“They don’t even touch a good text-book!”

“They don’t even touch a good text-book!”

This line is a very common refrain that one often hears in faculty rooms or professors’ cabins, in engineering colleges in India.

Speaking in factual terms, there is a lot of truth to it. The assertion itself is overwhelmingly true. The fact that the student has never looked into a good (or “reference” or “foreign authors'”) text is immediately plain and clear to anyone who has ever graded their examination papers, or worked as an examiner on the oral/viva voce examinations.

The undergraduate Indian students these days, esp. those in Pune and Mumbai, and esp. those in the private engineering colleges, always refer to only a locally published text for all their studies.

These texts are published by a few local publishers well known to the students (and their professors). I wouldn’t mind dropping a few names: Nirali, Pragati, TechMax, etc. The books are published at almost throw-away prices (e.g. Rs. 200–300). (There also exists a highly organized market for the second-hand books. No name written, no pencil marks? Some 75% of the cost returned. Etc. There is a bold print, too—provided, the syllabus hasn’t changed in the meanwhile. In that case, there is no resale value whatsoever!)

The authors of these texts themselves are professors in these same private engineering colleges. They know the system in and out. No, I am not even hinting at any deliberate fraud or malpractice here. Quite on the contrary.

The professors who write these local text-books often are enthusiastic teachers themselves. You would have to be very enthusiastic, because the royalties they “command” could be as low as a one-time payment of Rs. 50,000/- or so. The payment is always only a one-time payment (meaning, there are no recurring royalties even if a text book becomes a “hit”), and it never exceeds Rs. 1.5 lakhs lump-sum or so. (My figures are about 5 year old.) Even if each line is copied verbatim from other books, the sheer act of having to write down (and then proof-read) some 200 to 350 pages requires for the author to invest, I have been told, between 2 to 4 months, working overtime, neglecting family and all. The monthly salary of these professors these days can easily approach or exceed Rs. 1 lakh. So, clearly, money is not the prime motivation here. It has to be something else: Enthusiasm, love of teaching, or even just the respect or reputation that an author hopes to derive in the sub-community of these local engineering colleges!

These professors—the authors—also often are well experienced (15–40 years of teaching experience is common), and they know enough to know what kind of examination questions are likely to come up on the university examinations. (They themselves have gone through the same universities.) They write these books targeting only task: writing the marks-scoring answers on those university examinations. Thus, these “text” books are more or less nothing but a student aid (or what earlier used to be called the “guide” books).

It in fact has evolved into a separate genre by itself. Contrary to an impression wide-spread among professors of private engineering colleges in India, there in fact are somewhat similar books also used heavily by the students in the USA. Thus, these local Indian books are nothing but an improvised version of the Schaums’ series in science and engineering (or the Sparks Notes in the humanities, in the US schools).

But there is a further feature here. There is a total customization thrown in here. These local books are now-a-days written (or at least adapted) to exactly match the detailed syllabus of each university separately. So, there are different books, by the same author and for the same subject, but one for Mumbai University, and the other for Pune University, etc. Students never mix up the universities.

The syllabus for each university is followed literally, down to dividing the text into chapters as per the headings of the modules mentioned in the syllabus (usually six per course), and dividing each chapter into sections, with the headings and order of these sections strictly following the order and the letter of the syllabus. The text in each section is followed by a compilation of the past university examination questions (of that same university) pertaining to that particular section alone. Most of these past examination questions are solved in the text—that’s the bulk of the book. When the opening page of a chapter lists the sections in it, the list also carries, in the parentheses, whether this section is “theory” or “numericals”.

Overall, the idea is, even just looking at the “text” book, a student can easily anticipate whether a question is likely to be asked on a given section or not, and if yes, of what kind. The students also work out many logics: “Every semester, they have asked a question on this section. So we have to mug it up well.” Or, playing the “contra”: “Last three semesters, not a single question here? It’s going to come this time round.” Etc. (Yes, I followed this practice in my lectures, too—I did want my students to score well on the final university examinations, after all!)

