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Attendance imbroglio

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The JNU protests against compulsory student attendance is a far cry from what is witnessed in Motihari

"We will dance, but not for attendance," read a curiously designed poster on a wall on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, making me wonder. The attendance imbroglio appeared too subtle for my tender brain to disentangle.

Having dug up the details, I was both astounded and a bit irritated at first to find that the JNU students were zealously protesting in large numbers against the proposed implementation of a rule setting a mandatory minimum attendance of 75%. This they were doing with typical JNU swagger: street theatres, gheraos, sloganeering, and so on. My surprise came from my inability to come to terms with a proposition that attendance can be optional in an educational institution.

The roots of my surprise lie in my experience of teaching in a different university that shares no features with JNU save the fact that both are central universities. That university is Mahatma Gandhi Central University, established in 2016 in North Bihar, situated temporarily in a school building in the town of Motihari. Unlike JNU, this university has no permanent physical or digital infrastructure yet, and the prospect of land acquisition for a permanent campus has been reassuringly imminent since its establishment. It currently operates from seven classrooms carved out of a dilapidated structure. If the university has anything to offer, then it’s the regularity of classes running in two shifts from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., often spilling beyond that point. The university has a mandatory requirement of attendance, which is linked to students’ grades.

While that seems to be a given for an educational institution, the reality is stranger than fiction. When the university started functioning, the enrolled students from Bihar were astonished to find that here is a place where classes actually run. It was a miracle because a class can take place in a unique spatio-temporal zone requiring the ontological presence of a teacher and the students in the same space and at the same venue for about one hour or more. Such a miracle does not take place too often in other educational institutions in Bihar, barring a few.

The insistence on attendance was a revolution in the soil of East Champaran, because even though a Central University, almost all the students hail from the neighbouring regions. A timetable was unheard of except in the case of examinations. In many colleges and universities in Bihar, a simple B.A. or B.Sc. course takes about five years to complete owing to delayed academic sessions. Teachers in many state-run educational institutions receive their salaries once in a blue moon, which is a big motivation for them to coax the unwilling students into the classroom. The situation is so grim that one marvels at the government’s indifference to these gross irregularities on a massive scale.

In that context, when any university mandates a consistent attendance record for its students, it nonetheless posits faith in the regularity of the teaching-learning process. Unless there is constant vigilance, it is only a matter of time for a university to degenerate into a sham institution.

While the mandatory requirement of attendance at JNU, where some of the most meritorious students are chosen by means of a system of rigorous entrance examinations, looks merely an ill-timed administrative antic, the same works as a magic wand in Bihar. The rich library and digital archives of JNU provide a student ample scope to learn on one’s own, while in Motihari, the university exposure seems to be the only reliable source of learning. Research scholars at JNU explore teaching opportunities in various places in Delhi and thereby gain much-needed hands-on experience in teaching, otherwise impossible given a dogged insistence on attendance. But the students of Bihar can find the academic ambience only in the precincts of the university.

Like many wonders of the world, one has to acknowledge like a mystic the contradictory effect of the implementation of a single move yielding different results in different situations.

The author is an Assistant Professor of English in Mahatma Gandhi Central University, Bihar. Umesh.mla@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 9:56:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/attendance-imbroglio/article22919008.ece

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