A Masters in English leads mostly to a good teaching career. So did that lead to taking up teaching professionally, we ask. “Not really,” she exclaims. “At that time I just felt that teachers were not paid enough and so I prepared for the Civil Services and also cleared the preliminary stage. Then one fine day, I met my mother’s friend, who was an officer, saw her office and got a glimpse of her life.” No longer keen on taking up this life, Dr. Gupta decided to go ahead with M. Phil (Stylistics) in 1985.
It was in 1994 that she joined Punjab University as a teacher. This was the beginning of what was to be an illustrious teaching career, where she still continues to explore opportunities and encourage students. During her initial years, Dr. Gupta noticed the absence of a teacher-trainer profile at the University and initiated teacher training by visiting local schools and giving classes for free. Such activities and being closely associated with various institutions in the city as an English trainer allowed her to build on discussions, which she believes form an integral part of any teaching. “Discussion most importantly means that the teacher is a participant and doesn’t try to control the discussion. Sometimes a teacher may have to, although that’s a concept difficult in India, sit silent; be an observer, a spectator, manager or a facilitator,” Dr. Gupta highlights. But how does such an approach help? Does it help reach the student better? Dr. Gupta simplifies the answers to these questions for us. “If you look at the trajectory of English language teaching, we are now in an era where the communicative approach works best and in this the teacher is always the manager and the facilitator and not the boss of the class. And we need to give students a variety of exposure. It will not do to just have a lecture all the time,” she points out.
Adding More to the Classes
Dr. Gupta is quick to add that she encourages her pupils to take part in all the activities at the campus – such as writing as a campus reporter. “Whenever there is an event in the department, I ask one of the students to write the press release. I assure them of any guidance on any topic, if the need be,” Dr. Gupta explains. She also tells us that the students are responsible for all the stages of the process – from going and witnessing what is happening, to writing down the account, connecting with the best people and emailing the matter to them. “Then I make them write their own resume in class – if they need any input from me, I’m always there,” she sums up.
Dr Gupta also points out how the relationship with her students keeps her active. “My students keep me young. I see my father who is 80+ and so happy to be surrounded by his students. My students and I enjoy and value the joy of learning. It is always good to be surrounded by different set of minds,” she says.
While commenting on the ever-changing education scenario, she points out how institutes, today, have become learner centered and shifted from being teacher centered before. She tries to explain the changes very concisely: “Teachers are evolving. Technology is taking control. Learners are more exposed to the world. One needs to mature with time, control one’s learning and be a learner for life to become successful. More importantly, one needs to evolve towards being a guide!”
Adding to her thoughts, she highlights how technology has taken control of the classroom from the teacher. She points out how there is no centralization of power in the classrooms anymore – it is divided now. “Our learners are no longer shy rosebuds too. They are well exposed to the world. They understand it in a better way thanks to this digitization. Nothing is hidden from them,” she says. This has also ensured that the students are not treated as sheltered shy individuals, she comments. So much of learning and so little time at such a young age! We wonder if this approach helps a student to be successful at a personal level. “It definitely does help! You become more mature, are not raw anymore and when you take control of your learning, it makes you a learner for life,” she puts it beautifully.
Teacher as a Guide
A teacher has to ensure that she teaches the students the course matter. But there is a lot more that she can do. We ask Dr. Gupta on what she thinks on a teacher being a guide. She breaks down the problems being faced by students into two main parts – career and relationships. “There are just so many choices while choosing a career now. That is what makes it even more confusing! Earlier, MA English used to generate two paths – teaching and competitive exams. Now, it generates content writers, journalists, IELTS trainers and so on,” she says. At the same time, she points out how more and more people are also getting into things like translation which is why they need a lot of guidance in terms of career. “And I find that this guidance used to be restricted earlier to the final semester. Now, the moment the students begin with the course, they are aware,” she points out.
The second problem is relationships. She agrees with the general idea that being digitally connected adds to the confusion about relationships. She stresses on subtleness while handling such situations. “We need to be covert while guiding the students on such issues. We have to maintain a boundary and be more overt while handling the situation – give them a book, tell them about a website, or just say something in the class. It has to be very subdued. It just can’t be too ‘in your face’,” she says.
