Being a ‘smart’ student

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Pratyoush Onta

Jan 13, 2018-One of the most often-repeated criticisms of the higher education scene in Nepal is about the absence of choices of courses for students during their BA and MA studies. Organised around the annual or semi-annual examinations which are themselves based on centrally prescribed syllabi, the BA and MA programmes in the social sciences at Nepal’s universities are designed to promote mastery over a small set of readings. Students are required to take a fixed set of courses offered by the specific disciplinary programmes they are enrolled in, with little choice available regarding elective courses from other disciplines. In other words, students in our universities do not have the luxury of course selection one typically associates with what are known as “liberal arts colleges” in North America. A typical student in such a college will be expected to take about nine to twelve courses in her major subject of study—history, economics, sociology, etc—but also take a significant number (twenty or more) of other courses in the humanities, social sciences, and the sciences during her four-year BA endeavour.

A corollary aspect of our rigid system is that there is very little requirement for analytical writing at the BA or MA level of studies in our universities. For the most part, our evaluation mechanisms do not require Nepali students to write researched term-papers. Even at the MA level, students are not required to write much until they work on their MA thesis which is mandatory for some disciplines at Tribhuvan University (TU) but not for all.

What the above combination suggests is that even when our students reach their MA level studies, their exposure to a wide array of social theory, humanistic interpretive writings and area-specific (eg, Nepal Studies) readings is very limited. With regard to writing, most would have never written a book review or a literature review essay, let alone a long term paper. No wonder then that they are so ill-prepared to execute an original thesis at the MA level.

These facts of Nepali higher education landscape have been repeated so many times that they have come to be recognised as our collective truth. However, in the past two decades or so, there have been other developments in the field that have allowed some students formally enrolled in our universities to take advantage of new opportunities, both within and beyond our country. Here is how they have figured out ways to be “smart” students.

First let us discuss readings. These smart students have figured out that the limitations of centrally prescribed syllabi readings are just that, namely, limitations of their formally enrolled courses. Beyond the world of such courses, they know that no one can stop them from reading relevant stuff on their own. They have started to read all kinds of things—in Nepali and English—including good amount of social theory and area scholarship on Nepal. Some have participated in informal reading groups and others have enrolled in reading seminars offered by various institutions.

How are these smart students gaining access to these additional readings? Some of them find such readings in their college/university libraries or in the libraries operated by academic NGOs such as Social Science Baha in Kathmandu. They also rely on bookstores or occasionally borrow texts from senior academics of their friends. These smart students also rely on the help of their friends based in universities in other countries to gain access to the PDFs of the readings they need. Some illegal websites hosting such contents have also come of use to them.

Over the past twenty plus years, I have come to know many such smart students and have worked with some. So I could give many examples but I will limit myself to a recent one. A student by the name of Avash Bhandari got his BA from St Xavier’s College affiliated with TU in 2012. He then studied for an MA in Sociology at TU which he completed in the year 2016. For sure he was a student in the limited-readings environment, but Avash applied himself to read broadly through personal effort and by taking advantage of opportunities that came his way. For example, when Martin Chautari (MC) organised an intensive reading seminar on cultural theory with Mark Liechty during the summer of 2015, Avash enrolled in it. Liechty has taught a longer version of a course on cultural theory to graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago since the late 1990s.

Readings for this seminar included extracts from classical sociological works but also selections from writings by Max Horkheimer, Theodor W Adorno, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, historians EP Thompson and Fernand Braudel, and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. After completing this seminar, Avash felt that Liechty’s “insistence on focusing upon concepts rather than content turned out to be a very efficient way to tackle some very challenging texts.”

Earlier in 2015, Avash took a week-long course on oral history and digital humanities offered by expert practitioners—Indira Chowdhuri and Padmini Ray Murray—of the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, India. They were invited to Kathmandu by Photo.Circle, an organisation that is in the process of creating the largest digital archive—Nepal Picture Library—of photos related to Nepal. The organisation encourages Nepalis to tell their stories with photos and hence oral history is important in the making of such narratives.

Those were opportunities within Nepal. However, Avash has accessed opportunities outside of Nepal as well. In early 2016, he found out about a summer school in Germany. He applied and was accepted. Hence during July 2016, he participated in a one-week school on “Beyond the City Limits: Rethinking New Religiosities in Asia” held at the Georg-August-Universitat in Goettingen. There, he was primarily involved in seminar discussions of articles by various social scientists.

Now let us discuss the ways in which smart students are trying to overcome their writing challenges. To again use the example of Avash, he took an academic writing course in 2015 that was offered by the Nepa School of Social Sciences and Humanities in Kathmandu. That course was mainly designed to teach students to write academic prose in English. The following year he managed to write a good MA thesis at TU.

Subsequently, Avash submitted an article with the title “Hindu School in a Secular State: Interpreting Secularism in Nepal Ved Vidyashram” derived from his MA thesis to the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS). Expert peer reviewers suggested major revisions which he was able to do in the following weeks and a much better revised version was accepted and published in the journal’s June 2016 issue. Similarly, other smart students have enrolled in long-term academic writing workshops offered by MC, learning how to revise their articles for publication.

Being a smart student then entails enrolling in courses in the colleges and universities of Nepal to get an official degree that will make you formally eligible to pursue further higher education anywhere. If the formal courses come with their contextual limitations, being smart means being alert to contemporaneous opportunities elsewhere. It means participating in reading seminars in Nepal or abroad and getting all possible writing related help in the university or elsewhere. Subsequently, being smart also means trying to publish your work in a good journal and doing the revisions suggested by the reviewers and editors. The good thing is that you do not need to be a genius to do all this. You just need to be “smart” about the many opportunities that dot the landscape.

I have used the example of Avash Bhandari to make my argument because he finished his MA recently. But his case also illustrates the heterogeneity of institutions and people that exist, within and beyond the borders of Nepal, who are committed to helping students. Other equally smart students, both men and women—and their numbers run into the hundreds—are also not lagging behind. They are showing to us that formal limitations are mutable constraints that can be overcome through the exercise of smart agency.

Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that being smart is an option only available to students based in Kathmandu. Various opportunities of being a smart student is now available in Nepal’s main cities and students who value them should engender a new politics of demand from their teachers in their universities and researchers based in academic NGOs. They should also demand student leaders to facilitate the realisation of such opportunities in their colleges. This would require commitment and persistence on their part for sure.

The argument offered here also does not mean we should give up in our efforts to realise structural changes in our higher education landscape so that good opportunities become available to all students, no matter where they live in Nepal. My point is simple: Students don’t have to wait for the structural revolution to happen; they can be smart now. Being smart now can actually expedite that revolution if it can generate collective accountability sooner from the concerned constituencies.

Salute to our young smart students. The future of Nepali academia belongs to them.


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