While Professor Krishnaiah is known for his examples from movies, Professor Balaji sees every lecture as a kutcheri

“It is like a kutcheri every day. I am optimally nervous before every lecture, for a teacher is only as good as his next class,” says 44-year-old Chakravarthy Balaji, a professor with the mechanical engineering department of IIT- Madras.

65- year-old K. Krishnaiah, a professor of chemical engineering, explains the responsibility of teachers, “I am a big fan of Matrix and other Science fiction movies. I use examples from these movies to teach scientific concepts to my students. It also helps me relate to them better.”

Recipients of the Best Teacher Awards at IIT- Madras, Krishnaiah and Balaji are a generation apart but have a lot in common — a passion for teaching and plenty of enthusiasm for their respective disciplines.

The award, ‘Srimathi Marti Annapurna Gurunath Award for Excellence in Teaching', endowed by alumnus professor Marti Subrahmanyam of the Stern School of Business, New York University, was instituted last year, and is given to teachers voted the best by students for consistent teaching performance.

On Ugadi day, a holiday at the institute, Prof. Krishnaiah, who hails from a small village in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh, is busy working with his Ph.D students in his lab. “When I was growing up, my village had just one graduate. We called him Ramiah B.A. In those days, if you passed, you went to the next class. If you failed, you went to the fields,” he says.

“I scored well in my PUC and then joined chemical engineering, which was really sought after then. But there were no industrial jobs after we finished graduation. So, I pursued my M. Tech and PhD, and after a year of working in Sri Venkateswara University, I joined IIT- Madras,” he adds.

Students say Prof Krishnaiah’s classes are full of examples. Diffusion is taught with a room freshener being sprayed and students being asked to note down when the smell actually reaches them. Plug theory is compared to a queue in Tirupati — as soon as it gets moving, there is little waiting time, they say.

Engineering, through stories

“When I started, I always used to wonder if the teaching engineering through mathematics was a right approach,” Krishnaiah recalls. “Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time, made it clear to me. I loved the flow of the book. The world of universe is better explained in words. I decided to do the same — explain every subject like a story — not just with numbers and equations.”

For Balaji, an alumnus of College of Engineering, Anna University and IIT- Madras, who specialises in thermodynamics, heat transfer and related subjects, teaching undergraduate students is the most challenging and delightful part of the day. He also authored a book — The joy of teaching. He has a strategy for the first few classes. “I tell my students – Don’t leave me till you are satisfied. The first few days are only to make the class totally inhibition-free,” he says.

“Every time I catch a student reading Jeffrey Archer in class, I tell him he will get enough time for it later. And when students come late to class, “I don’t punish them but I continue reaching the class on time. Killing them with goodness works, you see,” he chuckles.

“You have to give them a long rope. And you need to respect them, all their questions, even those that seem silly,” he says.

Preparation, he feels, is very important for every teacher. “There are times when I start an equation on the black board and I realise I cannot derive the result. I apologise to the students and come back the next day, having sorted it out.”

Are the students smarter?

So are the students smarter than them? “Yes, definitely,” says Balaji. “The students here are the brightest minds in the country and sometimes the way they apply concepts and ask questions really astonishes me. It took me almost twenty years to get there.”

The most important task for him is earning the trust of all the students, especially the slow learners, he says. “The most disappointing moment for a teacher is when a student does not understand a particular concept but decides to say he has, just because he does not want the teacher to take more trouble.

We can see it in their eyes that they have not followed it. I revisit the same concept the next day to make sure the student gets it,” he adds.

So what does the award mean to them? “Not much. Whenever I am free, I think of ways, examples, and instances from movies to help students get the concept right,” says Prof. Krishnaiah, who is all set to retire this June.

“I feel extremely happy when senior students complain that I did not tell them a particular joke or example that I told their juniors. It feels good to know students discuss and share such examples. I tell them I am learning and improving too,” he grins.