In Conversation with Professor Sudarsan Neogi

IIT Kharagpur as an institution was founded in August 1951. That makes this years’ batch its 66th batch of freshers. Now that’s a long legacy to be responsible for. To prepare them better for what’s coming and help them maximize what they take away from this place, it is important to identify the patterns where previous batches usually go wrong. As a first step towards getting there, The Scholars’ Avenue spoke to Prof. Sudarsan Neogi from the department of Chemical Engineering for his insights into the same. He had a lot to say from his experience, combining both a student’s and a professor’s perspectives, and here is what we think everyone should know.

It’s a fact that JEE preparation happens in an extreme environment and under huge pressure. A pressure build-up such as this calls for an extremely controlled release to keep in check, but the crux of the problem here is the very dearth of the same, coupled with a seemingly unlimited amount of freedom. Consequently the pressure gets released suddenly and people tend to slack off, sort of like an ‘adiabatic expansion against vacuum’. It is extremely important that one overcomes this tendency as IIT Kharagpur provides wonderful opportunities during our stay here and complacency would only mean that one leaves with less than what one could have had. Our campus houses the answer to all wonderment, a multi-forked path to all possible destinations. Department, hall or societies are here just to enable us to reach there. But, tread wisely. The first year here is generally the time when we can and would want to explore and pursue all our varied interests, mostly beyond academics. This makes it necessary to know how to strike a comfortable balance between curriculars and extra curriculars. It is often very tempting to put academics at the back-seat and enjoy this new found freedom, and there will always be many things to learn, many non-academic ventures just waiting to be discovered. But caution needs to be exercised to never let the ‘extra overshadow the curricular’. This sense needs to be cultivated from the very beginning, because, just like knives waiting to be sharpened, we are here for a purpose – To develop core competencies and be more than what we are. It should be kept in mind that graduating with just the bare minimum as a mediocre will put to waste all the hard work that has been put into coming here and goes against the spirit of fulfilling education. Everyone is exposed to view points that clash with their own, or they seek advice for things they lack knowledge about. The ability to use others’ experience is advantageous, but that should always be paired with a critical outlook and analysis to see how it applies in one’s life, because imbibing things as they are might lead to disillusionment. This is where another problem comes into light. Every incoming batch comes in with different expectations, and is suddenly exposed to an onslaught of shattering realities – the overpowering senior-junior relationship, and a taste of how the real world works. It is therefore, not surprising, if a senior’s word is regarded as gospel. This is where the malaise, the so-called ‘funda’ that in the first year it’s fine to drown yourself in various activities while your academics slowly fade into the dark, has its roots planted. And it’s necessary to uproot these at this stage itself, for these are the students who will go on to spread the same shared knowledge to the upcoming batches.

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We live in a post-Google age right now, and out of all problems, we face a stark crisis of an overload of information. Detailed descriptions can be found online about almost anything. This has only increased the emphasis of a teacher’s role in a student’s life. An experienced vision is necessary to give some direction to start. A well built professor-student relationship can help out a long way. It is a time tested, coveted relationship. Each professor’s dream is to impart as much knowledge as he can and make students what they dream to be. But this can be nurtured only when there exists a healthy relationship between them. But with the current system in place, the scope of such interactions is limited to start at the sophomoric level, and by then a lot of pre-conceived notions set in. The teacher-student ratio is an issue that ticks off another box in this list. With a teacher exposed to the intense mixture of sincerity and tomfoolery of an army of students 200 strong, it is quite unreasonable to expect individual attention. But on the other hand, this system cannot be dramatically changed either. There has to be a mechanism where student and teachers come together, and currently, both parties are equal shareholders. The teachers should bring in more real life examples and justify what is being taught. This would definitely pique any student’s interest. Even in classes with a large number of students, organizing activities like short talks, debates on topics combined with group based solving of problems could be a start. The students would come out of the class feeling satisfied that they contributed something to the class. In classes at the departmental level, additional approaches become feasible. The professor can connect to the student at a personal level. Calling out everyone’s names and remembering them could bring about a surprising change in a student’s attitude towards asking doubts and clearing concepts. The other side of the tale talks of the essence of a student’s presence in a class to sustain such a relationship. It is, after all, a student’s willingness to participate in a free and fair discussion that makes a class bright. They should utilize the class time to the fullest, and create an intellectual environment where everybody comes out of their shells, everybody learns turning it into a magical experience filled with really interesting perspectives.

