Nov 27, 2007

Indian vs US Undergraduate Education

Over the past few months, I have got quite a bit of exposure to the undergraduates here. Interacting with them has inevitably led me to compare the system of UG education in India and in the US.
1) Courses:
There is a great deal of flexibility in the kind of courses that a student here has to take to complete the degree. There are only a few 'core courses' that every major student HAS to take. Most universities require 120 credits for the degree, of which only about 20-30 come under the 'core' criteria. This is in total contrast to the requirements in India, where a student has to take and clear all the courses specified by the college/university. That is the case with the arts colleges, and I think it is the same with the Engg. colleges as well. If I am not wrong, pl. do correct me.
2) Diversity:
The language courses here are much more useful than the mindless 'memorize-and-spit' stuff an arts college student in India has to take. There are a couple of courses in 'Academic writing' or 'Analytical writing' which greatly enhance one's language and writing skills. Also, the educational curricula are quite diverse in most universities, which means the students HAVE to take at least one course each in areas such as US history, European history, Fine arts, philosophy, maths, physics/chemistry/biology, and psychology/sociology. This widens the student's perspectives in several disciplines.
3) Class selection:
So, the student here chooses the subject based on: a) the general liking of the course; b) the teaching/grading skills of the professor from; c) time-conflict with other courses; and d) interestingly, most want to avoid classes on monday/friday, so that they can have a long holiday. Also, the students who commute long distance, like to have most classes on the same day itself.
Moreover, if a student is very good, he/she would be allowed to take more courses in a semester. Many students make use of the summer courses (which most dont do - they take time off from studies during summer) and even the 3-week Winter courses and it is possible for one to finish a 4-year program in just 2 years.
4) Quality at the entry level:
I was shocked to know that most students get their first introduction to mainstream chemistry, physics and biology when they enter the degree program. I was told that, during school education, they are mostly taught as to how to attend the classes, how to take notes, etc. In essence, the things that we learn in class 11 in India are taught in the beginning of the UG program here.
5) Concept of 'class':
The concept of a batch hardly exists. It is highly possible that two students who join a given major in the same year may never be in a single class together throughout the entire UG program. The strength of some of the classes is humongous, with some having even 400+ students. Sometimes, there would be several sessions of the same subject offered in the same semester.
Because of the huge number of the students admitted to a major in the same year, the busy schedule of the professors (teaching + research), and the work that the students do to earn their tuition fees/living, each student attends only about 15-18 hours per week of classes. In India, it is 25 hours a week, mostly. That gives more time for a given course to be taught, without too much rushing. Here, the profs with improper planning would end up short of their syllabus or hurrying up.
6) Grading:
All colleges and universities work the way 'autonomous' institutions in India work. It is upto the instructor how he/she wishes to handle the tests. So, there are cases like (i) frequent quizzes/tests followed by a cumulative final, similar to the Indian system, (ii) only short quizzes/tests, with a final being just another short test (non-cumulative), and (iii) grading based only on presentations/papers submitted. The questions could all be multiple-choiced, or descriptive. There is no guarantee that the grading system of a professor in one semester would continue to the next sem. If the whole class performs poorly, usually there is a 'curving', which means a few marks would be added to all the grades.
Unlike in India, where 35% is a passing mark, one can fail here even if he/she scores 60%. Also, most papers would require one to answer all the questions.. so the spoilling system of 'choice' in India, where one student can skip a chapter fully and still score 100%, is not possible here. Because of the tough grading, IMHO, the student has to learn more here than in India to pass or get high grades. Due to the letter system of grading, someone who has got 100% answers right might be considered equal to one with 91% answers - both get an A.
7) Professional degrees:
While a BA/BSc student inIndia takes about 30 courses towards a 3-year degree, one here takes about 40 for a 4-year degree. Similar to the way a BE/BTech student in India spends 4 years for the degree, an engg. degree in US too requires about 140 credits. Unlike in India where a student can join a medical/dental/pharmacy/law college after class 12, in US, one has to complete the UG degree, or some form of pre-medical or pre-dental program to enter such specialized schools. That is bcos of relatively low quality of class-12 education.
8) Attendance:
In India, all instructors take the attendance; so if someone misses a lot of classes, he/she could be debarred from taking the final exams. Here, there are some who would not take attendance for even a single class.. thus, by simply studying the prescribed book at home, and getting the notes from the friends, a student can get an A. On the other extreme, there are some who would reduce the grade point to the next lower letter grade, for a student who has been absent for just 4 classes.
9) Class timings:
Unlike the fixed 10AM-4 PM or whatever fixed timing in Indian colleges/universities, here there are some classes which start at 8 AM, and some which go on till 10 PM.
10) Choice of university:
The students choose the university based on (i) its national ranking, (ii) presence in the same state (to save tuition fees), (iii) the quality of the particular program in the university and (iv) the performance of the university's football/basketball teams, though not necessarily in the same order.
Considering all these things, I was wondering which one is better - Indian or American system. Though in India one gets good opportunities to do well, not many grab them. Moreover, the Indian system encourages 'mugging up' bcos many times one has to reproduce the answers verbatim. In US, many courses make one to think a lot, do quite a bit of reading outside the books, and enhance writing, presentation skills, non-linear/abstract thinking.

Nov 13, 2007

Deepavali movies - Back to the Past

Watching two supernaturally inspired movies in less than 24 hours is what Deepavali had to offer. Both the movies are a little too late.. one by 20 years and the other by 30 years.

