Thursday, 26 April 2012

Bollywood Bumper Banners

By Mrunal Savkar

Seen on a truck in Mumbai:

Buri nazar wale tera muh kaala
Rakhi teri biwi aur Salman tera saala

Neeyat ho achchhi to khule kismat ka taala
Nek dilwale ko hi milegi Madhubala!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Worse than worthless!

by Vidya Jonnalagadda

Can any activity be worse than zero? Can something be so inane, silly, absurd, ridiculous, ludicrous, bizarre, childish, immature, meaningless, pointless, and futile that it merits a negative score on a scale for utilitarian value?

Sadly, the answer is yes. And one perfect triple example of worthless activity is INSEAD winning a top award for launching black toilet paper! The report at notes “The INSEAD case study documented how Renova, a privately-held European paper products company headquartered outside of Lisbon, Portugal, managed to differentiate itself from its international competitors, transform white toilet paper from a commodity into a premium product, and then enter new business sectors through innovative marketing. The result was “Renova Black,” the world’s first black toilet paper, which rapidly shifted from a novelty item to a luxury fashion item. Equally rapidly, the company moved from supermarket aisles into boutique hotels, fashion shows and the headlines.

Well, toilet paper has value, but to me, its value does not lie in the designer colors and prints; what matters is that it meets certain service requirements. So, to me, creating designer toilet paper is the first waste-of-time activity. Researching and documenting this instead of following other ventures that produce something of real value is the second waste-of-time activity. And finally, recognizing this documentation as the best management study is the third waste-of-time activity.

Having read about this award, do you also, like me, have questions like: Is making profit the only criterion for judging the “value” of a business? Does success in marketing lie in convincing people that they are someone special if they use designer toiletries? In fact there is one company that tells us to use their products because "you are worth it!" Is there no interest in seeking and studying cases where a company introduced improved utilization of resources or addressed a long-standing social problem such as unemployment? Do most or all MBA students have to study such case studies as ‘model’ business practices? And, like in a recent TV advertisement claiming that responsible parents provide a color printer for their children as the sure shot route to academic advancement, is slick presentation all that is required to garner recognition of merit? Does the social relevance or significance of the content of a presentation have no worth?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Hindi serials

by Vidya Jonnalagadda

Every weekend, I want to watch a movie – see some interesting story. You would think that given the multitude of multiplexes and countless cable channels, I would have a hard time deciding what to watch. I do have a hard time indeed, but in finding something decent to watch on TV, and not just because of the ever-intruding advertisements. It appears that I have already watched everything worth watching on cable! Whatever is left is all too violent, too offensively stupid, or mind-numbingly boring. And in the theaters there is nothing each week that is attractive enough to compensate for the hassle of traffic, parking, and overpriced snacks. If we are lucky, we make it to a theater once every couple of months!

On weeknights, I watch some Hindi serial, much to the mirth and annoyance of several of my family members. How, they ask, can an intelligent person watch episodes where the ‘villainous’ bahu gets the ‘model’ bahu in trouble by switching the containers of oil and ghee in the kitchen, and the model bahu gets scolded for making, in her ‘innocence’, the bhog ka halwa in oil instead of ghee? Granted the serials are very silly indeed, but after a day of work at home and outside, it is somewhat comforting in the evening to escape to the world where such simple household intrigues are the height of treachery and corruption. A welcome change from the empty-speak of anchors, “experts”, and politicians on the news channels – all alleging or denying the latest multicrore ghotala, and claiming in their defense that the other political party did worse things during their tenure. At least the serials do not claim to be meaningful! 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Evaluate your life !

By Vidya Jonnalagadda

Well, we are constantly doing that – evaluating our life – in terms of health, wealth, and familial/social relationships. But have you assigned marks to it? Last year, my life scored 72.8/100 but the year before it was 69.3/100.

Does this sound preposterous? But this is where we are headed in terms of assigning numerical values, or marks - to put it simply, to all activities that our children are doing. If a certain news channel and celebrity endorsements that it has garnered become successful in changing the education policy (now why a news channel should seek to shape policy instead of reporting events and analyzing their implications is another matter), soon students will be awarded marks for games and sports.