The customization, for each revision of the syllabus of each university, is done down to that level of detail. So, for the first year course on electrical engineering, you have one text-book of title, say, Electrical Engg. (FE), Pune University, 2012 course, and another text book, now of the title, say, Basic Electrical Technology (FE), Mumbai University, 2011 course. Etc.

That’s what I mean, when I use the phrase the “local” text-books.

I certainly don’t mean the SI Units editions of American texts, or the Indian Standards-adapted editions of reputed texts (such as, say, Shigley’s on design or Thomson and Dahleh’s on vibrations). I don’t mean the inexpensive Indian editions of foreign texts (such as those by Pearson, Wiley, ELBS, etc.) I also don’t mean the text-books written by the well-known Indian authors working right in India (such as those by IIT professors, and published by, say, Universities Press, Narosa, or PHI). I don’t even mean the more general text-books written for Indian universities and/or the AMIE examinations (such as those by S. Chand, Khanna, CBS, etc.). When I say “local” text-books, I specifically mean the books of the kind mentioned above.

Undergraduate students in Pune and Mumbai these days refer only to these local books.

They (really) don’t even bother to touch a good reference text, even if it’s available on the college library shelf.

In contrast, in our times, the problem was, we simply didn’t have the “foreign authors'” texts available to us—not always even in the COEP library. In those days, sometimes, such books happened to be too expensive, even for COEP’s library. And, even back then, Shahani’s text-books anyway were available. But at least, they didn’t cater to only the Pune university (they would list problems from universities as far flung as Madras, Gorakhpur, Agra, Allahabad, etc.) And, in fact, these books were generally looked down upon. Even by the students themselves.

The contrast to today’s situation is too glaring. Naturally, professors sometimes do end up saying the title line with a tone of exasperation.

Yes, I used to sometimes say that line myself, of course with sarcasm, when I taught in the late ’80s in the Pune of those days. (The situation back then was not so acute.) Almost as if by habit, I also repeated the line when I more recently taught a course at COEP (2009, FEM). However, observing students, somehow, my line had somehow begun to lose that cutting edge it once had. First, at COEP, I had the freedom to design this course (on FEM), and they did buy at least Logan and/or Cook. (Even if I was distributing my PDF notes.) And, there was something else to it, too. I somehow got a vague feel that it somehow wouldn’t be fully right to blame students (I mean COEP students in general). However, my COEP stint was only for one semester, only for one course, and only as a visiting faculty. So, the vague feel simply remained what it was—just a vague feel.

Then, recently in 2014, when I began teaching at a private engineering college in Mumbai, I once again heard this line from the other professors. And, I used it myself too. With the usual sarcasm. I did that perhaps for the most part of my first semester there.

However, some way down the line, I once again got that vague feel that, may be, something was “wrong” somewhere, even here, in Mumbai: these kids really were trying to be sincere, and yet, for some reason unknown to me, they still wouldn’t at all refer to good texts.

This is an aside, but I can tell you that it’s very easy to read the faces of the insincere people, esp. when they are young. There are some insincere students too. But, at least going by my own experience, they are in a minority. (It is a headache-some minority. Yet, by numerical magnitude alone, it certainly is in a small minority.) I am not saying this to be politically correct, or to win points from students. What I said is the factual case. In fact, my experience is that when it comes to in-sincerity, parents easily outperform their children. May be because, the specific parents that we mostly end up seeing in college are those whose kids have some problem—low attendance, fee payments, other issues, etc. The parents with whom we get to interact really well, thus, happens to be a self-selected sub-group. They aren’t necessarily representative of all parents… Yet, I am also sure that that’s not the real reason why I think parents can easily be more insincere. I think the real reason is that, at their age, the kids are actually unable to fake too much. It’s far easier for them to be sincere than to be a fake and still get away with it. They just can’t manage it, regardless of their desire. And, looking at it in a better light, I here remember what Ayn Rand had once said in a somewhat similar context, “one doesn’t start out in life by spitting on one’s own face—it’s not in the essential nature of life” or something like that. (Off-hand, I think, it was in the preface to the 25th anniversity edition of The Fountainhead.) So, the kids, by and large, are sincere. … By the time they themselves become parents—well, let’s leave that story right here. (We need them to make all those fee payments, anyway…)