The Problems and Their Solutions
Coming down to a major issue with teaching today, one cannot help but notice the lack of exposure offered by various institutes. While many options have opened up for the students, they seem to remain misguided or confused at times. “There is no sense of pause. People would do a course or a degree and pause for a while and think in the good old days. Now, they run from one course to the other and then another. It starts from class 9th and goes on till they are employed,” she says while agreeing with us. “This adds to the confusion. So if you were to just sit and think, I have students who complete MA in English. They then go on to do a B.Ed. and then come back to do a Ph.D. I ask them, ‘B.Ed is school, Ph.D. means college and university, so what are you doing?’ But they rarely have an answer. At this point, they need somebody who can show them the way – make them realize the meaning of ‘thus far and no further’. We need teachers who are mentors rather than just being deliverers of course material,” she adds.
But the need to start early in the competitive career of today makes the aforesaid situation a bit more tricky. Can internships or practical assignments help in any manner, we wonder. Dr. Gupta explains how the introduction of the semester system has made possible the use of such techniques like assignments. “We are trying to encourage the students to get involved with organizations at the beginner level. More and more organizations are inviting interns from universities. Till now, English has seen little progress in this area. I am hoping that it too would see such a phase,” she hopes. Bringing in journalism into the conversation, she tells us out how interns in such organizations are called trainees and offered a job if it works out. “There are some teaching assistant-ships available. We encourage the students to go for them. Things are happening, but slowly and steadily,” she says.
Changing Student Mindset
The attitude of the students today in our country is very different from that of those in the West. To bring them at par with one another, Dr. Gupta suggests making the most of on-the-job trainings, internships and other such instruments. “Earlier, say five years ago, if we had an event in the department, our reflex response would be to get volunteers from those in the final semester. But over the past two-three years, I have noticed that the first semester students are getting more interested in such things too,” Dr. Gupta says. “Now, when we ask for volunteers, the maximum number of them is from the first and second semester. Things are changing now,” she says. She points out that a part of this may also be because the final year students are more focussed on building their career (read: getting jobs).
“I think the department of English has always been at the forefront of change, where the University is concerned. New things are introduced this side,” she says. She goes on to add about the importance of interdisciplinary learning: “The future is definitely in interdisciplinary learning. We’ve got to reach out to each other because our concerns are related and that is the way to grow. There are more initiatives, things are happening, and I feel that the winds of change are coming in. We would definitely see changes.” She explains the concept while taking an example of the University itself. “I teach here at the department of English, but I also go across to the business school and the university institute of management sciences. I go across to the hotel administration, tourism institute, teach speech pathologists at the PGI, go across to them and teach clinical linguistics. So that way, I feel most teachers are finding that it is getting difficult to remain restricted within the walls of the discipline. Whether we like it or not, we will be reaching out,” she says.
Open lectures have been a concept which has gained more traction over the years. We ask for her views on it and she is all gung-ho about it. “It’s a wonderful concept and it should come in because it will give more confidence to us as teachers. It will open up the barriers. You will not have intolerance and narrow-mindedness with things like open lectures,” she says. She goes on to quote Jawaharlal Nehru who laid importance on ‘minds without borders’. She points out that open lecture is based on that. There are no boundaries where minds are concerned, where learning is concerned, she maintains.
Finally, what does the future hold for the education system? Where it is heading, we ask. “The education sector is heading towards a complete overhaul. The kind of financial crises that we have and are facing in the public sector universities are such that can be resolved only if we wake up and smell the coffee. You compare the running of a private sector university with a public sector university, you realize the difference. So, it is the public sector universities which will need to gear up and become financially independent,” she summarizes.
But change is not such an easy thing. There are bound to be hindrances to such foundational changes. And that is where the worries lie. We question her on whether she believes the existing faculties would be open towards such drastic changes? “That’s the problem,” she says, “It’s a drastic change at all the levels. One can see small things happening but it will take more than a decade for things to change.”
A book that has inspired you: 'The Fountainhead' by Ayn Rand,
A saying you always pass on: You need to be a learner always. Education never stops.
A message for the teachers: Teachers are always learners. The day you stop learning, you can’t teach.
A student of today must look forward to: Keep growing and evolving
Teaching for you is: My passion