Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Towards a free classroom

- Javed Imthiaz (M.A. Sociology, II Year)

“This is not allowed in my class! Sit straight!” bursts the lecturer, loudly, abruptly to a student seen writing on her arms, during a lecture in a postgraduate classroom in the university.  

We have heard this before. Lecturers' resentment at students doing anything that deviates from school-instilled norms of sitting 'properly' in the classroom. But this is often true of cases even where the deviant action does not disrupt the classroom process in any way, and may in fact have aided better concentration, better daydreaming or better sleep. One does wonder why all this fuss about a harmless act of writing on one's own arms.  

A root of the problem may be traced through the possessive “my class” in the lecturer's statement. It is indicative of the way authority has operated ironically, autocratically in the classrooms of what is professed, in those very classrooms, as a free and democratic India. Lecturers in colleges, and much more so, teachers in schools cultivate and are cultivated by a sense of ownership of the classroom. (It is what inspires the 'Attendance-Raj'). And therein lies a secret of what seems to me a failure of actual democratic practice in society.  

As Margaret Power notes in her article 'Is Democracy in the Clas-sroom Possible?'*, students have very little actual experience of democracy and this undermines their ability to examine critically the material a lecturer presents on the subject. Her attempts to infuse democracy in classroom practice, is often met with the dilemma of being undemocratic in merely, righteously preaching democracy. This she tries to counter by including student-participation in setting syllabi and consciously undermining her own position of power. In contrast to her initial insecurity and  belief that,as lecturer, she had to be right all the time, she has moved to a more liberated state of being able to say, “I am/was wrong, you (the student) are right.”

The insecure need to be right everytime, having to pronounce the 'truth' of every matter puts much pressure on the lecturer-role, that morphs into an authoritarian space of ownership and control. This not only prevents free and open discussions, but also creates interesting cultures of resistance such as the “backbencher” phenomenon. It would be liberating and, I guess, more productive, if lecturers realised that students make the class as much as the lecturer does, and that decision making is to be done democratically.  A miscreant can be voted out of class by a majority, not by the teacher's whim. And the girl writing on her arm can pursue her body-art in peace, for she disturbs nobody.

[ * 'Revolutionary/ Critical Pedagogy and Me: Is Democracy in the Classroom Possible?', Radical History Review, Issue 102 (Fall 2008) ]

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