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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Musings of a teacher of a peripheral university

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"What the hell are you doing all these years outside Dhaka, even though you say it's a public university?" asked a friend of mine whom I have known now for more than two decades.

He is a good-looking chap, a brilliant one. Now he is serving as mid-level government officer of a very important Cadre. My friend doesn't live in financial hardship as many employees at the end of the month complain of.

He is in the money as they say. For some departments of the government, money is no big deal and individuals do not matter. His family is being raised in a luxurious apartment in Dhaka; and as I sat next to him at his plush residence in Dhanmondi, I could smell the expensive cologne he used.

My friend held his gaze at me, clearly expecting an answer. It made me uneasy; I had so many things to say, so many excuses to make; but eventually I said nothing, putting on one of those shy smiles that often carry the intimation of defeat than anything else.

My friend in the end tried to interpret my silence sympathetically, even gave a pat on my back. "I have faith in you; you will make it to Dhaka someday". He sounded important; he sounded superior; but, I was paying no attention to him; he had absolutely no idea what was going through my mind.

Strange as it may seem now, I was at that point visualizing my campus-residence at the university where I teach, the pastoral beauty of the place, those lovely mornings when I wake up to tread grasses that go soft with overnight dews, those mud-tracks that stretch interminably through green fields, wind along the sleepy cottages before stopping short of a river flowing beatifically to the south.

 I was thinking how the temptation of enjoying  the cool breeze, the pleasant sensation of sinking my feet into the mushy soil of the shallow river water, of inhaling the sweet fragrance released into the air by the roadside trees with blooming flower-buds keeps me awake  from early morning; I was thinking of those unadorned graveyards where many nameless village elders are laid, of those kids who  jump into the river as I do and swim in the wind-tossed, sun-kissed waters till the arms and legs get numb with much fun.

"Okay, I have got to go; I have a meeting to attend ". There is something stern in the voice of my friend, overlaid as always, with the congeniality of humor. Evidently he was annoyed at my spacing out in the middle of a conversation. I obliged. We went outside and walked all the way to car waiting to take him to the all- important meeting.

And as I looked on at the car speeding away, I realized that the distinction between a high-placed government officer and a public university teacher is not very difficult to find. Ordinary people love power; they want to participate in a system where power in its institutional form is crude and coercive.

 like it or not, education today is exclusively public service examinations oriented; almost every student today at the tertiary level of education dream of being a bureaucrat and enjoy an aura of invincibility that clings to men in the power-enclaves.

That is why, I believe there is something puerile when people bring in the issue of quota in public service exams. Quota or not, the madness of a desire for reaching the summit of social hierarchy informs many of those individuals agitating in the street today either for keeping or abolishing quota system. When everyone aims at the same goal, it is so ridiculous when some people take on holier-than-thou pose.

Unlike these people who aim big at the high-end of power, there are people (and they are not insignificant in number) like me who chose, quietly, teaching posts in public universities outside Dhaka. Why outside Dhaka?

 For me the answer is simple: Dhaka is not 'big' enough to accommodate us all; there is the law of the jungle even in the academia; the less is said of it, the better. But one thing that must be said is that the dignity of university teachers, more specifically of teachers of universities situated outside the capital, is alarmingly on the wane.

In my spare time at the campus that commands a wonderful vista of a river flowing on the one side and a green expansive countryside on the other, I go out and look for weak saplings of trees caught between the cleft of stones or under bricks. I usually find them yellow and dying.  Those young trees need air and sunshine; and, I have a group of dedicated students ready with their voluntary service; with proper care and nursing, these trees can grow big in time, give shelter and food to people.

Young trees serves me a metaphor; public  universities outside Dhaka are like those  weak saplings; they are still infrastructural incomplete, academically not updated,  limited in resources ,under-employed in terms of the number of teachers and officials working. These universities need good care, proper planning and a visionary leadership.

They need financial and logistical help from the government and the body known as University Grants Commission; without the required help from the relevant authorities, these universities at one point will end up being ones completely unworthy of the distinction of 'university '- a fate already befallen many universities outside Dhaka.

Students studying in these universities feel that they are the most deprived ones; teachers are perennially unhappy because they think that they are not being properly evaluated; the authority complains of constraints in budgets and funds. There are skeptics who are ready to dismiss off these universities as 'peripheral '.

But my point is that one can't argue about the scarcity of resources and can't expect development to come always at an even pace. The scenario is by no means exclusive to the universities alone. Institutions and organizations that happen to be situated outside the capital suffer the same fate of 'delayed' development.

The narrative of development in Bangladesh is lop-sidedly capital-based and the narrative is more than forty years old. But the crisis of dignity of 'peripheral' universities could not be so serious if there were not something fundamentally wrong about the professionalism of our university teachers. You can't simply blame the loss of dignity of teaching today on the lack of good buildings and benches.

It is one thing to be aware of being poor, it is another to make politics of poverty; the latter doesn't make you rich, only poorer. When teachers fall out with one another, forge pro-VC and anti-VC groups in their rat race to get close to the authority, manipulate officials and students as leverage to outsmart their colleagues, it doesn't look very pretty.

It looks terribly ridiculous because the things they do in the name of unity, dignity and excellence only expose the horrible emptiness of these hallowed goals. Think of how low they can stoop to when it comes to defending their self-interests, how jealous they can be when they malign one another before the authority, how abusive they sound when they ride roughshod over the reputation of their colleagues.

There are disturbing reports of some dominant teachers associations threatening, mafia style, to take individuals out of the 'picture' simply because those individuals have different things to say; this indeed is a medievalism in the modern age; 

So, try as hard as they can, a community of teachers riven with personal conflicts and plagued with self-seeking schemes will never succeed to press home their demands, even if those demands are said to be for the good of the community. Things have come to such a sorry pass today that help is almost impossible to come from the highest authority, because some members of the community will even smell a conspiracy in that move.

This is strange world ruled by paranoia. Bitter as it may sound, it is by now an established fact that public universities outside the capital are infected with this malady more fatally than those in the capital.

Gone are the days when the leading students of the classes would qualify automatically for the teaching posts in universities; now is a time when backbenchers jump the benches and grab those posts; can these 'bench-jumpers' complain of not getting enough respect from people?

 These are big problems with no shortcut as I understand. And, my friend with his important government job and with all the power, protocol and glamour that he enjoys with abandon is certainly not the guy who can understand the problems and predicaments of a 'peripheral ' university.

When my friend asked me what I had been doing for years in a place no better than a provincial backwater, I was not surprised; I had been asking myself the same question too for many years. 

And, guess what! I have known the answer all along. There are only two options available for me, no third one; either I can go on teaching at my university, enjoying, when I need consolation, the romantic escapism of the place or I can do one thing -quit.

Frankly speaking, 'quit' threatens me after all these years in a place; I don't know any other way I can start afresh; so, I chose to tolerate men and their many ways; I chose to be a lover of nature.

If I had words to explain my situation to my friend who uses expensive cologne and walks with the elites of the bureaucracy, he would still laugh at me-
"Don't worry buddy; things will change". I wish they would.


The writer teaches English at the University of Barisal                               ------Yasif Ahmad Faysal

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