Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Making Humanities Relevant: Ideas About Applied Humanities

Humanities subjects are usually derided for their lack of practical application, yet those who studied humanities, like me, would vouch for its ability to inspire curiosity and develop judgement. Compared to many other disciplines where there may be one absolute answer to every question (though the point of education is to discover that there is no such thing), humanities often deal with judgment and opinions, abilities that we most often call upon in solving complex problems. Besides, in a world where the nature of fast evolving – from process-based to creative work – a good humanities education may be enormously helpful in equipping the leaders of the future.

However, this is not to argue that nothing has to change in humanities education, which is often delivered without regard to these changes that I just mentioned, and commonly in resentment to it. The idea I am working on is to design and deliver a humanities programme connecting it better to the goals such as employability (though this is an anathema to the humanities educators) and to develop abilities that are most likely to be needed for careers in business and society, now and in future. The key idea is to bring together the creative power of modern technologies, the nuanced perspectives enabled by good humanities education and disciplined focus of a career-orientated education together. I would like to label this educational approach, at least for now, Applied Humanities.

Graduate Attributes

It is good to start with the end in mind. What kind of graduates an Applied Humanities education as proposed here aim to produce?

The point of a good humanities education should indeed be to produce socially conscious, intellectually engaged, economically productive individuals, who could contribute to make lives better for himself/herself and others around them. Making of such a person depends on three key attributes: A social and ethical  commitment, an intellectual curiosity and an understanding of practical life. 

No education happens in a vacuum and this educational project, too, should be seen in the context of our time. While the above attributes have a ring of timelessness about them – these were worthy educational goals at any point of time in human history – achieving them in the current setting needs special consideration of our circumstances and possible shape of our future. Particularly relevant in this discussion is the rapid evolution of human work, which, tipped by intelligent machines and  global economy, is evolving fast, creating rewards for certain kinds of work but destroying jobs that were mainstay of middle class lives.

With such a backdrop, a graduate may not hope to achieve the life goals stated above without a set of attributes clearly aligned with the current landscape of work and life: That s/he must be creative, that s/he must be entrepreneurial, that s/he must be global and that s/he must be able to learn and progress, must be ensured if any educational endeavour has to achieve its goals.

So, any Applied Humanities curricula must take upon itself these objectives too – of a global, creative, entrepreneurial education enabling the development of lifelong learners – so that they can live a productive and satisfying life, socially, intellectually and economically.  

Degrees to Offer

I want to develop an experimental three-year undergraduate programme, broken into a two-year Applied Humanities education (borrowing the American structure) followed by an year of specialist education for an application area. I want the degrees to be granted to be named in line with the application areas for clear recognition of their value in respective professional fields, rather than ‘Applied Humanities’, which will be an inward-looking terminology not useful for the learners’ careers.

There may be a number of application areas that could be found for a good humanities education. However, considering that these may be offered in developing countries on the cusp of a consumer and media revolution, such an approach may mean undergraduate Honours programmes in areas such as Marketing and Communications, Learning and Development and Multimedia Journalism.  There is anecdotal evidence that this is where humanities graduates mainly land up, not because they were prepared for it but because their humanities education may be most valued by the employers for those roles. In a way, therefore, these areas may represent some sort of path of least resistance for the graduates with an applied humanities education. Besides, these are areas where a rapidly expanding consumer society may also need most of their new workers, and these jobs are often the safest, because of their twin requirements of creativity and persuasion, from the onslaught of automation.

Interdisciplinary Structure

One way to make humanities ‘Applied’ is to break away from the disciplinary boundaries, which may have served well the needs of scholarly inquiry but have created a gulf between the world of work and the world of learning. This may be replaced by a functional focus, offering a structure within which the learner, progressively, will discover the required knowledge within the context of their own motivation and interest.

So, instead of immersing the learner in a sea of information about a given subject area which s/he may not have chosen for himself/herself (a decision is made on learner’s behalf often by their parents), the Applied Humanities curriculum may seek to ‘enculture’ the learner in the humanities, exposing him/her to methods of inquiry, of the lineage of ideas and debates and with the language. Encouraged throughout to learn to learn, the learner should then seek to find one’s own area of development – and hopefully will continue to learn through life.