Prof. Neogi’s approach can be cited as an example. He is involved in teaching the Environmental Science course in the second year, a course misinterpreted as out of context by many. But that did not put him down. He used the same interactive methods to enlighten the class. Conducting active discussions and talks on topics like the odd-even rule in Delhi, pollution control proved to be a game changer that saw an increase in the class strength from about 20% to 40%. Though, seemingly minimal, this is a proof that the right chord can be struck between the two. Prof. Neogi emphasizes on getting to know students by names and recalling his college days, he describes being called by name as an ‘electrifying’ experience and the starting point of an invisible bond.

One more fallacy that the professor would like to dispel is the old age misconception that demarcates the Physics, Chemistry and Maths stream from the Physics, Chemistry and Biology one. He points out that such a separation does not hold true anymore. This concern comes up with the inclusion of the Biological Sciences course in the second year curriculum. As far as our curriculum is concerned, it is dynamically reviewed every year according to changing trends and there is a strong reason for the IIT authorities to have agreed to include it. “Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology are the four pillars of basic understanding at the foundational level.”, quotes the professor. Biology is intricately related to our lives. Why, our own lives are complex biological systems. Having a dream of pursuing science and neglecting biology is a short-sighted way of looking at it. A case in point is the Bio-Chemical Engineering course that the professor teaches to fourth year students of the Chemical Engineering discipline. He notes that he had to spend the starting classes just to teach the fundamentals of biology as almost 20% of the class was not well versed in it. Every other department too has potential applications in this field and hence, the learning of such a topic should not be underestimated. Even MIT has a compulsory first semester course related to this.

On a broader level, tangible learning is something that is slowly losing its ground today. This can be partly attributed to students not making informed decisions at the college level about which course to pursue. There are not many ideas out there about different departments, students come with preconceived notions- another valid concern – there’s a hype surrounding few chosen ones, each department has its story and the knowledge is limited about a lot of departments. The way they get information is biased and this kicks in the herd-following habit. A clear picture of what they are involved in or where they want to go should be known. The professor puts this in an interesting analogy, “You’re boarding a train and you’re told that you’ll get somewhere in 24 hours. But you don’t know where you’ll be going for the first 6 hours. In the meanwhile there’s a station in the same period where you can get down. How do you decide?”

A very obvious answer is the rarely used avenue of having a discussion with a professor but it can be quite intimidating for a first year to approach a professor on the same. Prof. Neogi feels overcoming the aforementioned intimidation is a very important step. He is more than willing to help students out in this case. At one instance, he took a group of students to the Haldia Petrochemicals factory to give them a greater insight, though this wouldn’t be always feasible. In general, he feels there should be a more ordered system in place. Two-credit introductory courses for every discipline would definitely help students know about their department thoroughly before making the decision of a department change, provided that the credits for such courses do not affect the grade point. There is also an option for students to suggest changes and give feedback through a professor which in turn will be forwarded to and given consideration by higher authorities.

From the Institute’s side, to promote overall learning and also learning tailored to suit any particular student’s needs, many new initiatives have been brought in like micro specialization courses, a number of inter-disciplinary courses, innovative labs and new challenging projects in the upcoming areas. With such a bulk of opportunities, to turn a blind eye would be a grave mistake, and starting right from the very moment you step into this hallowed institute could turn the tables for you.

On a final note, a quote from Prof. Neogi would bring into perspective the roles and responsibilities of a student and teacher, “Teaching in a class is the mainstay, most satisfactory experience in IIT life.” It is up to both the parties to validate the above statement.

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