From the horses’ mouths

My first choice for the title was: “From the Nobel Laureate’s Mouth”; I had spotted only the opinion piece by Professor David Gross in yesterday’s Indian Express [^]. Doing the ‘net search today for the URI link to provide here, I found that there also were three other Nobel laureates, also joined by one Fields Medalists. And they all were saying more or less the same thing [^].

… That way, coming from a Marathi-medium schooling background, I had always had a bit of suspicion for the phrase “from the horse’s mouth.” It seemed OK to use in the news reports when, say, a wrong-doer admits his wrong. But purely going by the usage, I could see that the phrase would also be used in the sense: “from the top-gun himself,” or “from the otherwise silent doer himself.” This guess turns out to be right [^]. Further, since there were as many as five “horses” here, the word to be used would have to be in the plural, and if you say it aloud: “From the horses’ mouths” [go ahead, say it aloud, sort of like:“horseses” mouth) it really sounds perfect (for something to be posted on the ‘net).

So, that’s how comes the title.

As to the horses’ thoughts… Ummm…

[But please, please, give me just a moment to get back to the title again, and congratulate me for not having chosen a title like: “From Dave Himself.” You see, Professor David Gross had visited COEP in 2013, and I might have been, you know, within 50 meters of where he was sitting. I mean, of all places, in the COEP campus! Right in the COEP campus!! [^]. Obviously, you must compliment me for my sense of restraint, of making understatements.]

OK. As to their thoughts… Umm….

I think these guys are being way too optimistic. Also naive.

Without substantial economic reforms, I see no possibility of the Indian Science in general undergoing any significant transformation yet again. And substantial economic reforms aren’t happening here any more. In fact, no one is even talking about it, any more. [Check out Arnab’s hours, or Sardesai’s, or Dutt’s, if you want to find out what they are talking about. [I don’t, because I know.]]

It was the 1991 that could propel, say a Mashelkar into prominence several years later, and help transform the 70+ CSIR labs from something like less than 100 patents a year, to thousands of them per year—all within a matter of a few years [less than a decade, to be sure]. If the same momentum were to be kept, the figure should have gone up to at least tens of thousands of patents by the CSIR labs alone—and with a substantial increase in the share of the international patents among them. Ditto, for the high-quality international journal papers.

Why didn’t any of it happen? Plain and clear. The momentum created by the economic liberalization of the early 1990s has been all but lost. Come on, face it, 1991 was twenty-five years ago.

To an anthropologist, 25 years is like an entire generation! More than enough of a time to lose any half-hearted momentum (which, despite the hysterical Indian press, the liberalization in the early 1990s was).

It’s been years that we entered the staleness 2.0 of the mixed economy 1.0. Even today, the situation continues “as is,” despite a change of regime in New Delhi. Yes, even under “Modiji.” [I am quoting Professor Gross—I mean the word.]

But, yes, the five gentlemen were also being realistic: Each one of them emphasized decades.

Decades of sustained efforts would have to go in, before the fruits could begin to be had. [But you know that decades isn’t a very long period—just recall what was happening to India’s economy some two decades ago—in the mid ’90s.]

Talking of how realistic they actually were being, Haroche even pointed out the lack of freedom in China [obvious to any one outside of California], and its presence in Europe [I don’t know about that] and in India [yeah, right!].

But anyway, it’s nice to hear something like this being highlighted after an Indian Science Congress, rather than, say, “vimaanshaastra.”

Both happened during “Modiji”’s tenure. So what is it that really accounts for the difference? I have no idea. (It can’t be a “pravaasi” whatever, to be sure; they would be too busy booking the next Olympics-size stadium.)

Whoever within the organizers of the Congress was responsible for the difference, compliments are due to him. (Hindi) “der se kiyaa lekin kuchh achhaa hi to kiyaa.”