How The Curriculum May Look

This is indeed a poor men's version of the traditional humanities education, but there are lots of those in the world who come to college without the privilege to seek a 'safe space' for disinterested inquiry. Consigning these souls to lesser pleasures, almost without consideration of their deeper aspirations to lead a productive and happy life, has given humanities the bad name it gets. The idea of Applied Humanities is to seek to redeem this by finding practical significance within the practical business model of an institution, where the curricular discipline may be needed to tend of 'trivial' considerations such as costs. However, one could have a fairly prescriptive structure, covering the essential areas, yet allow a broad inquiry through the design of activities, and this is indeed what any institution seeking to offer Applied Humanities education should do. Keeping these considerations in mind, the above-mentioned undergraduate programmes may have a structure like the one I have speculated on, below: 
Stream/ Subject
Global History and Ideas
Understanding Social Life
Technology and Media
Communication and Leadership
Method of Work & Assessment
Individual and Collaborative
Year 1
Term 1 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Global History- Pre-Modern
Introduction to Social Inquiry
1. History of Media
2. Movie Making Techniques - Practical
Creative Writing  I – Plot, Structure and Character
Term 2 (13 weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Modern History
Introduction to Economics and Psychology
1. Understanding The Web
2. Movie Editing & Production
Creative Writing II – Writing a Film Script
Term 3 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Man & Society - Introduction to Political Philosophy
Social Research Methods
Film Making Project
Promotion Campaign for The Film Project - Web and Social Media

Year 2
Term 1 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Everyday Ethics
Introduction to Social Psychology
Web & Multimedia Development
Intercultural Communication
Term 2 (13 weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Understanding Religion and Social Behaviour
Psychology of Influence and Persuasion
Understanding Social Media and Developing Social Presence
Great Writer Project - Appreciation of the work of one major modern writer
Term 3 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Asian History and Culture (in Asia)
Behavioral Economics AND
Organisational Behaviour
Creating Integrated Media Campaigns
Leadership Biographies - Analysis of Leadership Skills and Contexts

Year 3 – Specialist Year
B Sc (Hons)
Marketing AND Comms
Learning & Development
Multimedia Journalism
Communication (Common)
Term 1 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
1. Business Environment & Strategy
2. Principles of Marketing
1. Organizational Development 2. Innovation and Change Management
1. Understanding Media
2. Principles of Communication
Business Project Placement
Term 2 (13 weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
1. Marketing Planning & Strategy
2. Market Research
3. Marketing Communication
1. Learning Technology Appreciation
2. Assessment Methods and Return on Learning
1. Print and TV Journalism
2. Multimedia Journalism
Business Project Placement
Term 3 (13 Weeks + 2 Study Weeks + 1 Week Break)
Project Management
Project Management
Project Management
Business Project Placement

Teaching Method

In keeping with the stated objective of the curriculum, that it should prepare the learners with forward-looking skills and abilities, the teaching of Applied Humanities should, at all times, encourage learners taking the lead on learning and teachers acting as facilitators and guides. All classes should be of a small size, and learners are to be provided with learning plans and all learning materials beforehand. The interactions in the classroom will presuppose learners’ prior knowledge of a given topic, and are to be constructed around short lectures, demonstrations and learner activities, such as presentations and debates. The assessments will be structured around continuous assessment, based on projects that learners complete or the essays they submit on an ongoing basis. In some papers, there may be a term end examination. Some of the activities and papers could be peer assessed.

Teaching Materials

A combination of textbooks and original texts will be used to cover the subjects mentioned. Learners will be encouraged to read widely and participate in research activities. Online journal use, multimedia assessment submissions and collaborative work (in most cases) should be encouraged.

Project Work

The learners will be expected to submit three major pieces of Project Work, all of which should be mandatory, should be assessed and count towards credit.

In the first year, they would submit a movie, either a documentary or a short feature, by working as a production team and dividing the tasks between themselves, with a tutor acting as a Coach/ Guide and offering Directorial assistance. 

In the second year, the same teams will be expected to work on integrated media campaigns to promote the film project in real life, exploring different channels, securing crowdfunding and distribution deals if needed.

In the third year, the learners will be expected to complete a Business Project through placement, outcomes for which will be pre-agreed with the employers (this will not be an internship making tea).

The Outreach Programme

One feature of this plan for Applied Humanities is to develop an extensive Outreach programme alongside the undergraduate offering, using technology-based communities (facilitated, as often as possible, by undergraduate students), offering the High School students a humanities-based option to develop employability and leadership skills. This will take the form of a two-year long programme of learning great texts, developing argument and presentation skills and engaging in social work, around a membership community, which will be maintained online and offline. This should help spread the message of Applied Humanities around and draw brighter students to pursue this career path.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Independence for Kolkata!

Kolkata is India's third largest city, its former capital and a desperately poor one. It is home for me, and whatever I write about it - and I keep writing about it - is never impartial. I can see, like everyone else, its broken politics, its stilted society, its broken infrastructure: However, if there is one city I would live in if all my wishes are granted, it will be Kolkata. This is indeed more about me than about the City, which has perhaps changed far more than I did, despite my life abroad and all that. However, this is more than nostalgia: I have never been a resident of Kolkata, living all my life in a suburb, and while I went to college in the city, I didn't know the city that well till fairly late in my life. And, this is not about its culture, which most Kokata residents are intensely proud of: While my cultural identity remains irredeemably Bengali and linked to Kolkata, I am also aware of the deep conservatism and class consciousness that pervades the Kolkata society, and caused the city's decline. In fact, the reason I find Kolkata immensely interesting is precisely because of its ability to defy its own cultural limits, to be able to maintain its street culture and not lose it to orthodoxy, to be able to remain free of celebrity-fetish which pervades other lively cities such as Mumbai (one can still roam around in College Street without being reminded, such as in Bandra, which famous bum adorned which seat) - in summary, its ability to renew itself. 

