As a new batch of under-graduate students entered the class in muggy July this year, I wondered how I would do it differently this time. What new texts, activities, field exercises and screenings can I incorporate in my teaching to make it more engaging and meaningful? How can my pedagogic practices go beyond the semester exam regurgitation to usher in more reflective and reflexive teaching and studying? Also how can I make their life more miserable, prescribing books to review that they would hate now but (maybe?) come to appreciate later? While I planned for the semester ahead with these questions brimming in my mind, the students posed an unexpected challenge: the curse of ahistoricism.
The struggle of being a ‘good’ teacher is also in defining what this ‘good’ stands for. Is it in offering validation to the student’s half-baked notions, labels and isms? Or is it to push the envelope a little further, to get them to that uncomfortable space of really thinking for themselves? Teaching media and cultural studies in a time when the labels come easy, deluge of information ever pouring, 140-character opinions available off-the-cuff and rant posts easily accessible – how do you teach a class? How does one bring public discourse into the classroom when the media is the public sphere? Why does one even bother?
A professor in one of my early PhD research methodology class had revealed, quite mockingly, that every researcher feels that their subject of research is unexplored, new and virgin: that they are the first ones to write on it, and often do not bother to read existing literature and work done in the field, and pay attention to questions that have already been tackled. He said this while he made a case for historical methodology in research. I’m sure this is certainly true for teaching as well. We do need much stronger tea in order to do that though.
If I go back to my time as a journalism student, we were far more cautious, restrained and unsure of ourselves (mostly also dumb). Every new piece of information, every nugget of history, and every opinion was received carefully and examined at length, with corroboration whenever necessary. We did not have Twitter to turn to for trending hashtag news items, and Facebook certainly had not matured to incorporate news because the term ‘Wall’ was still in use. We did however turn to Wikipedia for quick information, even though we were heavily discouraged by our teachers. It is another matter that students today do not even bother to change the formatting of the text that they copy from Wikipedia. Irreverence in its multiple avatars will always be a youth emblem.
Students are now far more impatient, restless (and dumber) – in a decade I see students being far more confident, sure of themselves and speaking with a very specific kind of certainty that comes only with years of experience. The consistent deterioration of writing skills is another matter (that lament is for another time, another article). Youth are generally the early adopters of technological innovations – new platforms, interfaces, applications – and by extension active users as well, because childhood is a thing of the past and adulting hasn’t hit them in the face yet. For the current crop of 18-year olds, their public sphere for debate and discussion is television news, Twitter and Facebook. In the last couple of years, the number of students who read a physical or online copy of a newspaper has steadily decreased to single digits. Magazines are perhaps too archaic to even mention. This is certainly not a lament of a traditionalist against technology, but more about the ‘why’ of the message because of the ‘how’ of the medium itself. My students are exposed to multiple online conversations and opinions, and I find myself wondering if in my talk of post-truth and alternative facts, I am resorting to rhetorical and pedantic arguments to speak to them?
First few classes had my students throwing labels with definitive ease. Initially it was amusing, even funny at first, but then it became disturbing, even upsetting. It baffled me that students were comfortable in spouting labels, and indiscriminate use of isms, which they had heard on TV (somewhere amongst all the shouting and glaring graphics), or quoted tweets and posts they found as legitimate sources for their information. They were quick to extreme generalisations and judgements and possessed a general ahistorical approach to current events. Every idea, every formation, every event and every articulation for them was new; there was no exercise in tracing the derivation of those events. Everyone has only just read a tweet/post, listened to a byte, seen a headline – no one is reading essays, books, long form articles or full length documentaries. If I prescribe articles and films, I’m asked – How long is the film? How many pages? The check valves of word count and running time are deterrent enough.
What brought on this reflection is a class discussion on manual scavenging in India and the socio-economic-cultural and political implications of this practice. Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation and has had a sordid history which continues to marginalize the most disadvantaged communities in spite of a legal framework which explicitly prohibits the practice. Manual scavenging seems to be an outmoded concept for many of them. In spite of the 1993 and 2013 legislations, there was near total silence in the class about the practice, its existence and its historical location in Indian culture. It was something they had heard in passing. ‘Was it to do with sewers?’, ‘Is it about defecation?’, and ‘Was it part of the Swach Bharat Abhiyan?’ It was more like ‘excuse me, this is Delhi, and we are not supposed to know what manual scavenging is.’ This is the reason why we urgently need to bring historicisation back in the classroom, to develop historicisation as pedagogic practice to balance liberal education with professional training as journalists.
This ahistoricisation also stems from consuming television news which has steadfastly deteriorated into an increasingly hot pile of rubbish. I hold television news solely responsible for making me compete with high decibel, rapid velocity graphics and bile-inducing shouting matches while lecturing in the classroom. Making an effort to counter the vacuous statements makes me wonder if I am resorting to hyperbole by offering platitudes to fruitlessly argue for a more nuanced historical approach to any issue/phenomenon/event. The panel discussion, the worst that television news has invented – the half-hour/one hour compact spectacle performed with incensed verbose flying statements, filled with multiple screens, presenting zero logic but finding increasing traction amongst the audience – is what is plaguing Indian journalism and journalism education in particular. The panel discussion is that unintelligent format which has nothing to offer except reinforcement. It is spoon-feeding the yuckiest muck available. It should be baptized as panel disinformation. Every complexity is reduced to a television byte, a reductive tweet or post. It is solely responsible for increasing knee-jerk response time, and short-circuiting the brain to (speech) connective process. It is worrying and certainly surreal when students begin to mirror last night’s television screen. It is dangerous when their value-laden statements and truth narratives parade as historical truth.
I dread the class that is amusing itself to death with television news.
How can innovative teaching pedagogy at undergraduate level tackle the problem of ahistoricism and dehumanising of news? How can it build a dialogue with news culture to inform its practice to be more nuanced and restrained? The practice of teaching also needs to rise and shine to how news traditions themselves are reinventing in a dynamic global cultural environment that demands it to be faster and more furious. If not addressed, the student will find that she is ill-equipped to handle the complex forces of state and industry. She needs to be set free, free from the convenient prison of isms. Echo chambers encourage self aggrandizement of the worst kind. Perhaps we need to reconsider the syllabus as a papal decree, and encourage more reading and writing, and not of the exam kind.