A Letter to My Students: Reflections on a Dehumanising Education System

My dear students,

It was on a spring morning in early March last year that we last met. We were still recovering from the ravages of the Delhi riots and were about to disperse for our mid-semester break. By then, COVID-19 had spread its fangs in different parts of the world and was slowly inching closer to our country.

Not surprisingly, our usual complacency combined with our overconfidence in all that is not science convinced us that we would escape it unscathed or with very little damage (if at all). That morning, I had promised to return and hold discussions on the question of imperialism in Tennyson and the notion of desh/bhite in the readings on Bengal Partition.

We are yet to return.

Since that March morning, we have lost much – though optimists who have taken on the difficult task of ‘spreading positivity’ believe we have gained no less. By now, we have adapted ourselves to this ‘in limbo’ existence. We now live in a lonely virtual world where the social/professional blurs the personal/domestic and is considered the best alternative in these times. Not even a day passes without hearing the news of an irreparable personal loss of some student or colleague, or of poor internet connectivity which either forces some of you remain absent, or drives me to terminate a session before the scheduled time.

Universities across the country have remained steadfast in their aim to provide quality education to you all even in the face of a catastrophe of this magnitude. Once you vacated the hostels and the campuses within the shortest possible notice and teaching shifted online, everything seemed more structured and as envisioned. Your courses were to be completed within the stipulated time without any regard for our altered circumstances. Academic engagements and cultural events have continued through webinars and virtual talks. Online examinations have been held almost as per schedule and administrative functions have been carried out as usual.

By the end of the year, discussions around internet connectivity, insufficient data, lack of devices and fee waiver for students whose parents lost their livelihoods, had almost vanished. When the world was battling second and third waves of COVID-19, we feigned ignorance and were asked to return to empty classrooms without any concern for possible threat to our families. All this was done to facilitate your smooth transition from one academic year to another. The universities challenged the dreaded pestilence by functioning in a ‘near normal’ manner, giving the impression that most stakeholders remained unaffected by the larger tragedy.

While I prepared lectures for our next class, the child in the next room who can barely write let alone operate a device, attended his online classes and needed help every now and then; a Covid-positive family member was isolated in the other room and our house had been ‘marked and sealed’ by the authorities as a containment measure without any support for regular supply of something as basic as food, milk and medicines. Stranded in a space far away from my own, being the sole care-giver in such circumstances and the stigma of the unknown disease, I continued delivering lectures following the semester timetable, performing examination duties and trying to respond ‘on time’ to all communications, which were all meant to ensure minimum disruption in your academic progress.

All of a sudden, the work space invaded the personal spaces and as teachers we struggled to find that elusive fine balance, without ever allowing you all to feel abandoned. It is not unknown that in our ‘I’ multiple ‘I(s)’ exist and COVID-19 has only confirmed it.

At the other end you ‘logged in’ with enthusiasm initially. As the semester(s) progressed, some of you became the ‘contact points’ for your classmates who could not join the classes anymore. They either faced internet connectivity issues or, long absence from classrooms forced them to be subsumed by their other ‘I(s)’, which pushed them into severe depression, eventually academics taking a backseat. On several occasions even I was disappointed seeing the thinning attendance and your utter silence. As the attendance hovered anywhere between 18- 20% , I admired those of you who continued. You came not to prove yourselves but because you felt your absent friends would benefit from the class notes you shared on the class groups. Your deep sense of empathy for those in misery was indeed a welcome relief in such a fiercely competitive space.

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Despite the pressures of the university mandates, you took to social media to find help for those in need. You frantically looked for hospital beds, oxygen and ambulances for the sick. You crowdsourced financial support for those unable to continue their education as their sole breadwinners lost their jobs due to the world’s most stringent lockdowns or succumbed to the deadly virus. As a helpless spectator, I witnessed the unrelenting pace at which you all matured and genuinely understood the ethics of care, which is only remotely connected to your curriculum.

While some of you went out of your way to help the distressed, there were those who reached out in the dead of night or at the crack of dawn – not for moral support, but for LORs. Many of them did not even bother to ask about our well-being but waited for an instant ‘yes, I will send it’. As a teacher, meeting deadlines is all that one is expected to be adept in; the diktats may come from any quarter. One never imagined that such would be the reflections of a dehumanising education system.

I am completing your internal assessment, and terrible news of the passing away of acquaintances, colleagues and friends are pouring in. Writing condolence messages and commenting on your assignments are happening almost simultaneously. Evaluation of your scripts and my sanity doesn’t end here, I continue receiving notes of apology from your fellow mates as they or their family members are Covid-positive or in the ICU and that I should forgive them for late submission! While putting their grades, I am strangled by a flurry of emotions; in my endeavour to be ‘human’, fair and lenient, I keep justifying to them, to you all and the stringent university grading system.

As the mighty virus rages indiscriminately, killing thousands and exposing the fragility of our ramshackle health system, we still do not have clarity on the vaccination policy. When universal vaccination is being recommended and the Delhi high court rapped the Centre over the futility of ‘incessantly playing the caller tune’ asking people to get vaccinated even when there is acute vaccine shortage, we are encountering utter chaos.

Both health and humanitarian crises are deepening in India. The lockdowns have adversely impacted scores of people who have been left to fend for themselves. Unlike last year, issues around their livelihoods, food security and their well-being have now been eclipsed by the stories of bereaved families queuing up at the crematoriums unable to bid a dignified goodbye to their loved ones. When mass funerals are happening, corpses are found floating in the river, and there is artificial shortage of vaccines as tens of millions of vaccines were exported by the biggest global manufacturer, we have arrived at the second year of farewell to be hosted on Instagram.

This is not the time to apologise or forgive. I only hope that at the end of all this you all will come out stronger and would not forget the cruelty meted out to millions, the pain and the anguish. You will remember the fears and cries of your loved ones and strangers. You will carry the lessons on privilege, power and solidarity. Lastly, you will not stop worrying about adversity.

In this moment of collective trauma and grief, your resilience is our hope.

Till we meet again.

Devjani Ray is a faculty in the English department at Miranda House, University of Delhi

Featured image credit: Christina/Unsplash