Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How to use the right word?

Even though Indians are regarded world-wide as the best speakers of English outside the, er, English-speaking world, when it comes to the business end, we really are lagging a long way behind.

Take a simple example, one that excites everyone -- corruption. Let us say a businessman goes to a politician a day before tenders are opened and "gifts" a box full of cash. That is corruption.
But then, let us learn from the Americans.
Let us create a fund for the politician called "re-election fund". Let the same businessman now "donates" the box full of cash to this fund. This "donation" is legal, and of course, there is no corruption.

The trick was to use the right word -- "donation" -- instead of the wrong word -- "gifting", and corruption in the country is reduced by leaps and bounds.

Another example: "oppression" of downtrodden castes by the upper castes. When a higher caste man denies a lower caste man food, water and shelter, that is oppression, but when the same man "teaches" the lower caste man how to survive without food, water and shelter, then that is "education".

And to drive home the point, this is what the white man's (er, upper caste man's) burden is all about -- raising the standard of the brown and black (I mean, lower caste) man.

"Hypocrisy"? Wrong again, it is called "discretion".

Saturday, January 26, 2013


In general, humans have an obsession with ranking. Everything, and more frighteningly, everyone needs to be ranked. How to rank? On what criteria? Don't ask. Everything is justified as long as you can cite some scores, some ranks - all in the name of "objectivity". The newspapers and the magazines are obsessed with it, and the growing trend is the administrators (even in academia) are getting used to it.

Let us for a moment ponder how to rank two educational institutes or two universities. Apparently, the belief is that Inst-A is better than Inst-B since its students get better jobs (what is better - probably more salary), more companies come for campus placement, higher ranked (in what - well, a multiple-choice-question-type pan-India exam, what else?) students join there, and so on.

Now, we know the universities are supposed to impart "total" education. Without going in to the debate of what that means, it at least should include some social factors and some human angles, and not just money or companies. Even for jobs, who measures what happens later in those jobs. In the most high-paying jobs, people get frustrated earlier, and leave or change jobs, or change the entire career path as well. Shouldn't this stress be counted as a negative "score" for that job? But no, that is after the students have left the institutes, and why should an institute worry about it?

Again, this tendency of pushing the problem to someone else is very disturbing. A little joke is on order now. Due to the previous tatkal rail ticket timing, the website and the booking offices were clogged at 8am. The government solved it remarkably well. How? By shifting the tatkal time to 10am. Now, of course, there is no rush at 8am. What about the rush at 10am? Well, that's a different problem, and for someone else to solve.

Coming back to institutes, I personally will always prefer a campus with more vibrancy, more seminars of dignitaries from different walks of life (especially outside the set curriculum), a social awareness, more equality in gender, caste, religion, etc. However, no magazine, no agency considers this. Considering one aspect (jobs, etc.), and not considering others (social awareness, etc.) - isn't that subjectivity? Why do we think of objectivity in only numbers, and not the parameters?

Now, even more disconcertingly, compare two academicians. How to do that? Some will say, simple enough - just count the number of publications, the number of PhD students, the number of times one was a chair, the number of times one got awards, the number of times one organized a conference/workshop, etc. and map it to a nice little "score" in the end. This will solve the problem of who to promote, etc. without "subjectivity" as it produces a nice total ordering of all academicians in the institute.

I am not saying these measures are bad. In fact, some of them are good, and probably needs to be tracked. However, my point is by fixing only some of these, others are ignored, which ultimately will turn out to be very very costly. An example will be easier to understand. Nowhere in these measures is mentioned the number of times one works in a doctoral committee. Moreover, an unusual project or a tough course is counted the same as a run-off-the-mill project or a course - everything is made equivalent by the number "1".

Also, since there is an objective function to maximize, over the course of time, people will do just that. People will stop teaching esoteric courses, people will stop spending time in doctoral committees, etc. as these are deemed "unproductive" and time is limited.

In an academic institute, and to think more widely, in a society, it is best to let people evolve in their own ways, and not rank them. Of course, there should be checks and balances, but we all know when something or someone is abnormally bad or abnormally good, don't we? It is the middle section that matters, and ranking, at least in my opinion, only worsens the situation.

Human society is based upon trust, cooperation and fellow feeling. Unnecessary ranking measures promote mistrust, unhealthy competition and back-stabbing. That can never be desirable.