What Prevents Teachers to Engage with College Students in Real Classrooms?*

Nandan Nawn
20 min readSep 17, 2021

* This is an edited version of the handout for a class on ‘fact value’ in Methods of Research in Economics course on 15.09.2021. The other handout was the shapes used as ‘mask’ in wordclouds.com (one example is here). The term college is used as a proxy for all kinds of higher educational institutions (HEIs); student is anyone having attained 18 years, enrolled in an HEI and eligible to register for vaccination on CoWin platform.

[Disclosure: One of my workspaces has decided to “open the campus for off-line classes in a phased manner” through a notification dated 01.09.21. For 6 of its 13 Master’s Programmes — but not any of its 6 Doctoral Programmes — classes in “majority of the courses” are to take place “from campus with effect from 20.09.21.”]

Numerous Colleges and Universities in India had witnessed protests from the students in the last many months. The demand has been common and rather basic: it is for opening the campuses. A typical (not archetype) headline has been ‘Faceoff between students and management of […] over reopening of campus’ (link). Headlines to capture the responses from the administration were bizarre at times. Consider ‘FIR against JNU students who “broke into library”’’ (link). When students have to barge into the library, or (allegedly) come up with innovative methods of issuing a ‘fake notice to open up the campus’ it is surreal surely.

On 28.08.21., Aranya Shankar reported that “Keen to reopen, but not on September 1, say Delhi’s universities” in Indian Express (link). It is interesting to note that HEIs were one among the last to ‘open up’ for the very activity for which they were created.[1] It can be safely assumed that they include creation of knowledge, skills and various other attributes that result in ‘capabilities’ among the students, ‘pushing’ them to think or even dream.[2]

On 21.08.21., DDMA order (link) on opening of schools was released. On 30.08.21., Directorate of Education: School of Branch of Government of NCT of Delhi released the SOP for “Re-opening of Schools, Colleges, Educational/Coaching Institutes” (Annexure B). DDMA order on the same date permitted all types of educational institutes and libraries “for the students from class 9th onwards, with a maximum 50% of the seating capacity on classroom” (emphasis added).

This is identical to restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres, auditoriums, and other such. Anyone who has ever been to a real classroom either as a real student or a real teacher or both (and can still remember the experience) understands the difference between the ‘actions’ involved, ‘practices’ carried out and ‘impacts’ of the ‘transactions’ that take place in these spaces: one is quite personal in nature and takes place between those who know each other and/or in the process of knowing, while in the other, they may meet only once in their lifetime (akin to the relationship between a circle and its tangents: ‘kissing once and missing it forever’; see footnote 2 as well).[3]

Since 31.08.21. DDMA order, a number of HEIs in Delhi has taken decisions to ‘open the campus’ for ‘return’ of the students for offline classes (as in disclosure above; also link 1, link 2) — this prefix is a gift of Covid! But seeing this series of events as just a delayed response from the State may not be appropriate for any real student or real teacher or for that matter anyone who can think and act in a consistent manner based on a principle; actually, any principle.

[1] They were ‘closed’ as per the relevant notifications issued by DDMA for many months. Before 31.08.2021, various orders permitted both teachers and administrative staff to enter HEIs and use their ‘office spaces’. It is impossible to imagine the ‘office space’ of a teacher that does not include a physical classroom with students. A semantic exploration of ‘open’ and ‘close’ for a space created to provide education is a matter left for future inquiry (but see, below). Moot question, when an institution is closed, can it ‘transact’ matters of im-impersonal nature? (negative of negative makes it stronger than interpersonal, and such matters in literature does not follow mathematics like negative of a negative is positive) Yes, when banks remain closed, impersonal transactions do take place through electronic means. But these two types of transactions cannot be compared.

[2] Wikipedia entry on Capabilities approach includes ‘Senses, Imagination, and Thought’ among the [“core capabilities Nussbaum argues should be supported by all democracies”] but not dreams.

[3] I owe it to a maverick and unconventional teacher at Patha Bhavan, Kolkata where I studied class XI and XII. The other mathematics teacher taught saddle point (see, Wikipedia entry) while drawing a (horse) saddle in the air and explaining how maxima vis-à-vis one plane can be a minima vis-a-vis the other plane. This is circa 1988. 33 years!

“In every artform, the ros (emotion; sentiment; taste; flavour) can be found over multiple layers. […] Ros can be enjoyed across layers.

