At the end of my first semester of teaching at Karakorum International University here in Gilgit, I have learnt a few lessons and observed quite a few interesting facts. I wanted to share the classroom experience hoping that it would clarify some things and bring forward some important issues. On the other aspects of teaching at a university – the experience as an employee of the institution – I would use Kipling’s favorite evasion; that, dear reader, is another story, for another time.
I was pleasantly surprised to find students eager to learn and to improve their existing capabilities. It is a pity that they are not sufficiently facilitated in the small ways that one normally takes for granted at a university; things like easy access to computers and the internet, inexpensive printing of assignments and comfortable places to sit down and have exchanges of ideas. That, however, does not mean that students should forever be on the receiving end and not take some proactive initiatives.
There are basically four problems hindering the full growth of KIU students’ potential. Firstly, of course, there is the inability to correctly express themselves in English. Pakistanis’ general ungainly wrestling with the English language has always intrigued me. Our young university students are uncomfortable in the language even after more than a decade of having learnt it in school. Apart from the flaws in the teaching methods usually employed for English, there is another issue here directly related to the second problem I wish to discuss.
No one reads anymore. As all my former students must remember, this is my constant complaint. Our youngsters have not been taught to enjoy reading and to see it not as a means to an end, but as a fun activity in itself. This results in poor vocabularies, absence of distinctive style in writing and loss of knowledge in translation. Fortunately, reading is not an expensive habit to develop nor does it require excessive guidance. I normally tell my students to read anything and everything; it is important to learn to recognize bad stuff too. Language – and not just English – is the medium of all human culture and knowledge. A person who does not read becomes a slow processor of information, largely ignorant of broader civilization and unable to fully convey his or her ideas.
The third problem is perhaps the biggest of all. There is little expectation in the average student that he or she is supposed to make an effort and sweat a little intellectually. They want not to be recommended various books but to be given brief notes. They want to know exactly what shape the question paper would take. A 30-page booklet is too long to read. Even to watch a film is tedious work. These things can be at once amusing and exasperating for an instructor. Sometimes one succumbs to pressure and reduces the amount of work for students. But the right thing to do is not to bring the standard down to the weakest students’ level. One must keep a reasonable, challenging but achievable, minimum level that each student must strive to meet. They don’t have to be perfect but also not be indulged too much.
Lastly, there is the most dangerous lack of understanding of the concept of plagiarism. Even after repeated instructions, students find it hard to accept that anything they write has to be in their own words, even if the ideas are not very original. It is very important to clarify right in the beginning what plagiarism is and why it is not acceptable. But it is true that this problem is rooted in the ‘sab chalta hay’ attitude common in our society. I don’t see any solution to this problem except absolute intolerance to plagiarism to be applied as a strict policy by teachers themselves. It is a cruel but imperative lesson to be taught.
All of these problems can be rectified by students themselves if the purpose and meaning of real education is properly imparted to them. It is the job of university teachers to give them a sufficiently challenging time while making themselves available for counseling and guidance. At the same time, it is important to make the eligibility criteria and admission tests strict enough to sift out those students who would not be able to cope with the demands of university education. It is not fair to let in a student who would be held back semester after semester. At the end of the day, all a university can do is give young people a chance to develop their potential. It cannot undo the damages of a bad schooling or teach basics which one is already supposed to have mastered when embarking on higher education. One cannot teach basic tenses in one lecture and Keats’ poetry in the next.