How will this work? A child running 100 meters under 20 seconds will get 10 points and those running it between 20 and 30 seconds get 8 points? Score 2 goals in an inter-house football match and capture another 10 points? Play in an inter-school tournament and get 20 points? Will playing in a team event fetch more points than participating in an individual event? And what if a child “fails” in sports – will it affect their promotion/admission to the next class? Will we see the emergence of ‘sports tuition centers’ and ‘guess papers’ and ‘study guides’ to ensure success in the sports Units Tests and Final Exams?

I am not just questioning how marks will be awarded in a fair and transparent manner – I am disturbed by the very thought of awarding marks for everything a child does. Most of the teachers I meet are distressed about the marks-centric mindset of students (one of my students asked “What is biodiversity for 8 marks?”), parents (one teacher told me that a parent threatened to move her child to another school - “Arre, I am paying you so much and my child got only 79%? I should move him back to his old school where he used to get 80%!”), and management (one of my friends filling in for a KG teacher was told “Teach only 4 names of colors, then all students will get 100%. Their parents are paying our high fees, so they expect their children to score at least 90% (for a related story, please see previous blog ‘When is a vegetable not a ‘real’ vegetable?”)). The marks-centric approach has converted school textbooks into Units for 2 marks or 5 marks (in some cases, even fractional marks like 0.5 marks). Fortunes have been made by private bodies (I can’t call them ‘educational institutions’ since their only activity is getting students to repeatedly answer ‘model’ questions) catering to the quest for marks. I see in my college that students do not put in any effort to understand important subjects like ‘Science and Civilization’, ‘Indian History and Culture’, and ‘Environmental Studies’ since marks for these subjects are not ‘counted’ in calculating the final grade for their B.Sc. degree.

Have we reached the day where children will refuse to play (or paint or sing or dance) unless they get marks for their efforts? And, as adults, will they evaluate their lives on a numerical scale?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Education for what?

By Vidya Jonnalagadda

What is the purpose of education? Today, most students (and their parents), expect that following the yellow brick road of the ‘3 R’s will lead them to the magical Emerald City of the ‘3E’s. In other words, Reading + Writing + Arithmetic = Excellent Education Ò Easy Employment Ò Enormous (or at least enough) Earnings!

Recently I read in the news that fewer than 20% of our fresh engineering graduates are employable! If a technical course holds such bleak job prospects, what can basic science promise? As a teacher of basic science, my colleagues and I often ponder on how what we teach can be translated into employability for our students, because one main reason cited for the falling enrollment in science courses is the lack of career opportunities. 

A couple of years ago, our college held an annual function for the MBA students. As I could not attend the Inaugural Session, I asked my father’s friend, a distinguished retired officer of the IAF (Indian Air Force) and a guest at that function, about what the speakers said. He told me that he was shell shocked by what he had heard – (paraphrasing here): “When I was a student, I was told that the purpose of education was to lead a refined life – to appreciate good science, powerful literature, and beautiful Fine Arts. Jobs were just for keeping together body and soul. Today, speaker after speaker told the students how education (degree) is a weapon to bludgeon one’s peers (read competition) into oblivion and soar to success (read corporate positions).”

So, what is right? Do we learn to earn (and lead a lavish lifestyle)? Do we read to breed greed? Or do we study to clear from our minds the muddy mess of ignorance, arrogance, and intolerance? Learn to turn into gentle, considerate, and creative beings? 

I like best the 'definition' of education given many years ago by my friend, Dr. Mokshay Madiman (now at Yale) – “Education should make us good citizens”. Which means law-abiding, responsible builders of strong communities (good parents and good neighbors), and of course, tax-paying (good employers and employees) people who also know and exercise their civic rights.

So, is it possible to design syllabi for high school and college science courses which not only impart strong subject knowledge, but also inculcate skills to convert this knowledge into employment or entrepreneurship?