Consider a film. At the surface, there can be a story on how life’s quilt is weaved through laughter, cries, sorrows and joys. A little deeper, one can find the interplay of the political and the social. Going even deeper, one can find signs and footsteps of the artist’s philosophy and (even) self-consciousness. Those who can dive even deeper, attains moments of ecstasy that I cannot capture them through expressions”.[1]

Khayal karna bahut zaroori haiiss mein ilaaj ki shakti haiek marham hai jisse dard mitta hai. […] Jo dikhta hai humko lagta hai, hai…Aur jo nahi dikhta humko lagta hai, nahi hai…lekin kabhi kabhi jo dikhta hai, woh nahi hota…aur jo nahi dikhta, woh hota hai”.[2]

The short (read, cryptic) answer to the question in the title: lack of consistency on the part of some with ‘agency’ in this matter.[3] Obviously, the text below is supposed to answer the question to the satisfaction of the reader. But for reasons explained eloquently in the two quotes above, it may not be possible to ‘make myself clear’.[4] In all likelihood, this entry may ‘show’ the reader only one of the layers of ‘what lies beneath’ (no connection to the more famous one) the surface.

Students’ urges to be at the campus is real. After all, they all look forward to making new connections, associations, and relationships (may be just to share their dreams, which people of a more advanced age may refuse to hear or even acknowledge, and in the process forge ‘solidarities’ of many kinds). Most students (including this author) are quite proud of her/his alma mater, of the friendships and the memories (ok granted, not all). In fact, some of the HEIs started ‘displaying’ their alumni (even Google ; more on the making of this new product later).

It follows that every prospective ‘partner’ of these multiple bonds will be quite careful if not choosy in the process of locating those with whom such bonds can be potentially forged, care for those with whom such potentials gets realised and the spaces where they are built (classroom is one such; but it is used rather as a metaphor). As we all know, each participant in any sustained bond must trust the other. History of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is a classic example from the financial sphere.[5]

Social distancing, at its core, asks everyone not to trust the ‘other’.[6] It hardly offers any possibility forge new relationships and sustain existing ones through the physical spaces. As the term says, it distances one from one’s social — past, present and future ones.

However, as expected, students have found ways to mimic the physical space that an HEI could have offered to them (as has been prior to March 2020). Social media and other electronic platforms have provided these alternative spaces. Indeed, (present) students as a group have been consistent.

The students before them did find out many alternatives and those after them will find them too; one can and should trust students to innovate. Hundreds of films and thousands of books have been written on how students find ways to start and sustain relationships with other students (not just romantic kinds) and also with teachers (no qualifier required, but see, fn 2 in next section). These bonds are initiated, explored, formed and sustained outside the physical space offered by an HEI (inside or outside the classrooms) that lasted their lifetimes (including romantic ones; and I know many).[7] Yet, the importance of meeting someone in the physical space to explore a relationship cannot be denied; at least initiating them. This space at least allows multiple possibilities.[8]

Admittedly, students have the least ‘agency’ on the matter of ‘opening up’ of the physical space under consideration. But what about those with higher levels of agency ? What about teachers, teacher associations (TAs) and authorities?[9] Admittedly, teachers who are not organised or are under conditions of service that makes them vulnerable, may not be willing to voice their opinion or take any other form of risk.

That leaves TAs — at the level of individual institutions and the umbrella ones — and the plethora of statutory authorities including regulatory bodies, ministries and departments in central and respective state governments. Due to administrative convenience or even due to complete lack of understanding on what goes inside HEIs (obscure, insignificant and therefore dispensable?), the latter agencies may have thought its best to treat HEIs at par with every other form of marketplace like bars, restaurants, malls, and banquets. It will be naïve to expect an augmented level of sensitivity on their part in handling the HEIs (it’s a nuanced matter, to be dealt with separately). In fact, these agencies have been consistent in their treatment of HEIs.

This ‘defence’ cannot be used by the former agencies however. But we must now explore two conceptual matters before arguing that the TAs have been rather inconsistent.

[1] Ritwik Ghatak, (1963/2017) “Manobsomaj, Amader Oitihyo, Chhobi Kora o Amar Prochesta” (Human Society, Our Culture, Film-Making and my Efforts) in Bibhas Mukhpadhay, ed. Ritwikkumar Ghatak: Samogrik Mulyan (Comprehensive Analysis), Cholochchitra Chorcha, Kolkata: Cholochchitra Chorcha, p. 17. Author’s translation. First published in Chalachitra Autumn issue (source: Wikipedia), re-released in several other places including here.

[2] Dialogues from Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth). Dialogues by Amole Gupte. I have used the second quote during teaching of poverty line in India and number of people below poverty line in Economics II, at WbNUJS.