So, coming back to the main thread, I would anyway generally chat with the students, and so, I started asking, esp. some of the more talkative students, the reason why they might not be referring to good texts. After all, in my lectures, I would try to provide very specific references: specific section numbers or even page numbers, in a specific edition of a specific reference text. (And these texts were available in the college library.) Why, I once had even distributed an original research paper. (It was Griffth’s seminal 1920 paper starting the field of fracture mechanics. Griffith’s argument here is rather conceptual, and the paper has surprisingly very little maths. Whatever the maths there is, it is very easily accessible to the SE students, too.)

The result of my initial attempts to understand the reason (why students don’t read good texts) was not so encouraging. The talkative students began dropping by my cabin once in a while, asking which section to use while answering a certain assignment question or so. However, they still only rarely used those better texts, when it came to actually completing their assignments. And, in the unit tests (and in the final end-sem examination), they invariably ended up quoting only the local text books (whether verbatim or not).

The exercise was, thus, futile. And yet, the students’ sincerity—at least the sincerity of their desire, as in contrast to their actions—could not be put in doubt.

So, I took it as a challenge. I set this as a problem for myself: To discover the main reason(s) why my students don’t refer to good text-books. The real underlying reason(s), regardless of whatever they otherwise did to impress me.

It took a while for me to crack the problem. I would anyway generally chat with them, enquiring where they lived, what their parents did, about their friends and brothers and sisters, etc. In addition, I would also observe, now with this new challenge somewhere at the back of my mind, how they behaved (or rushed around) in college: in hallways, labs, canteen, college ground, even at the bus-stop just outside the college, etc.

…Finally, I got it! At least one reason, a main reason, a systemic reason that applied even to those who otherwise were good, talented, curious, or just plain sincere.

As soon as I discovered the reason, I shared it with every one. In fact, I first shared it with my students, before I did with my colleagues or superiors. The answer lies in an Excel spreadsheet, here [^]. (It actually was created in OpenOffice Calc, on Windows 7.)  Go ahead, download it, and play with it a bit. The embedded formulae should be self-explanatory.

The numbers used in the spreadsheet may differ. The specific numbers I have used in the spreadsheet refer to my estimates while working at a college in Mumbai, in particular, in Navi Mumbai. In Mumbai, the time lost commuting is really an issue. If a student lives in Thane or Andheri and attends a college in Navi Mumbai, he easily spends about 3–4 hours in the daily commute (home->bus->railway station/second bus/metro–>another bus or six-seater, all of it taking about 1.5 hours one way, or more). In Pune, the situation is much more heterogeneous. One student could be spending 3 hours commuting both ways (think: from Nigdi to VIT) whereas some other student could be just happily walking to the college campus (think: Paud Phata residents, and MIT). It all depends. In Pune, many students would be using two-wheelers. In any case, for a professor, the only practical guideline for the entire class that he can at all use, would have to be statistical in nature. So, it’s the class average for the daily commute time that matters. For Mumbai in general, it could be 2–3 hours, for Pune students, it could be, say, between 1 to 2 hours (both ways put together).

So Pune is a bit easier on students. In contrast, for many of my Mumbai students, the situation was bad (or even very bad), and they were trying hard (or very hard) to make the best of it. It must have been at least a bit frustrating to them when professors like me, on the top of everything, were demanding making references to good foreign texts, and openly using a sarcastic tone—even if generously laced with humor—if they didn’t. It must have been frustrating to at least 40–60% of them. (The number is my estimate of those who were genuinely interested in referring to good books, even if only for the better-drawn and colorful diagrams, photographs, and also mathematical proofs that came without errors or without arbitrary replacement of \partial by d.)

And why do I say that it must have been frustrating? Why didn’t I say it might have been frustrating?

Because, I cannot ever forget that look of that incredibly honest appreciation which slowly appeared on all their faces (including the faces of the “back-benchers”), as I shared my discovery in detail with them.

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

How about your college? Your case?

