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Slacking at Ashoka: The Polarizing Ashokan Academic Culture

-Sonal Rana (UG 20)

Scrolling through the Ashoka website, I found myself dazzled by the rigorous interdisciplinary academic model that Ashoka promised me. But that was three years ago. An experienced present-day me is more attentive to the nuances of the Ashokan academic culture. There is a divide that marks the liberal studies culture at Ashoka. On one hand is a collective of students who find themselves constantly coping up with the daunting academic requirements that the liberal arts programme demands of them. To put it in other words, academically, there is always catching up to do at Ashoka, simply because of the meticulous nature of liberal studies model that Ashoka endorses. On the other hand, however, there is a multitude of Ashoka students who, crudely put, put into practice a makeshift approach towards academics. Increasingly at Ashoka, students find themselves choosing the easier courses, with lenient professors, or skipping classes and managing a proxy attendance. Since participation is a key in the academic vision of liberal arts, class discussions often end up being dominated by participation for the heck of it.

One thing is clear: the academic polarization at Ashoka is significantly stark. I think all Ashokan students know the feeling of growling inside at that one (or many, depending on how unfortunate you are) ‘outspoken’ student bulshitting their way through the class discussions, even though it’s clear as day that they never once bothered to even glance through the syllabus sheet. And let’s be honest, we have all either suffered from bulshitters, or been one at some point in our academic life at Ashoka. Interestingly, the wall between being bullshitters and the victims thereof is a noticeably porous one. We’re bullshitters one day, and complaining about them the next. What does it say about the Ashokan learning community? Is academics at Ashoka a makeshift enterprise? Is Ashoka’s academic culture producing go-getters who barely pass as either learners or thinkers?

There is no denying that a majority of Ashokans finds themselves motivated by a desire for good grades, instead of knowledge per se. In that case, appetite for learning gets replaced by a greed for recognition, which is but a euphemism for managing straight A’s. Such a narrow approach cultivates an academic lethargy–a terrible cost for a budding thinker. Ashokans have come to develop a rather calculative approach that encourages incessant trivializing of the enterprise of learning. Students start believing achievement to be cheap; hard work loses its significance to such an extent that it is no longer seen as a prerequisite to success. My own experience prompts me to make a note of the amplifying sense of academic inertia at Ashoka. There is lethargic attitude towards completing the readings, participating in (or even showing up for) classes and discussion sections, attending office hours, and even purchasing required texts or course-packs. Instead of authentically meeting Ashoka’s strict academic standards- people are more concerned with scamming the system. A culture of “proxying” attendance, faking medical notes and sourcing homework assignments has emerged to counter the daunting academic expectations that this university has. Plagiarising papers is not a crime unless you are caught- and people have been getting increasingly creative about ways to avoid getting caught. Ever heard of paraphrasing? The worst part is- these tricks actually work and mostly go unnoticed.

Group activities are not taken seriously, whilst Piazza and Canvas almost always remain short of the total number of student postings. Classes usually register the lowest attendance on days when group discussions or group tasks are scheduled. There is also the existence of a prevalent rhetoric that conveniently equates working hard for a course to ‘overworking’ oneself: in such a situation even the bare minimum effort comes across as ‘extra work’. Even more so, sometimes one might also be peer-pressured into going out and having fun, instead of prioritizing finishing the assigned work for tomorrow’s class. More than often, students fail to effectively comprehend the extent to which their carelessness affects their learning process. Furthermore, specific to Ashoka, since sometimes a couple of professors take the same course, students find themselves fighting over the ‘easiest graders’ during course registrations. With the absence of an overarching and shared grading rubric for the same course, students are unethically motivated to locate opportunities to work less but gain more, which fosters an unfair learning environment. All these instances endorse an academic community that share more of an attitude of ‘surviving’ academics rather than zealously engaging with it.

However, it would be incredibly unfair to not mention the students who practice an empathetic engagement with their respective fields of interest. A huge chunk of Ashokans burn the midnight oil to work tirelessly towards their academic performance. And there is little doubt that Ashoka provides all the needed tools and spaces for such engaging and participation-based mode of learning. Intellectual curiosity is never left unanswered at Ashoka. The question is how many students feel encouraged to externalize their academic curiosities? To what extent is the grading system an impediment to the cultivation of such a proliferating intellectual sphere of learning? Are grades even a reliable mark of intellect in the first place? Interestingly, an increasingly popular conjecture blames academic lethargy on the ‘millennial culture’.

The lack of motivation in the technologically-driven millennials, who–as the argument goes–value virtual shortcuts instead of real struggles. Well, part of it is true. We do live in a hyperactive world that encourages instantaneous gratifications in place of fruits of labour, which only ripen after time and effort. It is here that the millennial college-going student suffers: she or he lives in a world that works too fast, whilst their academics expects of them a specific kind of hard work that demands for attention to detail, which is a ‘slow’ form of labour. One needs to pay attention, show up to class, work for hours, and only then can one expect to learn and grow. So, in a way, the academic lethargy that Ashoka suffers from is one that is both specific and extensive in nature. And arguably, the first step towards altering the present academic environment and transform it into an intellectually rigorous one is to extend generosity: listen to others as much as you talk to them, encourage and not discourage those around you, understand others before you criticize them, and most of all, love them before you hate them. The idea of learning as loving is one which needs to find a place not only within the Ashokan premises but also beyond it, in hopes that the generosity which such an approach will generate will fill the current gap in the extent of passionate academic involvement.

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