The Founding Professors of Ashoka University (Part II)
By: Nandan Kaushik, UG 22
Image By: Sanjna Mishra
We hope the previous article brought out nostalgia, and a longing for campus in you, the reader. Before proceeding further, a note: We had mentioned that there were 15 Founding Professors. These were: Jonathan Gil Harris, Madhavi Menon, Kranti Saran, Aparna Vaidik, Malvika Maheshwari, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Aruni Kashyap, Maya Saran, Gilles Verniers, Mandakini Dubey, Alex Watson, Neeraja Sankaran, Ratul Lahkar, and Rich Rice with Martin Lin a Visiting Professor in the First year.
Now we are at the point that the first batch is to begin their Ashokan journey. What do the Professors say about the batch? How different were they from us?
Ashoka opened its gates to the Founding Batch in August 2014. It was a small batch: only 127 students. The Professors had selected them based on their capabilities and their desire to be a part of something new. There were around 20 students to a Foundation Course in that first batch and at the time of the opening, Ashoka had just enough professors to teach the various Foundation Courses.
On the subject of the first batch, Professor Menon says, “They had to fight fierce battles to apply and then come to Ashoka. They were driven by a conviction that might have not have been present to the same extent in later batches. They were almost like our first-borns, she says. The other professors too mentioned having a special connection with them, to this day.
With only one academic building ready, a single floor of the mess, two student residences, one faculty residence and the sports block, campus was much more open – but also in a state of constant construction as Professor Dubey retorts: “(students) also felt a great sense of ownership and belonging to the construction site, I mean university, that they had joined”. Professor Aruni Kashyap adds, “(when we first went to visit our offices) we had to wear helmets since the construction was still going on”. The interactions between the professors and students were also different, reflective of the campus itself, in its openness and intimacy and constant state of change. This extended to such an informal degree that students and professors would often be exercising in the gym at the same time.
Professor Malavika Maheshwari mentioned camaraderie between the Professors and the students. Structures were not yet in place and both students and professors worked together to set them up. Professor Sinha, who joined only in the fourth semester, spoke about the “entrepreneurial attitude” among both faculty and students. And he says this has remained in the way faculty are open to the idea of doing something new, or asking for new things. A course on Indian literature that Professor Aruni Kashyap taught, had in fact been demanded by the literature students. It was this course, on Indian Literature in Translation, that Sinha had come to co-teach.
Arunava Sinha first taught at Ashoka in 2016 for a semester. Having given up a full-time job in 2014, one of the places he looked at (hoping to teach a translation course) was Ashoka. Asked to structure a co-curricular, on seeing his plan, he was requested to co-teach the course with Kashyap. He mentions how, on his first trip to the campus he had trouble finding the main entrance, and despaired of having to make the journey out to campus every other day (however, he adds that the metro and shuttle made things a lot easier). Despite the intimacy of campus, he feels, there was still a lot of privacy.
The coming of the second and third batches brought a sense of shock for the Founding batch. Professor Menon laughingly notes that the first batch behaved “like all first born siblings – What the hell, who is this interloper, this newcomer who’s come in?” Over time the campus too has changed (construction on buildings except the library is over now, and that too is nearing completion). But this change is not just in a physical sense.
The student body has grown, but what this growth entails is something that the Professors interpret differently. For the most part, however, they feel that this growth has weakened connections between the professors and the student body.
For some, this growth has meant a greater anonymity. Anonymity that could possibly “exacerbate the sense of impersonality and anxiety that sometimes come with going to college”, thinks Professor Dubey. This anonymity, especially in Foundation Courses could affect the individuality of students as the immediate concern becomes of how many and not who, thinks Professor Malavika Maheshwari. Professor Vaidik feels that she could never get a sense of what a ‘batch’ was like. But she agrees that she does not know as many students as she did earlier.
To Professor Harris, growth has led to cultural changes. He is wary of the way students have increasingly resorted to shouting down voices they disagree with. One other change that he sees is a growing anxiety about the future. While he understands that this anxiety often stems from the fact that a liberal arts education is likely to make students question many assumptions that they had once shared with their parents, he also thinks that anxiety about academic performance has made students more reluctant to accept failure. In the initial years people would receive ‘C’s quite regularly without complaint. Now, however, the pressure to earn only the highest grades has increased. Professor Harris says that the grading system at Ashoka is purely due to the fact that we have to interact with an outside world and students will apply to higher education institutions. But grades are not the be-all and end-all. Risks and failure are a part of the learning process, states Professor Harris.
For Professor Sinha, the change he sees is more structural: “Students guiding the way things worked, I think that has changed now – obviously, because there is structure and there is a framework and there is a much larger setup and everyone knows what they’re doing”.
“We didn’t make explicit our investment in a certain kind of pedagogy, with the result that that vision has taken a bit of a beating” rues Professor Menon. Perhaps, she wonders, they should have established a common manifesto for pedagogy during the ideation stage?
“Sometimes the best ideas can only emerge from a back-and-forth (dialogue). And if you don’t make explicit that the liberal arts is invested in a back-and-forth pedagogy, that is going to take a bit of a beating, and I think it has”. But Professor Menon is quite enthused about the fact that there are more voices and more students now. “We are not diluting the quality of our student body”. she emphasises. “We are (in fact) expanding the backgrounds from which Ashoka students come”.
According to Professor Harris, a good student asks questions. The much-maligned “Ashokan Ethos” also includes a questioning of any ethos. And he feels that the desire to question is something that has persisted among the student body, as has its commitment to collective action — especially as exemplified by the work of the Student Government in raising awareness and funds about a wide variety of issues.
Professor Menon feels strongly about the unfortunate casualty of the Critical Thinking Seminars, and the ideal of teaching writing: “Being products of the Indian education system, we are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to writing”.
“I didn’t sense the sharp, sometimes-hostile competitiveness that you sense among Ashoka students these days”, confesses Professor Majumdar, a Visiting Professor in 2015, on the founding batch. However, he also says, “That was the idea – that it would grow and change. I think it’s done a remarkable job of delivering on its initial promise, that this would be an institution with a difference”
The difference between the Founding Batch and later batches starts right from their reason to apply. As an exciting venture, it drew students. But once it had established itself, it was now a successful place parents would encourage their children to apply.
This two-part series brings us to the end of the beginning. But this is only the first step of a process that we witness unfolding before us. Writing the history of a place as it happens is fascinating – but it cannot be done in one go. I look forward to the next stage of the story being documented a few years down the line.
For now, Professor Dubey sums up what I am feeling: “… of course now we are all ‘@Ashoka’ rather than ‘at Ashoka’. I miss the classroom and the chance encounters on campus and maybe I even miss my commute on the metro. Maybe.”
I am grateful to, in no particular order: Professors Jonathan Gil Harris, Madhavi Menon, Malavika Maheshwari, Mandakini Dubey, Aparna Vaidik, and Aruni Kashyap of the Founding Professors for sparing their time for an interview , or sending in their responses, as well as Professors Arunava Sinha and Saikat Majumdar for their inputs as Professors who joined while the founding batch was still around. Thanks as well to Isa Ayidh for sitting with me for the interviews, and for co-writing the first part of this series with me.