[3] I thank my students in Methods of Research Economics for the discussion in the class that made this entry a lot richer and nuanced.

[4] This ‘string’ is a part of a sentence that Prabhat Patnaik used to say at the end of an argument quite regularly. Students like me could not even scratch the surface most of the times. This was Macroeconomics circa 1994. In 2016, my two co-authors of his Festschrift asked me to write the sub-section ‘Towards a Socialist Project’ and contribute to other sub-section on Capitalism under ‘Works of Prabhat Patnaik’ in Introduction. I will pen a ‘Making of Festschrifts’ and release in due course of time.

[5] These days, the bank in which I maintain a savings account sends me contact of my relationship manager with regularity; I never respond. How can have a relationship without knowing?

[6] All possibilities included; most comprehensive definition is of ‘alien’ in US’s immigration laws.

[7] Three Idiots (link) is one such depiction.

[8] Whatever experience I have (as a teacher, with my students) in initiating relationships through mediums other than physical space is rather limited. I try to engage with them in multiple ways (this handout is an example of such efforts). Yet, I am aware of its limitations. At the same time, I do not shy away from exploring new opportunities. Only time will tell if I am successful.

[9] I will leave out parents of students here, as there are other ‘relational’ issues involving ‘bounded rationality’ and care; to be explored separately.

Is Age the Bar?

By law, all adults can work in any occupation including ‘hazardous occupations or processes’. In fact, once one becomes an adolescent, by completing 14 years of age, one can start working in non-hazardous processes. Law also allows someone to ‘help[..] his [sic] family or family enterprise’ that are non-hazardous or work as an ‘artist’ even before attaining 14 years.

By law, 18 and 21 years for women and men respectively are prescribed as minimum marriage age. 18 is considered as the age when one is legally competent to extend ‘consent’ for sexual activity (its a nuanced matter; see here).

By law, one gets right to vote at 18, right to drink at 18 (in many states), right to drive a gearless motorcycle (with a capacity of up to 50cc) at 16, right to sign a contract at 18 (unless of ‘unsound mind’ or debarred by law otherwise).

Each involves an assumption on the ability of the concerned individual to take decisions. They in turn assume access to relevant information and ability to process that information to evaluate the consequences of the decision to be taken by them. Amartya Sen in ‘Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory’ (link; Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1977; more than 5874 times cited as per Google Scholar on 16.09.2021.) points at the ‘requirement of internal consistency of observed choice’ on the part of the ‘economic agent’ even if being a ‘rational fool’ (this is too simplistic, I admit; but will serve the purpose here).

Arguably, if an individual aged 18 is allowed to perform and act in so many ways, it is expected that the concerned individual is in a position to evaluate what is good for her/him and act accordingly. In fact, both UGC and AICTE assumes students to be ‘rational’ in choosing courses offered not just by her/his university but by any university across the country through Credit Framework for Online Learning Courses through Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM). Shouldn’t the same student be expected to be ‘rational’ in following a ‘Covid appropriate behaviour’ while within an HEI as well?

These students have cared for many in their own households (including non-human species, elderly and others who required a differentiated care), neighbours, and even friends, friend’s household members and friend’s friends.[1] Yet, they are assumed to not to take care of themselves or those with whom they can explore and realise relationships, inside the HEIs. Are they expected to have a different ‘bounded rationality’ once they enter the HEIs? Imagining the students on this way is quite dehumanising, including ‘rational fools’.[2]

[1] Method of induction can continue for any number of iterations, as shown by the students (and teachers) of Covid Task Force at my workplace. “Our efforts have now been recognized on a national level. The Ministry of Education has extended its gratitude to the student fraternity for actively helping in dealing with the second wave of the pandemic. On their platform, several institutions presented their model, among which […] is one […] recognized for the work done at the time. The official Certificates by the MGNCRE, Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Education, GOI has been distributed to 55 members of the CTF which includes 43 students and 12 faculty plus administrative staff” stated a communique.

[2] An exception can be the state described in this song penned by Neelesh Mishra: “Baadal pe chalta hoon main | Girta sambhalta hoon main | Khwahishein karta hoon main | Khone se darta hoon main | Jaga na soya hoon main | Musafir khoya hoon main | Kuchh sirfira sa hoon main | Buddhu zara sa hoon main”. It is possible to be consistently irrational, without any semblance of ‘adaptive expectations’ in such states. After all, the poet said ‘Hridoyer Karbar, Loksan Barbar’ (in matters involving heart, one can lose many a times). But neither economics nor law considers such states to be ‘normal’ (more later). Students as a category are known to record highest percentage of those with such states, across spatio-temporal boundaries. Definition of such student is beyond the ordinary meaning used in the text; here, a student is someone who wants to know. But this pertains to only one possibility, confined to only one kind of care, and hence can be ignored (much to my dismay my head has overpowered my heart; the entry must be released before 10.30 hrs on 17.09.21 — you to use it in the class).

