary grammar and arcane literary texts. Students who had little fluency in English were expected to go from learning how to use commas in one class to reading  Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” and essays by Francis Bacon in the next.

Every now and then students would plead, “Sir, Hindi mein samjhaiye” (Sir, please explain it in Hindi). Braving their laughter as I comically struggled to find the right Hindi word for “daffodils” (peela nargis–I’d looked it up that morning), exaggerating my own inadequacies, I coaxed my students to overcome their diffidence about speaking English. Those that were already conversant in the language became more confident and did gain from this, but for the rest, it was not much of a learning experience, I’m sure.

I complained about the fact that no one in the English Department was actually qualified to teach English as a second language. Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) is, after all, a specialization in its own right. A former Delhi University English professor and administrator who had been hired by Galgotias as a “consultant” for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, insisted that these specialists were incompetent at best, and charlatans at worst. He insisted that anyone with an advanced degree in English ought to be able to teach language and grammar, even those, like myself, who had never actually studied grammar beyond the fifth grade: Just get a workbook, and drill them with exercises. With 70 students to a class, what else could one do, anyway?

[To be fair, this gentleman--and he was a gentle man, an oddity of sorts in this sweaty, emotionally-charged workplace--helped me think of ways to teach English literature bilingually, and I began to strategically deploy Hindi translations of Shakespeare and Hindi poetry in my courses. It led to one of the bright moments of my brief career at Galgotias: a class I taught comparing Nirala's poem "Todti Patthar" ("Breaking Stones") and Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper."]

English Vinglish

The corporate world of India Inc. valorizes English proficiency, but from the standpoint of the social function of a university education what good does it do? Students gain minimal proficiency in a second language but at the expense of any opportunity to explore the humanities in their native tongue. If the humanities and social sciences are about giving students a better understanding of art and culture, of society and politics, of history and philosophy, how is this to be done when the majority of the students have little familiarity, let alone fluency, in the medium of instruction? If the aim of pedagogy is to foster critical thinking and encourage self-reflection, how do you do it if you are unable to communicate with the bulk of your students?

But once you understand that here the humanities are conceived of in entirely utilitarian terms, you begin to see that there is a clear answer to these questions: It Doesn’t Matter. The humanities here are placed at the service of the technical and professional schools, made to serve the university’s mission of churning out an ever-increasing number of engineers and business-management trainees. Such things as culture and art are mere curiosities–relics of a bygone era at best, an annoying drain on resources at worst.

For if the owner of this university did in fact understand the importance of the humanities, then how would he explain the absence of a Hindi/Urdu department in a U. P. university? If the majority of your students are native Hindi speakers, should a Hindi/Urdu department not be a priority, so that students could study literature in their native language? When I raised this in meetings with deans and other senior faculty, some of them could barely hold back their scorn; they simply didn’t see the point. The students were already fluent in Hindi, weren’t they?

Well, actually, they weren’t…. ah, forget it.