Students, then and now

An informed view based on first-hand observation

A friend and former colleague recently complained about a private message received on LinkedIn from a former student. The message read: ‘Assalamu alikum, sir.’ Sadly, people in the teaching community find themselves on the receiving end of this sort of message way too frequently. For a message of this type means one and only one thing: That the sender needs some advice or favour but has no intention of disclosing the matter unless you acknowledge his greeting first. This is a logical and civil approach when paying somebody a visit, but which sadly defeats the very purpose of written communication.

What is the problem in returning the greeting? one may be asked. The trouble with that is that in that case, instead of stating the matter, the sender is apt to proceed to inquiring about one’s health and spirits. Whether it is the fear of wasting precious time and energy explaining the details of the matter only to discover that the message fails to elicit a response; or the sender is forced by an unusually gentlemanly and caring disposition on his part is a moot point. (I have a suspicion that for the most part it is the former because many are now resorting to voice messages instead. Apparently, even typing one-liners is way too much hard work now.) Be that as it may, those of us who, at any given time, must deal with hundreds of individuals realize after a while that this sort of activity is hardly sustainable. This is where we feel obliged to start ignoring such messages altogether, albeit with some guilt on our part.

While on the subject of e-communication, another common failing on the part of students is their propensity for sending anonymous text messages. They fail to realize that while they have, at most, ten instructors at any given time; their instructors have to deal with hundreds of students, past and present. It is grossly unrealistic to assume, therefore, that they would make it a point to have all their numbers saved. These are, of course, very twenty-first century issues, which were non-existent in the pre-IT age.

There are ways other than the technology-related ones in which we have come a long way from the golden age. (The golden age naturally refers to the era that ended in the 90s when the author graduated from UET Lahore).  Of course, long gone are the days when heroic souls were perfectly willing to risk and accept an F only for the pleasure of triggering a hearty laughter from their fellows. In the Electrical Engineering viva, one such specimen responded to the question ‘What is a motor commutator made of?’ by saying ‘Wood’. Although no Faraday by any stretch of the imagination, he knew perfectly-well that wood was the last material a commutator could be made of. But he still said so, to the infinite joy of those who were present and all those who were told about the incident by those students and the exasperated instructor himself. The legend lives to this day.

Teachers becoming much more accessible is a welcome change. Students now get to see their marked answer-sheets and discuss them with their instructors – something unheard of in our days.

In those days, there were students who had enrolled in a certain program by choice, and those who were there for all sorts of wrong reasons, as is the case today. There were those who dutifully conformed to the rules and regulations, and those mavericks who prided in flouting authority, as is the case today. There were those who were conscientious about their studies to a fault, and those who scoffed at bookworms and ‘thetas’, as is the case today. What was different about that lot, however, was that by and large they were willing to accept the consequences of their actions. Those who worked hard expected just returns for their efforts of course, but those who did not study hard displayed any signs of shock when they failed the subject. Few complaints were voiced, and one rarely heard heart-breaking stories like those one hears from students all the time now. High tragedies, where the very heavens conspire against an innocent and misunderstood individual (our hero, the student) by ensuring that he is visited by all sorts of misfortunes. In this respect, there has been a marked decline in maturity and responsibility displayed by the average university student. A major part of becoming an adult (in the real sense) is the transition from ‘The deadline was missed’ to ‘I missed the deadline.’ No student ever misses classes or deadlines now; they are always ‘missed’ (by whom, nobody bothers to specify). Always the fault is something/somebody else’s, never the student’s.

Another case in point from the golden age: an acquaintance studying at the then KEMC missed an exam only to ascertain whether he existed. That is, whether the world would function any differently if he absented himself than if he took the test. He promptly failed, and concluded that indeed he existed (‘I fail therefore I am’). Once satisfied of this, our modern-day Descartes duly appeared for a re-test and passed. This man may have needed experimental verification; but in those days, it was generally accepted by university students that the choices as well as the actions based on those choices had consequences to be manfully accepted.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the 80s and 90s. In many respects, there have been improvements too. In the 90s even a 5-minutes meeting with the teacher in his office was a rare privilege. Teachers becoming much more accessible is a welcome change. Students now get to see their marked answer-sheets and discuss them with their instructors – something unheard of in our days. While the teachers of old were admittedly too inaccessible and distant, now it seems that the line has been crossed on the other extreme of the spectrum. It is one thing for teachers to be friendly with their students; but a teacher is not exactly a friend. His job description stops him from being one. Undue familiarity between the two parties is to the detriment of both, and the educational project in general. If formality is to be relaxed somewhat, it must be from the side of the teacher. And even then, the context is paramount. Nauman sahab at Sadiq Public School comes to mind. An extremely cheerful and cooperative teacher who played tennis with the students in the afternoons – backslapping, banter and all – but who, during the school hours, made it clear to an overly eager (albeit well meaning) pupil that the latter was only allowed to shake his hand if it was offered to him; that he was not supposed to initiate it.

Returning to technology, SMS and email constitute a remarkable improvement on the student-teacher communication front. As is the case with all technology however, there are challenges as well. For example, many students fail to realize that ‘Oki doki’ and ‘Scene ye hai ke…’ – no doubt charming expressions when used among buddies – are hardly appropriate when it comes to communication with their instructors.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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