Pandemic, Post-Graduation & Pedagogy
Research scholars share their pandemic-year experiences from the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU
"The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy. For years it has been a place where education has been undermined by teachers and students alike who seek to use it as a platform for opportunistic concerns rather than as a place to learn:" Bell Hooks
March 13, 2020. As one of those days in our mutually shared living memories, we presumed
that it was just a routine circular issued by the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Administration. We were already anticipating it, but what struck us, as our immediate concern, was the possible disruption of a sincerely followed life schedule. The coronavirus pandemic affected us with an immediate suspension of our routine academic and other activities of an everyday existential nature in the university campus.
The later stages in our first semester of post-graduation at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, were fraught with a steep increase in the hostel fees, and the introduction of several regulations, in a revised Hostel Manual published by the JNU Administration. This was met with stiff resistance from students across various political inclinations.
As our financial circumstances, at that stage, made further education unaffordable, JNU's students went ahead with spontaneous mass protests. The students actively participated in all protest calls and marches opposing the inconsiderate actions of the JNU Administration.
We realised that from amongst a diverse student community, it was the ones from underprivileged castes/classes and communities, who will experience the most drastic impacts of these changes, introduced by the JNU Administration.
Hence, this was also one of the primary moments in our familiarisation with student activism at university spaces. We got inclined to the approaches in social dissemination of ideas and engagement in political participation. This was most vigorously reflected in the pragmatic everyday functioning of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association (BAPSA).
The protests against the fee-hike further accentuated the burden of students from such castes/classes and communities, who were already trying to cope with academic challenges in spaces of distinct social inequalities. These challenges played out in various forms. These included language barriers in both academic and non-academic interactions.
There was counterproductive articulation through written exercises that arise out of such language barriers, (and are generally frowned upon in 'conventional' academic writing style(s)), and the absence of 'comfortable' space for classroom engagement. Some of these aspects can be noted in the few volumes of scholarship that genuinely highlight and extend/expand the scope of our observations, for instance, such as that of N. Sukumar or Aniket Jawaare.
As we began our narrative with a specific date, it conveyed a moment in the phase of our second semester of post-graduation, which evokes emotional triggers of a distinct nature, even when we think about it today. Like many other aspiring academic scholars, we tried to resist the challenges which we described and were faced by certain sections of students in their first semester.
We assured ourselves by putting up 'academic resistance', and an intense urge towards improvement in our learning capacities on the first day of our second semester of post-graduation. Firmly resolving to make it a habit to visit and study at the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Central Library of JNU regularly. We allocated more time for this as it stimulated the development of rapidly deep-seated, and inquisitive academic interests.
Our visits to the particular floors of the stack halls in the nine-storied Library facilitated our newfound inclinations in locating, reading, and comprehending literature through titles in widely diversified genres. These ranged from "A Thousand Plateaus," "Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings," to "Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present."
This exercise also motivated us to opt for courses in other departments and schools of the university. It was a challenge that we undertook, despite certain barriers in our conceptual understanding, emerging out of general unfamiliarity with the academic nature and specificities of other disciplinary courses. The notice dated March 13 drove us to the point of no return. We had to plan an inevitable journey back home on March 17.
Unfortunately, during this period, we were also confronted with immense psychological anxiety that negatively impacted our academic activities. The entire pandemic situation was further aggravated by the extreme misgovernance of the Indian state. It should not be surprising that the pandemic reproduced vast and severe social inequalities in India's educational sector. The cost of which was directly borne by disadvantaged castes, classes, and communities.
A significant share of these inequalities was meted out in the form of immense "inaccessibility" to academic interactions, such as classroom lectures, workshops, and seminars. The expectational perception of academic historians in India, and across the world, about a CHS post-graduate would require them to refer to the constitution of any 'space' through theoretical nuances such as that of Lefebvre. But, how could we have addressed and dealt with our existence, in a precarious and unconducive 'space' (in this context, our 'households/neighbourhoods').
