How teaching has changed – for me

1

This concludes the two-part blog on my experiences and learnings while teaching

Sometime in June or July 2004, I walked nervously into a classroom adjoining a terrace in National College, Bandra. The old benches and tables, dust-caked walls and noisy, rickety fans reminded me of my own time in college – not a uniformly happy memory. I was nervous for another reason: it was the first lecture I would ever give, having agreed a few days earlier to helm a module on newsroom structure and editing for the final-year class of Bachelor in Mass Media, a fairly new degree programme introduced by Mumbai University.

What struck me immediately was how unlike a newsroom the classroom was: no computers, no printers or scanners, no software on which to edit copy or design pages… All I had was a cracked blackboard and some chalk.

The students looked at me expectantly as I stammered my way through an introduction. Not knowing how to get the conversation going, I asked: “Tell me why you want to take up journalism.” Silence.

I looked around and finally one of them spoke up: “Sir, everyone asks us the same question. We’re tired of answering it.” There went any hope of a rocking start.

Fortunately, it was smooth sailing from there. I learnt that for a lecture to work, you have to dump the traditional approach. No more boring questions, no clichés or jargon and, most important of all, no lecturing. Instead, I decided there and then that my classes – if I lasted – would be conversations only.

2

It’s been a wonderful 13 years, and my students have added more value to my life than you can imagine. Importantly, I’ve witnessed great changes in the way teaching is done and I thought I’d pen down a few observations. Since I’ve only ever taught post-graduate classes, except for my first class, these learnings are applicable at that level only. I have no idea what happens today in a school classroom, for instance, or even at the undergraduate level.

  1. Credibility counts. And it’s rooted not in your position in a firm or industry, but how well you make your arguments. Students today won’t be overwhelmed by your career – and rightly so. Instead, they want real learning. So, be prepared to be challenged constantly and, while you’re at it, check in your ego at the door.
  2. Lectures are out, conversations are in. If you intend to place yourself on a pedestal and talk down to students, don’t even start teaching. Walk into a classroom only if you believe that at an intellectual level you are among equals. There are even times when the students know more. What you bring to the table are your experiences, perspective and data. And, most important of all, your sincerity.
  3. Show me, don’t tell me. Why should a student take you at face value? If I am making the argument that, say, the communications industry is moving towards an integrated model, I better back that up with powerful case studies and research. “How do you know?” is not an insolent question; it’s a legitimate demand for evidence.
  4. Technology is here to stay, and that’s great. My classes today are a far cry from the first one. I no longer walk away with hands and clothes coated in chalk dust; in fact, there are no blackboards anymore. What I have instead are projection systems with high-definition video capability. I use animations and PowerPoint presentations because visuals work, and I change slides with a wireless clicker fitted with a laser pointer.
  5. Distance isn’t a big deal. I now conduct lectures in far-flung centres via Skype. In an actual classroom, you are constantly gauging the response from the students and you pick up the pace, slow down or change intensity accordingly. I feared that teaching via Skype wouldn’t allow that. Guess what, I can ‘feel’ the class just as well.
  6. Students place a premium on their attention and mindspace. They don’t feel they owe you either; you need to earn their respect first. This is a good thing. It forces you to raise your game, which in turn makes you a better professional.
  7. We evaluate performance differently. We’ve seen the last of the written, theory-heavy examinations – at least in my classes. Now, I demand from students what they demand from me: show me, don’t tell me. They earn their marks through projects and, so far, I’ve been blown away by the quality of their work. Don’t ever tell me this generation is lazy. It’s not; I’ve seen it first-hand.
  8. Preparation, preparation, preparation. A class that lasts merely two hours may require weeks of prep. Deal with it.
  9. Update, update, update. With the way things are changing – at least in brand communications – your material may not be relevant even for a year at a time. Recently, I threw out all the presentations I had been using and prepared a fresh set to make them contemporary. I suspect I’ll have to do this every year.
  10. Academia and industry are working together. The industrialist Adi Godrej, while visiting the Hindustan Times’ Mumbai office, had said: “The real problem in this country is not employment, but employability.” He was right. On the one hand, we have a large potential workforce but are struggling to create jobs for it. On the other hand, many industries – mine included – simply can’t find the right talent to fuel their growth and evolution. This is a serious issue, so much so that it could even trigger a decline in at least my industry’s fortunes. It is critical, therefore, for industry to work with colleges and universities to devise syllabi and produce job-ready graduates. I’m happy that this has been understood and is being taken up vigorously.
  11. Collaboration is in. Learning happens in teams and, increasingly, so does class work. Magic happens when projects are assigned to teams rather than individuals. Creativity flowers when heads are put together, and it’s also good practice for when students eventually join corporations and have to work with others to deliver on commitments.

3

Perhaps the most critical change is the way teachers view themselves. The way I see it, we are in the business of aiding thought and discovery. We are not preachers, but facilitators. When I walk into a classroom it’s my job to provide perspective, not to tell students what to think. My hope is to raise a few questions, provide background and urge students to arrive at their own conclusions.

British poet and novelist CS Lewis wrote: “The task of the modern educator is to not cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” His words have never rung truer.

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