Author Note: Both the stories here are based on experiences I’ve had within higher educational spaces. However, the dominant caste biases that I present in the stories inform conversations on teaching and assessment practices in schools as well. Discriminatory notions of merit and entitlement shape a large part of schooling discourse, which frequently get bolstered in higher educational contexts. For me, university life has been politically contradictory. On the one hand, I have experienced it as a space which is essentially designed to mobilise dominant caste, upper-middle class men like me. On the other hand, it has frequently facilitated encounters and conversations which produced moments of critical learning about the problems with my ways of seeing and being. These conversations can be messy and difficult, but they potentially reorient assumptions shaping our actions within educational spaces, as teachers and students. A lot, of course, depends on whether we are listening without feeling defensive, allowing the harsh truth to break through the ramparts of self-preservation. Here are two such conversations.
‘How dare he?’
The words abruptly floated to my ears as I approached the two of them, grimly staring at each other.
‘Hey. What’s up? Did you order chai?’
Neither seemed particularly enthused by my presence.
‘Sorry. Something happened?’
P turned his head with slight disgust and enunciated each syllable with sinister emphasis: ‘A student accused K of being casteist.’
K turned her head towards me, almost in dramatic slow motion, and locked her eyes on mine. Two expectant, indignant faces bearing down upon me, their breath filling up the harsh stillness in the air. What was I supposed to do? Empathise? Show outrage? Be visibly upset at the seeming unfairness of the situation? Unfair for whom? Why would the student say this, what could K have done?
‘What happened?’, I asked, in the neutral-est tone I could summon.
She looked away, disappointed. P picked up the thread: ‘The student got a bad grade…he hardly attended classes and didn’t deserve a better grade. And that guy has the gall to doubt her grading? He just came to her and announced that he deserved a better grade. What an asshole. And then when she said she can’t, he said she was being casteist. What the hell! We can’t tolerate students doing whatever the fuck they feel. This was a threat, he actually threatened her…’
My eyes flicked to K for a second, she was intently staring into space. A mixture of disappointment and doubt began to course through me. I suddenly realised I didn’t know her too well, and I definitely didn’t have much insight into her teaching persona, but somehow I wanted to believe that her response would not be merely defensive, merely protecting her institutional authority. It would definitely not be abusive, I hoped.
‘…and also this entire conversation on caste is going in the wrong direction. It’s actually making students victimise themselves even more’
P had found an excuse to legitimately rant about his deep-seated resentments—a tendency he would suppress in the progressive, ‘politically correct’, albeit dominant-caste, circles he inhabited yet felt secretly discomfited by. He sought opportunities to express what he really felt. It was wrong to discount his feelings, he felt undermined and ‘cancelled’, he’d reveal in drunken fits sometimes.
A slew of questions were prickling my brain. I had to ask them in a manner that would facilitate a meaningful conversation. It could easily end badly; but the consequences of not having this conversation were worse. Yes, there would inevitably be complexity in the story, K might have been vulnerable in some ways too, but each aspect of the story, the experience, needed to be worked through. ‘Listen, K, I don’t want you to feel defensive…’
Do you explain and demonstrate your grading criteria? Are you familiar with the literature on grading biases and how they may influence your choices/practices? Do you think your teaching and assignment-setting was able to prepare the student adequately?
Do you enquire into why the student may be missing classes, or if and how they struggle with the course? Do you try to understand the student’s context? How do you understand differences between students? Do you give the student space to present critical opinions of your course? Do you question and probe your own authority, vantage-point, certainties about teaching and evaluation?
Have you read up on accounts of caste-based and other forms of discrimination in educational spaces? Do you understand the inter-relations of the academic, socio-economic, and cultural in how discrimination operates? Do you understand the magnitude and consequences of disparity in educational outcomes? If you do not know or understand, do you seek to know or understand? If you know or understand, what do you do about it?
Deep down, what do you really feel? Is that right?
A warm presence greets me when I enter the room. She is surrounded by a few students, who she’s helping out with a project. Introductions and smiles follow, and I wait till the students leave. She is middle-aged, calm, and seems to carry an overall no-nonsense attitude about her. We begin the discussion, I take out my notebook. She tells me about the discrimination she experienced within the department as a new faculty member, the culturally alienating conversations she had to endure, the obliviousness and unchanged prejudices of many of the ‘celebrated’ senior faculty members. She tells me about how she felt more empowered owing to her engagement within the anti-caste movement but how many Dalit teachers in various educational institutes are struggling, subject to the meritocratic, insensitive taunts of students, teachers, and administrators. She tells me stories of so-called ‘good’ upper-caste professors subjecting students to suicides that never made the news. She tells me about how she has been considered as an ‘uncivil’ presence since she points out problems starkly, a tendency that many academics do not react well to since they would rather couch and disguise the truth in deliberate sophistry. She mentions how marginal caste students, including the ones I just met, are excluded from all kinds of student decision-making and participation in cultural initiatives. She tells me how she works with those students on their writing, to ensure they get a better grade but other faculty members continue to grade them badly, although their writing seems perfectly alright.
I look up from my notes since I experience a sudden unexpected discomfort. I can imagine the problematic biases of certain faculty members, the valuation of aesthetic gloss over the quality of content, but a part of me feels doubtful too.
‘So, I want to understand something….there’s obviously bias in how students are being graded, but…shouldn’t there also be a conversation on standards? Grade inflation without developing justifiable criteria could be a problem too right? Also, while grading language is tricky given how subjective it is…but clarity and effectiveness of communication is also dependent on word choice, grammar…I mean those things should be worked on and developed rather than being impersonally graded, but we will need criteria and standards? Do you think it makes sense to also develop alternative standards…’
I trail off noticing a fierce sharpness in her gaze. She replies clearly and firmly: ‘The university is an agrahara. All existing standards must be abolished before we can create new ones.’
‘Yes, I….’ I trail off again, suddenly lost in the shadowy facade of my own thought, intimidated by the clarity of hers. People like me mostly design and re-design evaluation systems, conceptualising ‘fairness’ within normative frames, never fundamentally questioning the societal basis of the system itself, never fundamentally understanding the experience of being constantly, endlessly de-graded.
She tells me a little more about her everyday teaching experiences. We discuss the role of classroom teaching in combating the sense of exclusion and isolation. Our conversation finally draws to a close. I get up, thank her for her time; she wishes me well for my research project.
Sayan Chaudhuri is currently pursuing a PhD in the Centre for English Studies at JNU. His research work studies the framing of English Studies in post-liberalization India, with particular emphasis on how pedagogic practices negotiate with institutional codifications of the discipline. He also teaches a course titled ‘Education, Literacy, and Justice’ as part of the Critical Writing program at the Young India Fellowship.