1) Azhagiya Tamil Magan (ATM):
After watching this, I will have to think a thousand times "Do I HAVE to go to ATM to withdraw money?" It is like post-traumatic disorder, recalling the trauma upon hearing something connected to it. Probably I should have known what to expect of a Vijay movie when I sat to watch the film, but still Vijay and his directors have the uncanny ability of testing the patience of the 'patientest' people. When you have some of the scenes resembling 'Durga' and forcing you to recollect its mundane details, you know you are watching a wrong movie at a wrong time.

This movie makes other movies in which we questioned the logic, such as 'Sivaji', as blemishless classics. The first half was atleast palatable..The climax scene is as cliched as it can get.. (am not talking about Namitha appearing in a properly-worn-saree). As Vijay says, my consolation was "ethanaiyo kuppaigalai parthuttenn.. Idhai parthu porukka mudiyadha?" Vijay's dance, 'Pon magal vandhaal' remix, and two more songs helped somewhat to bear the torture (the insertion of the last song is among the most atrocious in recent times).

2) Om Shanti Om:
Shah Rukh and Farah Khan had earlier combined to give a 'lotsa-holes-but-still-light-hearted' "Main Hoon Na", where Farah had showed her liking for old Hindi songs by incorporating them in the scenes where Shah Rukh meets Sushmita Sen. One would wish that she is through with showing off her love for old movies. In OSO, she fills half the movie with the old wine. Next what - a period film, may be? Pray to god using the title mantra...

The story is thinner than the heroine's (Deepika Padukone) waist. And it is older than the careers of most of the actors who dance for the much-hyped '51 special appearances' title song. The chemistry between the lead pair is as strong as between water and oil. The predictability is as much as an India-Australia one-day match. The choreography, expected to be top-notch, is as good as what the early-eliminating contestants of a dance competition would come up with.

The only pluses of the movie are its peppy music, a younger-looking-and-hot Shah Rukh and the freshness of Deepika. Shah Rukh continues his speaking-telugu-thinking-to-be-tamil act of KBC here too, with mixed success. Some of the other lighter moments make use of liberal digging at the Bollywood, its functioning and its personalities.

Farah educates us with some hair-rising facts of the 'other world': the ghosts too apparently need visas, so they cant fly abroad to take revenge on the villain.. they patiently wait till he comes back to the same city, same building, same room. A kid born at the same time when someone dies closeby will have the same features as the dead man, though there is no blood relation. Reincarnation, you see.. There is even a dialog in the movie in which someone suspects if a movie based on reincarnation will be accepted by Indian audience. I wish she attempted the story with some other lead actor to put her test to practice.

Nov 7, 2007

In spite of the Gods

I chanced upon the book when I was just browsing through the books in my library, and found this book to be very interesting. The author of the book, Mr. Edward Luce is the Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times, London. Earlier, he was their South Asia Bureau chief based in New Delhi.

Having spent a considerable time in India and interacted with a lot of people who are in a position to shape the future of India, Mr. Luce has written this book to give an all-encompassing and insightful account of India at the dawn of the 21st century. He deserves to be applauded for giving a near-complete picture of modern India, from almost every possible viewpoint, without making overreaching judgments. His intended audience are the Westerners and Indians alike. His intentions are twofold – to the westerners, he explains the nature and the cause of near-bimodal distribution of the populace of India; to the Indians he reminds them of the obstacles India faces in this new era and advises to tread the path with care, enthusiasm and optimism.

This book would help anyone understand South Asia better, because most of the contemporary issues of the Indian subcontinent are described in detail, with historical reasoning. He is well-informed and uses his wit very well to portray some of the traditions of India, such as the wedding , some of the festivals, and the Bollywood. Since he is an Economical journalist, he compares several numbers, such as, the population, the work force, the literacy rate, extent of corruption, the per-capita income and the savings investment, of India with China and with the U.S., throwing light on India’s position vis-à-vis other leading powers. This being a very recent book, many contemporary controversies, such as, the religious extremism , casual criminalization of Indian politics, reservation for lower castes, separate civil codes for each religion, Kashmir issue, South Asia’s nuclear rivalry, and child labor are described well in detail.

He strongly feels that it is the best option for India to remain secular. His dislike of the (BJP), and its arms of Hindu movements, is apparent in the fourth chapter. He dwells on the Gujarat riots of 2002, which still remains a highly controversial issue. However, his use of certain strong words such as ‘Hindu militants’ , ‘fascist salute’ (of RSS cadres), and an unexpected short description of Hanuman, could have been avoided, since it tends to stereotype. Also, his coverage of South India is quite incomplete compared to other parts of India, probably because he feels that the North have to catch up with the South. Some of the lingering problems, such as, water-sharing dispute among neighboring states, the pathetic negligence of outdoor sports, over-adulation of movie stars, and the destructive politics played by opposition parties in most of the states, have not received any attention.

True to the diversity of India, his views on India are also diverse. He approaches an issue from several angles, which sometimes gives a feeling of the author making some sudden jumps in the topic. Nevertheless, he backs his facts and arguments with credible literature – both old and new, and uses a lot of statistics (journalistic insight) to validate his points and draw his conclusions. Though he claims to have written the book from a neutral perspective, his affection towards India and his longing to see India succeed is apparent in several places. A must read. I would recommend this movie to director Shankar, to get some ideas about making his trademark vigilante movies in the future .