This isn’t finishing school

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IIT Delhi’s Self Enrichment Programme was derided as being an ‘etiquette class’. Turns out the course isn’t all that bad, says Yamini Deenadayalan

Illustrations: Samia Singh

WHAT I couldn’t learn in 18 years, I learned in seven days,” said Mikhil Raj, reading out frantically from behind the podium. Raj is one of the newest students at IIT Delhi. He’d arrived a week early to attend a Self Enrichment Programme. This is the same programme that earned the institution a fair share of shock when reports got out a month ago that the IIT was organising ‘etiquette’ classes for SC/ST students. IIT Delhi found it impossible to convince anyone that this was not a patronising exercise guaranteed to deepen the alienation that SC/ST students often feel. But here we are at the valedictory function of the course. And here is Raj,among a group of 109 students who took the course and lived to tell the tale.

If precedent is anything to go by, IIT Delhi is on to a reasonably good thing. The programme has been organised by CREST, a Kerala-based organisation that over the past nine years has established an excellent reputation for its five-month Certificate Course for Professional Development (CCPD), open to Dalit and Adivasi graduates. At first, the course was only for students in Kerala but now CREST offers programmes at IIT Bombay and National Institute of Technology, Suratkal. It offers communication, managerial, IT skills, personality development and entrepreneurship.

After getting flak from the media for treating SC/ST students in ways that “smacked of apartheid”, IIT Delhi said the course was open to all and chose 109 students based on their family income. (Santanu Chaudhury, the dean of undergraduate studies at IIT Delhi, said that the word “etiquette” was never used and that it was motivated reporting by the media.) Of the 109, 72 were SC/ST students. The others were from the OBC and general category.

THE VALEDICTORY function is like any school event you have ever attended. Overly optimistic and self-congratulatory depending on whether it was a student or a professor speaking. One professor: You have all the freedom at the IIT, and now you have the selfconfidence needed to take on the four years ahead. It may have been true with a fullfledged course but with a one-week programme this seems like wishful thinking.

The function continues. As formal and rehearsed as any school event, it somehow manages to be not boring. The IITs have recently been criticised for their inability to integrate the reserved category students and give them sufficient remedial help. They offer an English language course in the first semester for students from non-English medium schools but the course largely focusses on grammar instead of emphasising on English skills for the study of science.

After the function, most of the students, including Raj, are cheerful. They agree that the theatre workshops, communication skills, and English for academic writing had a profound effect on their confidence. Ashok Kumar Meena, 17, left Dausa, Rajasthan, for the first time in his life to join the B Tech Programme in Electrical Engineering at IIT. His father is a schoolteacher and his mother a housewife. “When I arrived, I saw the standard of the people here and freaked out. I couldn’t even say my name in front of them and felt homesick. But now I feel so much prem for my team members,” says Ashok, who studied in a Hindi medium school. At the function, he played a clerk at a government office perpetually on the phone with his girlfriend. He brought the house down with laughter. Ashok is the best example of the transformative magic of theatre-based education.

Avinash Pillai, the National School of Drama-trained theatre instructor, says that it might take students like Meena 10-15 years to be fluent in English. “What is important is to dispel this colonial hangover, the idea that the study of science is a western thing. Pride in your mother tongue is a huge source of confidence,” says Pillai. The theatre performances, many of them in Hindi, did reveal self-confidence and talent. A group of boys who played touts to a foreign couple or the corrupt government official flirting on the phone with his girlfriend, were clearly enjoying themselves on stage. So when dean Santanu Chaudhury says students who took this course last year passed in 50 percent more subjects than SC/ST students who did not and were also more involved in campus activity, you can’t be too sceptical.

SHALINI MATTA, 19, is from Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. On stage, she had played an obsessive Rajinikanth fan, milking the laughs from the audience with her pujas for the superstar. Matta talks about a session on personal space that made an impression on her. The nature of the session also indicates how broadly CREST defines its mandate. In the game, she imagined standing in a lift with her teacher. At each imaginary floor, a few boys walked in. “I am a girl. As more boys entered the ‘lift’, my expression changed. They, in turn, learnt to be aware of this and stepped back. Sometimes we cross boundaries of personal space even though we are sub-consciously aware of them. This course clearly defined these things for us,” says Matta.

When a student made a grammatical mistake in his speech, the audience (200-odd students and teachers) started giggling

Eighteen-year-olds should be allowed such world-conquering optimism but IIT Delhi could be a little less starry-eyed. We are, remember, still in an auditorium of teenagers from vastly different backgrounds. When one of the students made a grammatical mistake in his speech, the audience (200 odd students and teachers) started giggling. The nuances of cool are already well defined into pockets of accent, attire and academic success. To isolate a group of ‘disadvantaged students’ and train them in life skills over a period of seven days and deem them ready to take on four years of rigorous academics at the IIT is at best a cosmetic exercise.

Damodaran Nampoothiri, director of the CREST course, says it is easier to work with undergraduate students than the post-graduates “because they are more malleable to changes in persona” but agrees that longer sessions would be more meaningful.

IIT Delhi is considering ways in which these modules can be incorporated in the curriculum over the years. “This is only a starting point,” says the dean. Nirbhay Gupta, an OBC engineering student from Bareilly, UP, starts on a mildly superior note about the course. “The rural students are not as forthcoming as us.” But he continues, “While this week was a great experience, we’d like a CREST course every semester. Otherwise, we are alone for the next four years.” Everyone we spoke to, like Gupta, spoke of a great sense of bonding with other students in the course. Which leaves us with a twist on the old quandary. Students in the reserved categories do not appreciate being outed to the rest of the institution. But here is an example of how the outing can be powerful.

One can only imagine how transformative it would be if all 845 undergraduate students spent two hours a week doing theatre and communication exercises. And if the courses were part of an empowering environment. As Dalit activist Anoop Kumar points out, orientation programmes should include the ‘advantaged students’, reservation and caste should be spoken about openly.

The entire function passed without much talk of caste. This is like having a sex education class without talking about sex. Unless, of course, “humble backgrounds” is a euphemism for the forbidden C word.

Yamini Deendayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka.
yamini@tehelka.com

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