“I myself am recovering from Covid at the moment. My lungs are still weak and I’m struggling to take classes. I don’t know how I would have managed without my neighbours and the community. Close colleagues, young ad hoc professors, succumbing to this deadly virus- there is definitely a sense of hopelessness and helplessness we experience every day,” says Abha Dev Habib, DUTA Treasurer and professor at Miranda House, Delhi University.
Over the past few weeks, India has been gasping for oxygen owing to the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Bolstered by new mutant variants, ill-equipped medical infrastructure, political rallies and blame games, this wave has proved to be more fatal than the first, is expected to long laster as well.
With India reporting more than 3,00,000 cases every day, the inadequacies of our social infrastructure and our politician’s priorities have been made amply clear. Amongst the severely neglected communities is the teaching community across public educational institutions in India. Along with side inadequate pay and administrative negligence- teachers are struggling to conduct classes amongst a mental, physical and financial crisis.
“We have a family to feed at home, family in the hospital and family struggling in the classroom- our students. This whole year has been emotionally exhausting- having to protest, scream, beg the Delhi Government for our salaries that have been caught in political cross-fire and appropriation- salaries that many of us did not receive for over a period of 6 months.
Turning up for classes- amidst a pandemic, never knowing whether your labour would bear fruit or not. Shame on the government and authorities for such criminal mishandling of educators,” said a professor from a college in Delhi, who preferred to remain anonymous.
To make matters worse, teachers of several public institutions have been left stranded without any form of social security. The increasing trend in the employment of guest lectures and ad-hoc professors makes it clear that university administration and governments do not want to be liable for any form of social security towards non-permanent teaching staff. This creates a situation of huge financial insecurity, felt more heavily amidst the pandemic.
In academia, grieving the critical state of the country’s affairs and loss of loved ones is not limited to students. Teachers also have been suffering from extreme anxiety and crippling mental health, as their repeated pleas for leaves, concessions and allowances are neglected by university authorities.
“Both my parents were admitted to the ICU for Covid, I still had to conduct classes. My 15 and 17-year-old children were pulling shifts and watching over their grandparents because I could not manage to get a leave,” said Jayanti Selvaraj*, a professor at Madras University.”
Several professors have also expressed their disdain towards conducting examinations amidst a growing death toll, including the DUTA, who have called upon the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University to postpone the semester examinations scheduled to be conducted in May.
“I don’t think there should be examinations at this time. At a country level, we need to reprioritise things. Exams in general induce a huge amount of stress in students, during a pandemic you need to be extremely cautious about how you approach that,” said Mehul Jha*, a professor at a media institute in Delhi.
Often, students feel pressurised and complain about the insensitivity and general apathy displayed by some professors in terms of assignment deadlines, research work and projects. Responding to that, Jha* said, “There are structural problems with regards to caste, gender, other factors that contribute to the general apathy that exists amongst Indian academia. I don’t think the insensitivity is limited to the covid period, it goes even beyond that.”
However, many professors are in consensus that mental and physical health must be at the forefront, especially in the current semester,
“We have been extremely liberal and lenient in our marking. Even when students have sent copied assignments, or work after multiple deadlines- we are taking them into consideration. The idea here is to not be obsessed with deadlines and be as kind as possible from our end,” they added further.
It is true that by virtue of hierarchies in educational institutions, the power dynamics between stakeholders are different. Many professors shared how often due to administrative reasons, it may seem as though the situation is different for professors. The truth is- it is not.
It is essential that we realise that we are people first before we are professors and students, and victims to the same vicious capitalistic education system that does not value our labour or life.
With most of the relief work happening on social media right now, students and professors are also dividing time between volunteer work and their examination deadlines, adding to their mental health woes.
Speaking of how professors feel when they see their students play an active role in civil society, professor Jha* said,” In the larger scheme of things, the course is not that important. Learning matters and any teacher would be proud if their students cared for the society. When students start initiatives for relief work and send me a link, I feel really proud that their priorities are what you would want them to be, and not the general ones that the world ‘expects’ them to have.”
When asked about a message that they would like to give to students, Professor Abha Dev Habib said, “It is almost impossible to live a strictly routine life in the current scenario. Educational institutions are living breathing spaces, and they must respond in such a manner, remember to be humanitarian, empathetic and kind. We prevent this from happening again and be better equipped for the future, we need to prioritise public health and public education.”
To make classrooms inclusive in the given context, it is imperative that teachers and students work together. While we hold on to help and hope, we must remember to extend empathy in online spaces as well. Classrooms are for learning and constantly improvising, so if this year all we learn is to have courage and be kind- so be it.
*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.