The wrath of upper caste professors: How the education system normalised abusive, discriminatory teaching methods

Seniority, clout and power are directly related to caste privilege, and this may sound less shocking if you keenly observe who holds top positions in academia presently, and in the past.

Simple Rajrah August 19, 2020 10:06:48 IST
The wrath of upper caste professors: How the education system normalised abusive, discriminatory teaching methods

In India, and unsurprisingly even outside the country, classroom environments in both schools and colleges are moulded by caste dynamics. This is also true of the digital classroom during the coronavirus pandemic, where there is no face-to-face interaction between teachers and students. This is because caste insidiously manifests itself in several forms, and haunts you everywhere you go.

Caste privilege renders itself visible through one’s name, clothes, and social life – who one can call their peers in academic settings and outside it. Discrimination along these lines can also be observed in teaching and teachers’ behaviour, in particular the figure of the rude upper caste professor, known for their discriminatory and offensive ways, which have been normalised by the larger education system they are part of.

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The nature of teaching is such that at the start, the knowledge sets of the teacher and that of the student are mostly non-overlapping. The teaching relationship is considered successful if at the end of the process, both knowledge sets (or at least the student’s) are significantly larger and show a bigger overlap.

Most teachers who are established and respected in academia seem unaware of the power imbalance inherent in such a pedagogic contract between themselves and their students. The idiosyncratic behaviour of senior professors who are known to be rude and callous is tolerated – and even venerated – even though it negatively impacts students’ learning experiences.

Seniority, clout and power are directly related to caste privilege, and this may sound less shocking if you keenly observe who holds top positions in academia presently, and in the past.

The scales have always been tipped against those who are lower caste. Clout is usually the result of several factors, such as access to publications, proximity to those who are famous and powerful, one’s resume, positions held in projects, book offers – all of which are more easily available to those who have privilege and social capital.

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Patterns of bullying by professors, in my opinion, don’t just stem from their intellect. They are tied into their awareness about their social capital and achievements, which the student in question may not possess. Take for example fluency in English: Perfect articulation is seen as necessary if one wants to be treated with basic respect. A lack of argumentative coherence becomes an invitation for mockery. Any slip-up or breaking of a grammatical rule, and your background – the schools you went to, your parents’ professions, the embarrassing lack of opportunities you have suffered, and the caste your ancestors belonged to – all stand exposed.

With respect to such an attitude towards language, as well as other factors, Indian academia needs to seriously consider how ingrained ideas of Brahminised meritocracy are, and how marginalised positions and perspectives are systematically disregarded.

Additionally, this bullying is not indiscriminately practiced. Which students do you think are more prone to harassment? Those whose social capital and family background can challenge such bullying and the institutions they study at, or those who cannot shake the foundations of established schools and universities?

What makes this situation more worrying is that students from marginalised backgrounds can often find themselves without care frameworks to rely on, when something untoward happens.

They are left to fend for themselves and survive on their own, in the absence of community, welfare committees, grievance redressal networks and hardship grants and scholarships.

The wrath of upper caste professors How the education system normalised abusive discriminatory teaching methods

Dignity in a teacher-student relationship should not be contingent on how quickly you’re able to respond to questions, or how well you can articulate an idea. Representational image/REUTERS

Considering these circumstances, it is shocking that professors, seemingly aware of their prestige and aura, continue to engage in such alienating, damaging behaviour. Asking questions, especially those that arise out of a lack of knowledge, is discouraged, even though asking questions is the very foundation of academics. Can it not be said then that these professors expect creativity and intelligence only of some students, while the rest must never be anything but obedient and silent?

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A few weeks ago, I was scheduled to interview a famous Indian theorist who currently teaches abroad and has tenure for life. They are nearly worshipped in academia and considered a literary genius and amazing philosopher. Any string of adjectives would be insufficient to describe their intellect. I work for a nascent student-run publication, and when they accepted our interview request, I was delighted. But I was also nervous and spent three days immersing myself in their work, which I was familiar with before, but not as extensively.

I considered their obscurantist style as being a mark of their intellect rather than a criticism and trusted that writing in such an opaque manner was not guided by politics; that no matter which caste you belong to, you must rise up to the challenge that critical theory poses. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At one point during the interview, the professor asked me and my co-interviewer about the etymological origins of a word that we used. Since neither of us has expertise in the subject, we could not answer their question. It turns out that the root of the word was French, and since neither of us knew the language, it was deeply distressing when we were mocked by the professor for this reason. The assumption that we would know the answer to such a question, or have fluency in French, comes from the belief that education is not capital and knowledge about such concepts can be taken for granted (it’s obvious which group of students has the opportunity to learn and master foreign languages).

The truth is, even if you do have proficiency in a foreign language or are aware of a certain concept, when faced with an intimidating upper caste celebrity professor, words can fail you.

I wasn’t bothered by the idea that our questions didn’t perhaps do justice to the professor’s knowledge and stature, I was affected by their behaviour during the interview: constant interruptions, mocking expressions, mimicking us, being temperamental and outright rude. Over the course of our 30-minute interaction, my co-interviewer and I were left feeling humiliated and shocked at their rudeness. When we couldn’t identify an important philosopher by a photograph, the professor asked why they even bothered to have a conversation with us. This interaction seemed more like a test aimed at us than an opportunity to ask questions to and learn from a veteran. It was as though our questions weren’t worthy of their answers.

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Dignity in a teacher-student relationship should not be contingent on how quickly you’re able to respond to questions, or how well you can articulate an idea. A student who knows less than their peers still deserves respect. A hierarchical relationship does not justify the lack of mutual respect. Most importantly, abuse should no longer be considered a legitimate by-product of the teaching process.

Such treatment is discouraging and comes at a cost: not only does it actively limit the scope of marginalised people’s academic hopes in the future, but it can also tragically claim lives. A student commits suicide every hour in India. Twenty-eight such suicides are reported each day, as per data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

The NCRB data shows that 10,159 students died by suicide in 2018, an increase from 9,905 in 2017, and 9,478 in 2016. What does it mean to lose Dr Payal Tadvi, Rajini Krish, Rohith Vemula, Senthil Kumar, Madari Venkatesh, and Aniket Ambhore, among countless others, to institutional murder? Many of these deaths involve first-generation learners, whose presence at such institutions shows that despite the cruelty of oppression and hurdles put in place through discrimination, members from oppressed communities managed to carve a place for themselves. The rude upper caste professor is but one more hurdle they are forced to deal with.

Simple Rajrah is a researcher at the University of Oxford

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