Thursday, September 11, 2014

Pluralize literacy – and be damned!

What led me to think about literacy was an invitation from a school to give a talk on literacy for sustainable development on World Literacy Day. The occasion led me to review the traditional idea of literacy as well as reflect on literacies of different kinds we are called upon to develop in a changing world. With unexpected results.

“Literacy” is a loaded expression: it keeps adding more and more senses to its original meaning. Or, it keeps expanding, adding more and more layers to itself. Originally, the word “literary” only meant the ability to read and write. Over the years, its meaning has expanded to include various other types of literacy: information literacy, political literacy, technological literacy, media literacy, cultural literacy, multicultural literacy, visual literacy, environmental literacy, digital literacy, financial literacy, and what not. If you look up the word ‘literacy’ even in the latest edition of a dictionary, the dictionary entry will say that “literacy” is an uncountable noun – meaning you can’t pluralize the word and say “literacies.” But, in the real world, language doesn’t quite function according to the dictionary; we talk about literacies because the word has enormously outgrown its original sense.

The idea of sustainable development has added new meanings to literacy. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as ‘the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Achieving this kind of development calls for not just action guided by an ethical sense but the skill of critical inquiry. One must learn to develop the skill of critical inquiry and use this literacy to view the things that are happening in front of oneself.

That is what I am going to do here.

Every Monday, I travel from Vijayawada to Gudlavalleru via Vuyyuru and Pamarru. On the way, I see on both sides of the road hundreds of acres of farm land being converted for commercial ventures. This reckless conversion started when Vijayawada becoming the capital of Andhra Pradesh was a mere rumour two months ago. Now that the rumour has come true, the destruction has intensified. The conversion is certainly for the sake of development – for developing commercial complexes and residential areas. But, at what expense? Where is this so-called development going to lead us?

During the Vinayaka Chaturthi celebrations, my wife and I were going home from Patmata through some residential areas. On each big road, we had to take a diversion because the road was blocked. There was a temporary shrine for Lord Vinayaka in a tent right on the road itself with people were sitting round it offering worship. We saw half-a-dozen such tents on our way. It set me thinking. If a Hindu or a Muslim community pitched tents on the road and conducted prayer service, would the majority community keep quiet? Is this not a vulgar display of majoritarianism and cultural illiteracy? Does this bode well for our development?

There is a book called The End of Growth written by Richard Heinberg. It is written in simple language and is available for free download on the internet. The book says something interesting about our economic growth. We live on a finite plan. The earth with all its resources being infinite is faith. Om poornamadah poornamidam poornaat poornamudachyate / Poornasya poornamaadaaya poornamevaavashishsyate,’ says the Upanishad. It means ‘Brahman is poornam or whole. This world is poornam. This poornam came from that poornam. Take poornam out of poornam. What remains is poornam.’ This would have us believe that the earth with all its resources is infinite. But this is not borne out by reality. The resources are getting depleted, and alarm bells have started ringing already. But, we have an economic system based on infinite growth. At some point, when we have reached the limits of our natural capital, our growth story will come to an end. Heinberg argues that we have almost reached that point – the point of the end of our growth. A doom of this kind has been predicted by a few other philosophers before. But, what happened in the story, ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ in Aesop’s Fable, may happen in our economic growth story as well. In the wolf story, the wolf eventually arrived. So will the end of our economic growth. This calls for a review of our economic system and the literacy underlining it.

The world is becoming more and complex with foundational changes taking place all around us. The social and economic needs of today are emerging within a digitally networked society. According to an estimate I came across on the Internet, 65% of school children will end up doing jobs which have not been invented yet. How can students prepare themselves for jobs that have not been invented yet? How can teachers prepare their students for jobs which have not been invented yet? What kind of literacy does this preparation call for?

And then the media. The media act in a devious way. Unless you know how to demystify media language, you are apt to be influenced by what the media say. A few years ago, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), which functions from Washington, published a damning report about the media called ‘Cash for Coverage: Bribery of Journalists around the World.’ The report was written by a journalist! As a long-time user of the media and a freelance journalist, I can recognize paid news and planted stories when I find them. And I do find them even in newspapers which make tall claims to honesty. But, demystifying media language demands literacy of some kind. Perhaps, I must run a workshop on demystification of media language with telling examples from local editions which will make enormous sense to the participants.

I asked the children to reflect on these five situations and develop the literacies the reflection will demand. ‘There lies a possible path to sustainable development,’ I said. 

The children asked interesting questions some of which led me to talk about the quirky attempts of pseudo-historians to discover aircraft in ancient India and search for the mythical river, Saraswati. 

The children were amused. The organizers thought I was a communist. A fellow-speaker asked me at the end of the programme if I was an atheist. I said, 'I wish I was one.'

