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Not just newsletter, but a forum for ‘em

Vasudha Venugopal
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The IIT-M's ‘The Fifth Estate' glitters with podcasts, videos, a Facebook page

A screen shot of the online newsletter of IIT-M
A screen shot of the online newsletter of IIT-M

There are doubts that all engineering students secretly harbour - “Does working in non-core companies make me less of an engineer,” – or more outlandish ones such as whether downloading movies and games in computer labs an act of piracy they should abstain from.

Sometimes, a different note appears, say, a student writing about his experiences as a homosexual, recalling a representative's announcement at a campus meeting, “We want a healthy ‘bro atmosphere' here. Gays can clear off'.” Or his experience with a psychologist who heard him out and said: “That's right. But you have to make the right choice. Listen to your parents. Don't read too much on the internet.”

For those who thought the world of IITs was only about meticulous research and staid labs, it is not so anymore. Indian Institute of Technology-Madras' online news forum ‘The Fifth Estate' that has to “say something on most things happening on the campus,” is now not just a newsletter with customary articles on cultural fests and literary activities.

“The post on homosexuality went on to record more than 13,000 hits. We started talking about the issue seriously after this. Surprisingly, many of our faculty members too discussed this on how we could be more sensitive and supportive,” says Karthik Rajkumar, a member of the managing committee of the newsletter.

Reactions to policy changes and announcements, events on the campus and interesting anecdotes of the students of IIT-M are now up on the internet. A team of six editorial members and nearly 40 enterprising student correspondents have transformed their traditional newsletter into a full-fledged student forum with podcasts, videos and a Facebook page, with comments open to readers. “There is no censorship but responsibility that we practise here. Newsletters often fail because of the costs of printing, but with the new media, the reach is stupendous,” says Vinay Sridhar, executive editor, The Fifth Estate.

L.S. Ganesh, Dean (students), feels the posts are not a reflection of occurrences on the campus alone, but of things happening everywhere that influence students. “Technology has changed dramatically over the years, and our objective is to enrich its use by sharing of knowledge and being more sensitive.” The online forum has served to clarify a range of doubts on issues such as placements, says V.Anand, a third year student at IIT-M. A lot of information is available on topics such as the fewer number of public sector undertakings that are coming this year, and how most consulting firms prefer to recruit students from IIT-Delhi or IIT-Bombay where their offices are located. Interviews are part of the effort too. Be it of a senior alumni telling them how they should go about applying for higher studies abroad or a young faculty member attributing dropping student motivation levels to burn-outs due to coaching classes.

Then, there are popular threads, including the Institute's decision to reschedule non-academic activities or disconnecting of internet access after midnight, which have attracted a huge amount of commentary, often indignant, from students. And it is not all that serious too. While members of the editorial team post and reply to comments under the tagline, ‘Dude-who-shot/edited/organised-this,' a bunch of commentators seem to work overtime in pointing out editing and punctuation flaws. And for controversial topics, there is guidance sought from alumni and faculty. “It is all about the trust with which we all work. It has not been breached yet,” says Prof Ganesh.

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