Do you have the time to read good, lengthy, or conceptually clarifying “reference” texts? Say, Timoshenko (app. mech. and strength of materials); Shames, or Popov (strength of materials); White, or Fox & McDonald, or Som & Biswas (Fluid Mech.); Holman, or Nag, or Sukhatme (Heat Transfer)?

And, if you do, do you spend time reading these texts? If yes, did you complete them (I mean only the portion relevant to the syllabus) in the same semester that you were learning or teaching the subject for the first time? Could you have?

And yes, in my last sentence, I have included “teaching” too. My questions are directed to the professors too. In fact, my questions are directed, first and foremost, only at them.

After all, it is the professors—or at least some of us—who are in the driver’s seat here; the students never are. It is the professors who (i) design the syllabii as well as the examination schemes (including the number of tests to have and their nature), (ii) decide on the number of assignments (and leave no opportunity to level criticism in our capacity as External Examiners, if the length or difficulty of an assignment falls short), (iii) decide on the course text-books (and take due care to list more than 5 prescribed text-books, and more than 10 reference books per course) (iv) decide on the student attendance criteria in detail, up to the individual course level, and report on the defaulting students (and follow through with the meetings with their parents) every two weeks or at least once a month, (v) set the examination papers according to the established pattern—after all, it’s only us who is going to check the papers!, (vi) sometimes, write those local text-books!, and (vii) also keep the expectation that students should somehow show in their final university examination answer books, some evidence of having gone through some good, thick, reference texts, too. Whether we ourselves had managed to do that during our own UG years or not!

And, yes, I also want the IIX professors to ponder over these matters. All their students enjoy a fully residential program; these kids from these private engineering colleges mostly don’t. They at IIXs always get to design all their course syllabii and decide on the examination patterns, and they even get to enjoy the sole responsibility to grade their students. The possibility of adopting a marks normalization scheme, after the examination, always lies at hand, with them, just in case a topic took too long with a certain class or so… Are they then being reasonable in their request demand that the students of these “other” engineering colleges in India be well-read enough, at least by the time the students join them at IIXs for ME/MTech studies?

As to me, no, as I indicated in my earlier posts, while being a professor, I could not always find the time to do that—referring to good text-books. I tried, but basically my situation wasn’t much different from that of my students—we both were short on the available time. So, I didn’t always succeed.

[As to my own UG years, it was mixed: I did hunt for months, and got my hands on, the books like Reed-Hill, White, Holman, etc. However, I would be dishonest if I claimed that it was right during my UG years that I had got whatever I did, from books like these. In my case, the learning continued for years. Yes, I even bought and religiously studied once again even Thomas & Finney’s calculus, when I was in my PhD program at UAB. Despite my attempts during the UG years, I really cannot ascribe a large part, or even a significant part of my current understanding to my UG years. Your case may be different; I was just narrating my own experience.]

… And, as far making references to good books goes, now that I do have time at my hand these days, there is another problem: I don’t know what course in particular I will be teaching the next semester, and where—or for that matter, whether some college will even hire me in the first place, or not.

So, I end up “wasting” my time writing blog posts like this one. Thus, I, too, end up not touching a good reference text!

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “aane waalaa pal, jaane waalaa hai…”
Lyrics: Gulzaar
Singer: Kishor Kumar
Music: R. D. Burman

[I will go over this post once again, editing it, and may be adding a bit here and there. Done. This post is already too long. So, I will write another post—a brief one—to jot down some tips to make the best possible use of the student’s time—including my suggestions to the engineering colleges as to what they can do to help the students. Also, my take on whether the system as noted above has diluted the quality of education or not—esp. as in contrast to what we had as UG students at COEP more than three decades ago.]




One thought on ““They don’t even touch a good text-book!”

  1. Dear Ajit Sir,

    I am teaching a Reinforced Concrete Design Course at a private college in Tamil Nadu. I am using RCDesign by S. Pillai and D.Menon. I make slides covering the main ideas in the book and present them in the class. Hardly 5 classes have gone by, the students come and say, “Sir, we are not able to follow the textbook. Why dont you teach the examples presented in Ramammrutham? It is so simple and direct.” After reading your entry, I find the situation is similar in other colleges also!


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