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Conference leave and sundry other things

I had a feeling of a deja vu when I read a blog post in The Chronicle of Higher Education this morning. The blogger was an academic called Robert Epstein and the post was on academic freedom in the context of conference leave. Just in case you want to read the blog post, here is the link:
Reading the post was indeed a chastening experience as well. Let me tell you why.
For over a quarter century of my three-decade-long teaching career, I have been a faculty trainer and seminar/conference leader. At Andhra Loyola College, where I taught for about three decades, and at Vignan University, where I worked, on invitation, for about six months, I never had any difficulty in obtaining duty leave to lead conferences or run workshops in other universities and colleges; the managements of these institutions were, in fact, proud that one of their professors was invited to lead conferences and conduct workshops. Then I accepted, on invitation again, a key position in a college where this became difficult. In the very first month of my appointment, I was invited to lead a national conference as the keynote speaker, and I asked for duty leave for the purpose. I was told that I could avail myself of "academic leave" not more than two or three times in a year. I said, 'My role at the conference will be much more than that of a mere participant: I will be the keynote speaker.' But it cut no ice.
At first, I wanted to resign and leave the college. Then wiser counsels prevailed: I thought I might have to contend with almost the same attitude in any other college or university. The invitation to work would be gracious, and the position would indeed be flattering, but soon the routine would take over. So, I decided to continue in the same college in the same capacity but with a difference: I opted to work there for not more two or three days in a week and devote the rest of the week to faculty training and consultancy. I had a few other compelling reasons for opting to work part-time, but the attitude that underlined the decision on academic leave was the last straw. This, of course, led to some reduction in my salary, but the bright spot is that I needn't beg for what Epstein calls conference leave.
Instances such as these -- Epstein's experience, mine, and those of various others that Epstein describes in the post -- are a measure of how higher education is being led all over the world. I remember what the late V V John said several decades ago about the people who headed higher educational institutions in India during his days: '...they have the vision of the frog and the mental alacrity of the buffalo.'  If he were alive, he would now say that the frog and the buffalo shine by contrast.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Readers, pseudo-readers, and non-readers

Today is World Book Day. I hear that, in 1923, booksellers in Spain wanted to honour Miguel de Cerventes, author of Don Quixote, on 23 April, the day of his death, and that is how April 23 came to be celebrated as World Book Day all over the world. By a happy coincidence, if I might use the word “happy” in this context, William Shakespeare also died on 23 April, according to the Julian calendar, which was still in use in England at the time. In the UK, however, World Book Day is celebrated on the first Thursday of March.

That April 23 is World Book Day became part of my knowledge only a couple of years ago when I came across an article on the subject in a newspaper.  Having gained this piece of knowledge, I called a librarian friend of mine and asked him, ‘Do you know when World Book Day is celebrated?’  ‘Who celebrates it?’  he asked in reply.

On reflection, that seemed the right answer to the question.  In a world where reading is fast disappearing, how does it matter when World Book Day is celebrated?  ‘My only books,’ said Thomas Moore in the nineteenth century, ‘were women's looks, and folly's all they've taught me.’  A modern Moore may mourn: ‘My only books are the box's looks, and folly's all they've taught me.’

To be fair, however, there are readers and readers.  For some, reading is a pleasure.  I know a number of die-hard book-lovers who have grown up on grandmother's tales, on adventure stories, and on such all-time favourites as Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and P G Wodehouse – and, of course, on the unavoidable (and inevitable!) Shakespeare and Shaw.  They can read Macaulay and Gibbon with as much interest and excitement as they can R L Stevenson and P G Wodehouse.  They wouldn't wax eloquent on their reading like Francis Bacon (‘Reading maketh a full man’); they read for the simple reason that it gives them pleasure.

For some, reading is a kind of penance.  It is because they read books either in the hope of gaining some knowledge or for practical purposes, such as writing an examination.  I know a person who looks at every new book with suspicion and wonders if it is good value for money and time.

There is a third group that consists of people who love books, who want to be able to say that they have read all the books worth reading, but who never manage to read any books.  Typical of the "reading" style of this group is what a fellow teacher living in Chennai does: she goes to the British Council Library and borrows five attractive-looking books which have just entered the library, keeps them for a fortnight and then returns them unread. 

Readers, pseudo-readers, and non-readers – well, it takes all sorts to make a world. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Some little known facts about exams

Here we go again! Summer has arrived, and so have testing times. There will be examinations galore till the end of this month.  No, the ordeal will continue till the end of May because once college or university exams are over, there will be entrance exams of all kinds with little respite for students till colleges reopen in June. And exams in India are a terrible torment, given that, by and large, they are memory-oriented and content-based. As a student, I hated taking exams. And, now, as a teacher, I give exams. It's indeed one of life's little ironies! 