In the meanwhile, bring out your non-programmable desk calculators and do some exercises: $0.8 \times \dots$, $2.7 \times \dots$, $4.4 \times \dots$ and $2.1 \times \dots$. Oh well, you will have to refer to the ‘net.

OK then. Find out also the R&D spending by, say, (i) Baba Ramdev’s pharmaceutical industries, (ii) the top or most well-established five industrial groups in India (Reliance, Tatas, Mittals, whoever…), and (iii) the top three (or five) Indian IT firms. Compare them to those in the advanced countries. Let your comparisons be comparable: pharma to pharma; oil, steel and engineering (and salt!) to oil, steel and engineering (and salt!); IT to IT [engineering IT to engineering IT]; overall (GDP) to overall (GDP).

And, never forget that bit about freedom. Don’t just count the beans “spent” on research. Think also about whether it is the government spending or the private spending, and where the expenditure occurs (in private universities, private labs, independently run government labs, public universities in a country with a past of a private control, etc., or in the in-service-pensioner’s-paradises with something like “laboratory” in their titles).

But why didn’t the “horses” cite any specific statistics about how many Indian students go abroad for their graduate studies, and choose to permanently settle there—their trends?

Obvious: Nobel and Fields laureates (and in fact any visiting dignitaries to any country (and in fact any visitors to a foreign country)) generally tend to be more polite, and so tend to make understatements when it comes to criticism (of that host country). That’s why.

A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “kahin naa jaa…”
Music: R. D. Burman
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Singers: Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar

[E&OE]

2 thoughts on “From the horses’ mouths”

1. ajay says:

hello sir,
I am M.tech with Machine design specialization from VJTI in 2014.I work in a private company.But I am tired of this work and so I have applied to a post of assistant professor in few private colleges.I want to ask that do professors in private colleges get 2-month holiday during summer vacations (as there are no lectures) or they are made to do some other work during that period?

Yes, there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes at all times, including in vacations, even if students (and their parents) have absolutely no clue about it.

To begin with, there are no two months. It’s barely 2–3 weeks (or less). Check out the academic calendars of the Maharashtra universities; they are there on the ‘net.

Typically, during the supposed “vacation” (of those few weeks) a professor (in a private engineering college in Maharashtra) would be busy with things like the following:

(i) Conducting term-work, practical, and oral examinations for hundreds of mostly clueless students,

(ii) Completing the course-file for the past semester (or answering HoD’s queries re. the same—even if it’s a third-class college),

(iii) Doing University examination-supervision duty (running for 2–3 weeks, for at least 4 days a week for at least one paper per day or other junior/supervisor/coordinator/organizer/etc. duty, and filling up an endless number of forms, sealing the envelops, etc. kind of duties),

(iv) Grading [literally] *hundreds* of the university final exam. papers within the strict CAP system.

The fun begins with bringing out your non-programmable desk calculator, and first solving the entire paper, with all the options—the model answers don’t always arrive in time. This part of the fun includes understanding what the paper-setter really wanted to ask. English in the question papers is typically poor, and there always are printing mistakes. Necessary data sometimes are not given, and you still have to do justice to the student.

In the answer-books, hand-writing often is only barely legible. Sometimes, the write-up overall is actually indicative of deep mental retardation.

An even more reasonable assumption is that students have written their answers in _any_ sequence (e.g. 1b followed by 7d followed by 3c followed by the second attempt for 1b, etc.), and you are supposed neither to double-count the marks nor to forget the scheme of options—or else, either the student’s parents will sue you. [The parents can easily be rich and/or Very Powerful, in today’s India—with their *wards* explicitly saying to you: “I spend more per month on my food than you earn” or “I have a costlier BlackBerry than your monthly salary,” (both are real-life quotes, said not to me, but to junior colleagues, and I have confirmed the fact by directly talking to the concerned students). As a junior faculty, you have no recourse except to your senior colleagues [like me] for expressing your anguish, but without *any* *real* punishment [or anything close] ever going the student’s ways.

If you make too many mistakes, it can easily result in a moderator making a remark.

