Clockwork attendance is an assault of JNU spirit

JNU is a University that is full of classes — not only do students often request regular teachers for extra and unscheduled classes, senior students or visiting faculty or post-doctoral fellows get railroaded by curious, hungry students into teaching completely impromptu month-long courses and workshops.

Written by Ayesha Kidwai | Updated: February 11, 2018 2:05:38 pm
JNU protest over compulsory attendance Classes have been held as normal, barring one day of strike prior to February 9, where the JNU Students Union implemented a total lock-down (File)

The JNU Vice-Chancellor, Prof M. Jagadesh Kumar, has never attended or taught a class in Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has never supervised a single research student there either. He has also never received a complaint about any problem of persistent or mass absenteeism for any course taught in the university. Or been alerted to persistent or widespread problems of research students failing to meet their research supervisors. The reason why all this has never happened to him is because the JNU system is, contrary to the negative propaganda being manufactured by its own administration, dedicated to inculcating accountability in students and teachers, even as it rewards both industry and enterprise.

For undergraduate students, keeping in mind the fact that all these courses are in foreign languages, a significant (usually about 40-50%) proportion of the continuous evaluation in each semester is one of ‘class performance’. This not only incentivises attending classes, it also inculcates a very adult sense of responsibility for one’s own actions. Unlike the Delhi University system in which penalty for non-attendance can be escaped from by mere presence, the JNU system actually penalises students for missing classes in terms of their actual performance.

For postgraduate students (for which not even Delhi University has compulsory attendance), gruelling schedules of presentations, assignments, tests, and tutorials with tight deadlines make missing classes, again amounting to 50% of the semester grade, make absenteeism extremely risky, especially since courses are not taught to a template ordained by a kunj or guidebook based on some generic syllabus drawn up across universities, but according to a specific conception of the particular teacher based on an approved course outline.

Students on fellowships must get their fellowship forms approved monthly by the academic advisor and/or the Centre Chairperson. This also holds true for all research students, who are all on some fellowship or the other. Students must obligatorily respect a timeline for a residency period (currently, three years), the submission and defence of M.Phil. and PhD synopses and dissertations — an M.Phil. dissertation must be submitted in two semesters, a PhD has to be submitted in four continuous years, extendable to 5 years only when stringent criteria are met; if they aren’t, the student must deregister or drop put entirely.

Throughout the period, a justified negative comment by a research supervisor can ensure that her student’s fellowship is stopped at once, her registration is not allowed, or her name removed from the rolls. In fact, all programs of study allow a student to be dismissed for failing to perform to the expected level.

Teachers over the past five decades of the university will attest to the fact that there has been no problem of student attendance in the university, as will students about the regularity of teachers taking class. It’s a University that is full of classes — not only do students often request regular teachers for extra and unscheduled classes, senior students/visiting faculty/post-doctoral fellows get railroaded by curious, hungry students into teaching completely impromptu month-long courses and workshops.

There are also remedial classes run for the weaker sections taught by research students, reading group classes run by research students, and of course the classes run by various campus political organizations. And the JNU Students Union is perhaps the only Students Union in the world that runs coaching classes for the university’s entrance examination. Each class is attended, argued in, and if missed, made up for, by the bulk of the students.

Why the attendance boycott, then? The short answer is, the ignorant despotism of Prof M. Jagadesh Kumar. Ever since December 22 when the policy was unilaterally announced, students and teachers have protested how antithetical it is to the ideals of the university and to learning in general. Schools and Centres have written in polite objections to the university administration — where is the staff to compute the attendance records of each of the 8000-odd students on the rolls, when students can add, audit, and drop courses across the university, and even take extra courses? And what is the end of this exercise — to count those who are already there?

The fact that this attendance scheme includes even research scholars — who constitute nearly two-thirds of the university — signing in daily, and only being allowed out of the campus on daily parole slips signed by the chairperson of the Centre/research supervisor, has caused the greatest frustration, as the university is not a prison, research supervisors and chairs are not jail wardens, and a research degree is quite definitively the opposite of a jail term, because the creativity that writing a dissertation needs can only be nurtured with freedom and a discipline that comes from within. If students have to waste precious time queuing up to get the daily parole pass – many departments have over more than 100 research students on the rolls, some even 350 – when will the students do fieldwork, library work, research presentations in conferences, as well as live the business of daily life?

Even as every single representation made to the JNU administration has met with stony silence that seeks to mask the fact that there are no compelling counter-arguments, attendance in class has not fallen. If attendance sheets have been presented by teachers, whole classes present and dissenting, have refused to sign. Classes have been held as normal, barring one day of strike prior to February 9, where the JNU Students Union implemented a total lock-down.

The reason for this is the January 8 firman issued by the JNU administration, by which a new penalty for refusing to sign the attendance sheet (which is all that attending class has become reduced to by the JNU VC), students’ fellowships for January and the subsequent period will not be paid), with the added threat that hostels will be withdrawn and registration in the next semester denied. In a university in which close to 25% of the students come from families whose monthly income is less than Rs. 6000, and most of whom rely exclusively on the paltry fellowships they receive to sustain their academic costs and their mess bills, this decision (which was not part of the notified rules on attendance) is nothing short of an atrocity.

In February 2016, there is no doubt that Jagadesh Kumar was allowed all latitude to try to shut down JNU. Will the fact that he has failed, despite two years of trying, to make much headway in crushing the indomitable spirit of JNU, encourage the government to, in this election year, finally end his war with JNU?

Ayesha Kidwai is a professor of Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former president of the JNU Teachers Association. She tweets @ayesha_kidwai

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