But I must remind myself that this post shouldn't be a diatribe against exams; it should be serious, responsible and useful. A friend brought his child to me and asked me to give her some tips -- some "inside information," as he called it -- for tackling exams. I did so with a straight face keeping in mind the key expression, inside information.

Inside information.  I liked that phrase.  As an insider, I know a thing or two about my fellow-insiders – the people who set exams and mark answers.  Knowing what kind of people they are and what will be acceptable to them will go a long way towards your securing a high score, even if you have a wonderful memory, which is basically what is tested in examinations in this country.

Examiners like neat writing.  If you have a good hand, you certainly have an advantage (not just an edge) over people whose answers are as good – or as bad – as yours.  This I discovered even as an outsider forty-three years ago.  I hadn’t expected to get more than 80 per cent in history and geography in my SSLC examination.  But I got 92 – the highest in the state of Tamil Nadu.  The extra 12, I’m sure, was for my handwriting.

Secondly, a typical examiner is a stick-in-the-mud.  So, you would do well to take the old line.  For instance, if, in the English exam, you are given the sentence, “It is me”, for correction, correct it as ‘It is I”; don’t write that there is no error in the sentence.  I know that you have heard native English people say, “It’s me” on BBC, HBO and sundry other channels, including some of our own like NDTV, CNN IBN and Times Now.  But the problem is that your examiners don’t seem to watch these channels.  In fact, “It is me” is as old as Shakespeare: in Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew says, “That’s me, I warrant you.”  Today, if someone is quirky enough to say, “It is I”, we must insist that he say, “Whither goest thou?” instead of “Where are you going?”  But the English teacher and the grammar book he has prescribed are quirky enough to believe that “It is I” is the correct form.  But give them what they want; the game you are playing in those three hours is a numbers game after all.

Thirdly, examiners love length.  If the word limit prescribed for an essay is 200 words, don't be so stupid as to use just 200 words and disappoint your examiner.  Use at least 300.  My wife often tells me that, during a meal, when I say, 'Enough,' I actually mean, 'Some more.' So is it in exams. The more, the merrier.

Fourthly, if you don’t know the answer to a question and decide to waffle away, be sensible at least in your first paragraph.  Once I evaluated a script which had tolerable first paragraphs with trash in the rest.  Curiosity led me to go in search of the earlier years’ scripts of the same student. (It's possible in an autonomous college.)  Decorated trash – that’s what I found in them: the scoundrel had got it down to a fine art.  And the rubbish had been ticked and given high marks!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Thoughts occasioned by Women's Day

I set about reflecting on the significance of the day while taking a walk this morning amid quite a few middle-aged and elderly women in a park just four blocks away from my house. (In the initial years of my stay in the place, I used to wonder why the male of our species and young women didn’t come to the park for a walk, but, soon, I took it for granted that the park was not for them. Over the years, the women have grown tolerant towards both my company and my Telugu.)

The reflection was on women empowerment, and it wasn’t quite a walk in the park. Two thoughts about the empowerment of women in India crossed my mind.  Both concerned urban working women – a category I am familiar with.  One of the thoughts was about the role society has set for working women, and the other was about the role women themselves choose to play.  While their acquiescence in the former doesn't seem to indicate to me empowerment of any significance, their performance in the latter shows that, in exercising their freedom of choice, they have adopted a model which can only enfeeble them rather than empower them.

Urban working women in India are better placed than their rural counterparts because education and employment have secured them a status in society.  They are no longer mere housewives and mothers; their employment has enhanced their position.  A large number of them have made noteworthy achievements in their professions, gaining recognition and prestige in society, and this has boosted their self-confidence.  This is certainly empowerment.

But the picture will look different if you consider the role a working woman actually performs within her family.  Her sharing her husband's traditional role as a breadwinner of the family doesn't seem to involve a corresponding change in her own traditional role as a homemaker.  The husband's role continues to be more or less the same in the family, while the wife struggles to do justice to her domestic responsibilities on the one hand and her additional role as a working woman on the other.  If societal values and familial expectations regard women's traditional role within the family as natural, working women themselves acquiesce in this unjust arrangement, thereby perpetuating inequality within the family.  What seemed empowerment at first sight is thus little more than a glittering façade.

My second thought is related to what Mary Anne Dolan, former editor of The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, said about two-and-a-half decades ago in an insightful article entitled, 'Why Feminism Failed'.  In her opinion, working women could have empowered themselves professionally if they had developed a culture different from that which characterized the male world; instead, they had simply followed the iconic male model.  ‘Out of some ancient fear, like slaves who can't give up their masters, women with decision-making powers clung either to male bosses or male models,’ said Dolan.

