The campus adda is just the place to unwind, discuss various issues, argue and most importantly, learn about life.

Last month the university where I work had the privilege of hosting eminent sociologist Prof. Andre Beteille for a few days. He gave a series of lectures, many of which were open to all students and faculty from all disciplines. As might be expected, most of those who attended the talks were from social science departments. The content of the public lectures was fairly general, providing something for everyone to take away, and students from science and technology departments too would have been able to connect with some of the points he made.

Among other things, Prof. Beteille spoke about the nature of universities and how they allow learning. Of course universities come in different shapes and sizes, and every institution has its own culture and dynamics, but they also share some features. They are places where learning happens. You may argue that not all universities and colleges really provide ‘good quality’ education, however you might define that. True enough. There are all too many institutions that fail to provide the skills and information that we pay them for. But still, learning does happen, even if it is not of the kind that we expect.

Conversation over coffee

Some of this learning happens inside the classroom, and that is the expected kind. But a lot of it — much more than we give credit for —happens in the interactions outside of the classroom.

Prof. Beteille alluded to conversations under the trees and in cafeterias, over cups of coffee and tea. In these conversations, it is sometimes possible to forget briefly the hierarchies that govern the classroom. Here, teachers and students mingle and exchange roles.

Professors learn from students, and students learn from each other. They learn the art of conversation: how to engage, how to ask and answer questions, how to lose themselves in the intricacies of a topic that they feel strongly about, and how to convince others and allow themselves to be convinced.

We’ve often spoken in this column about finding and using opportunities for learning outside the classroom. Universities and colleges give us many such opportunities, which do not depend on the quality of the lecturers, the size of the library, or the condition of the laboratories.

All those are very important, no doubt, but there are lessons to be had even in the most poorly equipped institutions. These lessons come from our peers — classmates and fellow students, and all the others we come in contact with. And from the materials and contexts/situations we are exposed to during this time.

Peer learning

As students, we live in a sort of privileged space. Society (or our parents) does not ask much of us, beyond expecting us to learn. If we choose to spend our days complaining about the lack of infrastructure, faculty, books, and so on, we’re losing valuable time that could be used in a variety of other ways.

Complaining about these things is necessary, but once we have done that, we need to see if there are other ways in which we can engage. If one of your groups has access to materials, why not turn that into a collective learning opportunity?

If one person understands the complexity of a lesson, get him or her to talk about it over coffee in the college adda. If different views have been expressed about a certain topic or issue, turn this into an informal debate that allows you all to explore the differences further and more in depth, outside the constraints of the timetable.

Obviously, all these conversations do not have to be about the curriculum. This is also the time you talk at length about Life (with a capital ‘L’) and its various components, with an intensity that is rarely found in later years. Apart from a few exclusive private institutions, most colleges are home to a diversity of individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds. This means that you will also come across many different ways of looking at and experiencing life.

This is a great opportunity to develop an understanding of these perspectives. No matter which field you go into, this breadth of interaction gives you an excellent foundation on which to build the skills of empathy — something all these soft skills training institutes try to inculcate through simulation and role play!

I remember many afternoons turning into evenings under the trees of my own undergraduate institution, as we argued over politics and laughed over our different experiences. We planned and schemed, formed coalitions around ideas, and created plots to change the world. But mostly, what changed, was our selves. While the content gained in the classroom lectures might have helped me get a job, it was these conversations that helped me figure out what to do with the job, and where to go with it.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus. www.teacherplus.org.

Email: usha.raman@gmail.com

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