(v) Preparing for the next semester’s course.

But you would be lucky if you get to know *that*—your next subject—right during the “vacations” before the next sem.

In my case, this semester was the third time in the past two academic years when either I was introduced in the middle of an on-going semester, or my subject was changed some 1.5 months *after* the beginning of the term. And I am a (full) Professor, not an Assistant Professor. (Once the change occurred because the students complained about the poor quality of the earlier teacher. None realizes, including college management, students, and parents, that even if you are a senior professor, you are not a machine; that you too require time to prepare the subject, and that jumping in the middle of an on-going course is horrible because no matter what portion the earlier teacher has covered, when you ask the students, they always say: “he didn’t teach us that portion.” (For example, if the topic of vibrations has been covered via 2 or 3 units (out of six units) in a previous course on Theory of Machines, they still say that they never were taught it, when you go to teach them FEM.) I haven’t found a single honest student who on his own came to me and said that I was only repeating the topic. Either they are diffident, or, more likely, they are careless.

With mass expansion of engineering education, the students’ quality has undergone a sea change over the past 25 years. Students of the kind who would have gone to a BA and a BCom program in our times typically fill the engineering colleges today. To make matters worse, young peoples’ attitudes also have changed a great deal over these years. A student who studies for the sake of his own understanding was a rarity even in our times. But today, it’s next to non-existent. Why? Because due to expansion of IITs and upgradation of NITs, and with the presence of some very good private colleges (very few, but they are there), all such students are already absorbed in those colleges. Students in a typical private engineering college is, mostly, careless.

They are not bad, and most of them are actually respectful. [I can definitely say that today’s students are more respectful of even a junior faculty than what was the case in the mid 1980s. In our times, “bhaDas” was the in-thing. With some prosperity after partial liberalization of the early 1990s, and with cultural swing to the right, the young today actually are more respectful of their seniors than the “angry young man” sort of days I witnessed during my youth.] They can even be pushed to work—except that it requires a constant push from the professor (like, raising your voice etc. some two–three times each week). But my point is: even after being pushed to work, they still remain basically careless about what they are doing. A typical student does not feel “tch tch, such a small mistake, and I lost those 4 marks!” after a college test. They just look at you blankly, and plead almost mindlessly if the mistake can be overlooked. If you say no, they still remain blank, and go away. Moments later, they are busy in the time-pass with friends, or are checking out their FB/WhatsApp messages.

It’s a very peculiar thing. They can (and in fact do) acknowledge your sincerity. They respect you for that. And even then, they just can’t bring themselves to a focus and sustain their efforts in *any* activity—even extra-curriculars like dramatics—with a sustained self-motivated interest. They have no self-drive. Not just about studies, but about any thing in life. (Contrary to a very wide-spread popular imagination, most of them don’t even have a craze for the shopping malls and all. Often they come from a middle-class or lower middle-class background, and the idea of spending money in malls hasn’t yet touched them at all. The lifestyle of malls and all catches their imagination only after they get absorbed in the IT companies.)

So, your working semesters will be spent corralling them, and your vacations will be spent cleaning after them and the university system.

(vi) You will also be busy writing/editing a lot of documentation related to accreditations: AICTE, NAAC, NBA, Autonomy (mostly in that order). You will also be called for the official election duties. But, contrary to another perception, these days, professors at least in the engineering colleges are *not* gathered together and sent in a bus to a village for the political canvassing of their institutional bosses, during the election days. The proper accreditation-related work itself is a big load, and you would be very busy with that. (Typically, you will be working over-time, but without any OT pay.)

All in all, you could expect to look forward to about 3–4 days of actual vacations in between the semester breaks.

Decisions regarding your career are up to you. I do expect that some of the Indian industrial “experiences” could easily compete with the typical of these Indian academia experiences. After all, both are managed under the same overall system—the *Indian* system, you see!

All the best, anyway.

–Ajit
[E&OE]