What constitute the iconic male model, according to Dolan?  Worship of power and money, ruthless pursuit of success, belief in coercion rather than cooperation, practice of the well-proven policy of divide-and-rule, bureaucratic attitude, faith in the so-called superior prowess of men against all evidence, and an utter lack of understanding of fellow women professional's problems and concerns.  At The Herald, which had the first 50/50-male/female masthead in the USA, Dolan only found women in executive positions taking on "the worst aspects of the stereotypical corporate ladder-climbing male."

Dolan said that in 1988.  In the years that have followed, women have gained greater access to male worlds.  But in their functioning, they have adopted man as the role model.  Their essential creed continues to be an ancient one, the male one: Power first.  This, in my opinion, acts as a limiting factor.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Potter and Wallace for folk with little imagination?

About a month ago, on a journey to Gudlavalleru, a sleepy little village about an hour’s drive from Vijayawada, I was led to talk about what Meenakshi Mukherjee had said about three-and-a-half decades ago in a perceptive article titled, ‘Teaching Literature to a Sub-Culture.’ In the article, Mukherjee had complained about what in her perception was a tremendous gap between the classroom sensibility which was switched on for the occasion, and the normal sensibility that operated in real life. When her English literature students came to the classroom, they discussed Yeats and Eliot with diligence and care and took part in discussions with suitable animation, but, when they went out, they only read Barbara Cartland, Harold Robins, James Hadley Chase, and, of course, what was unavoidable and inevitable for college students in those days – Mills and Boon!

With me in the car was Usha, who was teaching English literature in a university. I told Usha about the Mukherjee article and asked, ‘But that was in a different age. Now, do English literature students read fiction in English at all for pleasure? For that matter, do they read anything in English at all for pleasure?’

‘They read stuff like Shoba de,’ she said with some reluctance and even shame.

Her reluctance made me look back on a controversy I encountered in the world of letters over a decade ago when I was regularly launching Harry Potter books at Ashok Book Centre in Vijayawada, giving talks to children on the Potter novels, and even conducting Potter workshops occasionally.

It was AS Byatt, a British novelist, who stirred up a real hornet's nest when she said, in her column in the New York Times, which I was reading almost regularly on the Internet during those days, that the Harry Potter books were written for people with "little imaginations" -- people whose interests were confined to the "worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip".  If an ordinary person had made this comment, it would have been ignored.  But, Byatt was far from being ordinary: she was one of England's foremost writers and a distinguished critic.  Angry Potter lovers from different parts of the world registered a strong protest.  Some even hit the critic below the belt by attributing motives to her.

In spite of my Potter talks and workshops, which gave me good publicity, I didn’t quite jump on the Potter bandwagon and cry out that there were drops of sour grapes in Byatt's charge.  I was by no means a Potter lover, and I even felt that the obsession with Harry Potter was going a bit too far, thanks to an indoctrinating advertising campaign which presented the Potter books as "must have" merchandise.  At the same time, I must concede that, in spite of my being rather eggheaded (you can't help it if you have taught serious literature for a good three decades), I enjoyed reading the Potter books.  And, I insist, I didn't find the books candyfloss for the brain.  Either I was – and I am even now –  a person with very little imagination, or Byatt is outrageously wrong.

Byatt's concept of "limited imagination" is difficult to accept.  The Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary defines imagination as "the ability that you have to think of and form pictures of ideas in your mind of things that are different, interesting, or exciting".  It follows, then, that a limited imagination is one that is unable to appreciate a wide range of books.  There should be – there is! – room in literature for all kinds of works.  If Greene and Orwell and Falukner and Fitzgerald have an assured place in literature, so, I believe, have Wodehouse and Dahl and Carroll and Rowling and Irwing Wallace and Amish. Incidentally, I have just finished reading Wallace’s The Prize decades after I had originally read it when I was a student of literature.

In any case, a little imagination, as someone in some other context so perceptively pointed out, is better than no imagination.  Any book that inspires children to read and use their imagination in this day and age is certainly good.  And Potter books have proved that they can do it.  I believe that they have the potential to encourage children to go beyond Potter.

It looks as though the bane of Potter, Wodehouse, Wallace and Amish is their popularity.  When a book is read by a large number of ordinary people, one tends to conclude that the book must be mediocre.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Workshop on CPD begins - The Hindu

Workshop on CPD begins - The Hindu

One of the significant workshops run by me - significant not just because it was a CPD workshop sponsored by the British Council but because it was held in a college in a rural area, and all the participants, who were teachers of English from schools, colleges and a university, were from institutions in rural areas. They showed remarkable interest in learning about the procedures available for continuing professional development (CPD) on the Reflective Model, worked hard, drew up action plans for their CPD with great enthusiasm , and gave me enough indications that they would implement the plans in their institutions.

The workshop was organised by my former student, Kalyan Sharma, who has recently won an ELT Research Partnership (ELTRP 2013) award from the British Council. The workshop was organised as part of the ELTRP project.