It was unfavourable for even our basic activities, let alone the pile of mounting academic pressures. While we could observe the production of a lot of research articles and video content on the internet, our mental health at that particular phase was indescribable.
However, what perhaps provided us the minimum solace in the grim and tense conditions was our communication over fluctuating network connections on mobile calls. In the academic domain, the toll on our mental health was due to inconsiderate decisions imposed in the form of diktats issued by the JNU Administration. These compelled even supportive and understanding professors to act rigid about submission deadlines, that provided no respite to the students.
Most of our classmates, especially those from marginalised social backgrounds, bore the brunt of these prejudices, discrimination, and oppression in the university spaces. Evidently, for such students, the future of education during the pandemic was apparent in the increasing number of postgraduate dropouts. Battling these ordeals, we rowed our boats down the streams of second and third semesters, for the sake of a postgraduate degree, braving turbulent academic storms within our lives.
Being inextricably entangled in unsustainable academic pressures pushed us to a point where we had no option but to discard the language of 'legality' found in administrative protocols. We arrived at our respective hostel rooms at the JNU campus by the middle of January 2021. At that point, no bona fide student was allowed to enter the university campus and stay in their hostel rooms.
However, it is a matter of common knowledge that 'monumental' public interactions prior to that were justified as long as they were in the interest of the ruling castes, classes, and communities. Having been denied permission to even get food for survival using our hostel mess facilities, we compromised with our circumstances. We did so because the fulfilment of an 'academic space' meant everything to us after such a devastatingly long wait.
We decided to board the DTC Bus No. 615 inside the JNU campus, then transfer to DTC Bus No. 604 to reach the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, located at Teen Murti Bhavan. As a compulsory academic requirement for our fourth and final semester, we were notified that one of the essential tasks was to author two 6,000-8,000 word seminar papers, based on primary research.
We extensively utilised the archives of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library for our primary research. However, our happiness was short-lived, as the immediate closure of the Library's facilities was announced by the middle of April 2021. The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic had returned with deadlier intensity.
In the midst of all this, we managed to submit the seminar papers, albeit with a bit of flexibility in the deadlines. We realised, and still feel it in our bones, that the progress in our academic research output could have been better if these constraints had not haunted us at every single phase of our post-graduation.
We had to spend over a year, after the completion of our post-graduation, attending conferences, workshops, and short-term courses (unfortunately most of these were conducted over the 'online' interface) to enhance our academic acclimatisation.
We are unsure about the stark contrasts between a 'utopia' for social equality and the current social conditions, at least in the realm of 'education.' It is because we are aware of alternative pedagogical perspectives formulated by intellectuals such asDr. B.R. Ambedkar and Jotiba Phule. We are aware of the implications of the social emancipatory pedagogical models for the marginalised, as theorised in great depth in Paulo Freire's scholarship.
Nevertheless, at the same time, we are also cognizant of what the prospects of 'education' in India, quite visible within the near future, hold for us. Momentarily unperturbed, our only respite on a humid Delhi afternoon is in walking towards Latif Bhai's canteen on the ground floor of the Centre for Historical Studies, located at the School of Social Sciences - III Building of the JNU campus. We take back photocopies of our reading materials from Ashish dada or Pappu bhai who man the shop in a corner of the same floor.
An elevator on the ground floor, which takes us to the fourth floor of the high building, where the Reading Room of our Centre is located. A month ago, we had an esteemed co-passenger with us as we walked towards the elevator. One of our professors had joined both of us on the elevator and humorously asked Somnath where he was going with the "elegant makeover" he was dressed in. Meanwhile, the professor noticed the words "Broken Bones" written on Krishna's t-shirt and enquired "What is it?". Krishna stressed upon the words written just below the aforementioned ones: "Still kicking!"
Krishna Kumar and Somnath Pati are independent researchers and former postgraduate students of Modern Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.