During the lockdown new make beliefs have been in the making. Among other things the series of webinars is a trending reality and integral to a self-congratulatory make belief intimate to the academics in India.
Particularly, the institutions of higher learning, i.e. universities are religiously into webinars. This is paradoxical since on one hand there is a critical protest against the instruction of the University of Delhi on the issue of on-line examinations. And on the other hand, there is enthusiastic participation in the viral webinars of diverse kinds. It seems to be the only straw in the clutches of the drowning academics, who are unable to do any critical self-introspection during the lockdown. The webinars sustain the long held pretence of intellectual ‘advancement’ in spite of a gnawing threat of the virus and socially damaging impacts of the pandemic. The scholars, teachers, think-tank(ers), civil society members, and even political spokespersons seem to enjoy the ‘distant communication’ that a webinar champions. But then, if we follow the critique of higher education and academic programs of intellectual deliberations, we get another view against the grain. It is that the long sustained plague of academia has found a new dramatic expression. An old problem has found a new cloak, so to say. We shall turn to the problem after reflecting on the new cloak.
Most of the privately run universities and institutions of technical education are running successful webinar series. Some of them have come up with international webinars in collaboration with the seemingly unheard of colleges and institutions located in the western hemisphere too. The central and state universities do not lag behind. There is a vivid appearance of academic rank and file from the provinces across India on webinar panels rivalling with the academics from the metropolitan centers. Almost each webinar is aimed at solving the intrigue of Covid 19, the pandemic and the aftereffects. Many of the webinars promise a certificate of participation too, so as the attendees could add another brownie point to their burgeoning curriculum vitae. The obsession of curriculum vitae amongst the so called scholars, academics, intellectuals was a matter of concern for many critiques of higher education across the globe for a while. But it finds a new meaning in the time of the pandemic. It all appears as a fabulous testimonial for a resilient class of academics, policy personnels, and stakeholders in the business of higher education. Then, why any whimper against online education and examinations? In fact, barring an exception or two, there is not much protest across varsities on the issue of virtually conducted higher education. We did not hear of any protest about various schools conducting on-line classes for school children. Most of the parents, despite some grumbling, had respite as their children were occupied with zooming in-out teachers on the screens. Teachers sent homework through emails. Children and parents dutifully obeyed. No doubt, it has a great deal of problem which none could critically comprehend under the regime of ‘new normal’ according to the government advisory.
The ‘Virtual’ is the New ‘Real’
It means there is an acceptance of the ‘virtual-ness’ in the process of teaching and learning. It is so at the level of schooling, and it is not entirely absent at the level of higher education. And hence, an attitude of reverence to webinars is evident. We could detect an anomaly only if we recall our pre-Covid realization that all was not well with the seemingly noble academic symposiums. For over the last couple of decades, we have struggled against and criticised the sheer reduction of academic research, writing, and even teaching into numeral values under the auspices of a malfunctioning University Grant Commission (UGC) in India. If we cast wider, we figure out the UGCs across South Asia have more or less similar technocratic understanding of higher education. The rationale of calculation demands numbers of meetings to be available in record, and webinar serves perfectly well.
In such regimes of evaluation and accreditation, scholars ceased to be scholars, researchers seldom researched to unearth novel ideas, and publishable writings became mere tools for career advancement in ultimate analysis. And therefore, seminars and symposiums, conferences and congresses, were mostly to accumulate points rather than for the spirited discovery of new ideas as was the case in the so called good old days.
The webinars are a fashionable addition to that old cobweb of academic mathematics. It is however more chilling than the pre-Covid seminars, since it reveals the callousness integral to academic-intellectual conscience in India.
Even Covid becomes a business-opportunity to earn more brownie points in academic-administrative calculations. A pandemic that has adversely stalled the ordinary life in the world at large seems to have little impact on the veritable illness of the academic enterprises.
The pomp and show, business and administration, pride and prejudices, pretence and fake-ness of academic practices thrives in the virtual mode more vividly than ever before. It forecloses the requisite rethinking in repose about the failure of our scholarship in the face of the human crisis. The noise of webinars seldom allows us to take note of the fact that the language of intellectual articulation is fraught with age-old categories of mind, stale jargons, and tired conceptual frameworks.
Traditionally, and in substantial part of the intellectual history in India, we learn that the congregation of scholars were geared towards critical understanding on variety of issues, including the fault-lines of academic practices.
A series of webinars only adds to the old cobweb in which higher education has languished for a while despite all its self-congratulatory claims of national or international high ranking and excellence. Ideally, an extraordinary situation such as the national lockdown and the socially damaging pandemic could have opened the long shut eyes of the Indian academia. But ironically, it finds itself deep into the slumber of never-ending ignorance.
Dev Nath Pathak Teaches at South Asian University, New Delhi.