There are times when I have to explain 'Kolkata' to my colleagues and acquaintances: They want to know what is to make of this city other than treating it as a desperate corner of the world to avoid. For most of them, Kolkata is about Mother Teresa and her work: I feel obligated, like almost all other Kolkata residents, to object to this single-dimension description of the City. However, to do so, I avoid the trap of talking about 'famous sons', all those other Nobel Laureates Kolkata has produced, Indian or Foreigner working here: I do so in deference to the City's ability to remain outside the celebrity culture (outside its social clubs). I also avoid the temptation of talking about politics, because being the last bastion of communism to fall or signing up to the current soap opera does not reflect, in my opinion, the matured political persona of this city. Instead, I talk about two data points which, in my opinion, reflect the 'Kolkata Problem': That it is the only major city in the developing world, at this day and age of urbanisation, to have lost population in the last ten years, and that it is the only major Indian city which has an abundant supply of drinkable water to last it for at least the next fifty years. 

Cities lose population when they start dying: The great English industrial cities had all lost population when the age of industrial city was over in the West. And, so did the American cities like Detroit, and the Soviet-era cities in Russia and across Eastern Europe. But this is almost unthinkable in the developing world, where those industrial activities migrated to. Besides, with changing social norms, many people are always trying to escape desperate rural poverty to come to the cities. Seen from that perspective, Rajiv Gandhi's description of Kolkata as a 'dying city' in the 80s, for which he was loathed in the city, seems prescient.

However, Kolkata's decline in population may also be a direct result of conscious policy. A Centre Left government (using the Communist label) ruled the state of West Bengal for over thirty years: Their focus was firmly on the villages, starting with sweeping land reforms, which did help improve the rural income levels. The other part of their policy was industrial activism, which they clung onto as a primary tool to maintain their communist label: However, this meant, for the large part of their rule, a conscious policy of encouraging subsistence agriculture by discouraging private industry. Add to this the extensive welfare programmes afforded by the immediate past central government in Delhi, which channeled a huge sum of money to employment guarantee and other schemes in rural India, and Kolkata's declining population may look like a policy triumph rather than a disaster.

It is, nevertheless, still a disaster. Without resenting the good fortune of the village folks who used to come to the city slums earlier, one must also see that Kolkata as a city is failing to provide them with more opportunities than the handouts they may get staying in their villages. The welfare programmes did not stop people from going to Mumbai or Delhi, and the small cities in India has swelled with people, who often channeled the new-found rural income to the trading points to ensure runaway prosperity. But, nothing of that sort happened in Kolkata: Its once mighty port has declined, not just because of the shallowness of the river but more for its atrocious management and rampant crime; its industry had continued to falter, as its successive governments took on populist positions; and even the creative sectors, once its place of pride, have suffered because of government meddling and rise of a 'Durbur' culture, where the Chief Minister of the State has taken upon herself the role of patron-in-chief and the arbitrator of cultural taste. 

However, the mitigating factor, that Kolkata may be one of most sustainable of India's cities, should add to the perspective of its strategic importance. It is also significant if India's own pivot to Asia, the much talked about India-Bangladesh-Myanmar-China corridor has to become a reality. Besides, the creative economy in India, indeed overshadowed by the mighty Bollywood, still owes a lot to Kolkata, often drawing talent and ideas from the city. It still hosts some of India's best schools, and a strong knowledge-based culture. Though the successive governments have done much to meddle in its Higher Education system, destroying the meritocratic culture and the spirit of independent inquiry, the city maintained a vibrant public culture, an activist media community and a good publishing industry.

So, in short, the city is dying, by design or otherwise, and yet it has the potential to come back. However, it can't unless it is freed from the tyranny of the State Government, as the Economist of the Cities, Edward Glaeser, has recommended. It is big with its over 13 million people (and more if one adds the suburbs) and it deserves, just as the other major Indian cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore do, to be freed from the policy priorities of the State Government, which is often working against its interests (or at least being oblivious to its interests). The new Indian government, which has projected a strong pro-industrial, pro-urban, policy priority, should perhaps start here: Finding ways to establish more proactive city governments, which is independent of the state governments that stifle its progress. Indeed, I say this because I love Kolkata and feel dismayed about its decline; but I also say this because it makes abundant sense in the broader aim of India pursuing its path to development. All cities will benefit from such focus on self-government, but Kolkata as a basket case is perhaps the best illustration of the costs of not doing it. 

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Will be to arrive where we started
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