Is Space the Bar?

By law, under different ‘unlockdown’ guidelines, an individual could visit malls, markets, restaurants, bars, parks, offices, salons, factories, hospitals, gyms or even take part in political rallies and take bath during kumbh. One is allowed to travel by buses, taxis, autos, metro, trains, flights, rickshaws or even by foot.

Technically, all HEIs continued to remain ‘closed’ but only in physical terms — admission, teaching, mentoring, supervision, making study materials available to students, examination, evaluation, declaration of results, convocation, research, consultancy, managing sponsored projects, publication, peer review, editorial works, and so on were expected to be continued as if nothing has happened. Indeed, besides the healthcare system this is the only other ‘sector’ that had to consistently perform ever since ‘lockdowns’ were imposed, even if remaining ‘closed’!

Of course, respective interest groups could ensure ‘opening up’ of every other ‘sector’ much earlier. It follows that there are some ‘interests’ that have prevented ‘opening up’ of HEIs. It is again naïve to expect that everyone would like to see the students on campus and in the classroom — after all, they question, protest and demand many things including freedom to organise, collectivise and act in a manner that they deem fit.

A case of an inconsistent Agency

Interestingly, when all the students’ organisations and multiple elected student unions across Delhi have demanded opening of the campuses, if not organising protests, one is yet to see similar demands made by any TA or Association of TAs. Many office bearers (both current and former) of these organisations are among my ‘Friends’ on Facebook. Google News delivers to my phone all news connected with every HEI in Delhi.[1] In short, I am confident on my ‘information set’ to make the first statement of this paragraph. I am also confident on my ability to process this information and evaluate the consequences. In case someone provides a contrary evidence (on all the three counts), I will gratefully acknowledge it and include it here, besides responding.

Incidentally, TAs (and many faculty members at their individual capacity) were quite vociferous in pointing out at the access and quality issues associated with the online teaching since March 2020, quite rightly. But I have not heard anything since June 2021 when ‘unlockdown’ process started.

Shouldn’t one expect them to be consistent with their earlier demands, and now also demand ‘opening up’ of campuses? Thats the least ‘political demand’ they can make. Else, one will have to agree with either of the three possibilities: (a) they do not have the necessary agency assumed on their part; (b) their constituency does not want ‘opening up’ of HEIs; (c) they do not see physical space to be important for the ‘transactions’ between teachers and students and hence making this demand is not within their responsibilities.[2]

[1] I think I have figured out the algorithm how to do it.

[2] Admittedly, with primary and second schools and crèches still closed some teachers may find it difficult to come to the HEIs physically. Same is the case in households with patients of long Covid and other such ailments. But such situations, I am sure, can be handled by the authorities in the same sensitive manner that the VC of my workspace has done it.

Is there a Case for a ‘Guarded Response’?

I hope to have conveyed the reader my ‘passionate’ desire — like many other teachers — to see the students in the same physical space as him during the classes.[1] Yet, there is a case to follow ‘precautionary principle’ in this matter given the uncertainties. This is the accepted principle in both international and domestic environmental law. May be all HEIs can organise vaccination camps as many HEIs and Resident Welfare Associations have already done. Subsequently, allow only those who have been administered with both doses inside the campus. But this is an administrative matter, outside the realm of either students and TAs.

[1] Undoubtedly, the online mode offers anonymity to many otherwise ‘shy’ students to ask questions or offer comments in the chatbox which they may not do otherwise. Yet, the ‘cost-benefit’ analysis will yield a distinctly favourable result in favour of classes in a real classroom, at least among the students. Failure of MOOCs to become popular — across countries — is a testimony to this.

It is the ‘transactions’ in the physical spaces that has made me to do many things including imagining and dreaming.[1] My reflections on my teachers and the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU, where I studied the entire PG education are captured in what I said in the farewell of three of my teachers on 06.10.2010. (as it was in the documents produced in the process; more later). They (and other teachers, some in the photograph below the text) taught me why remaining consistent is an important principle, for a real student as well as for a real teacher.

I enjoyed company of my students in the physical space. Some images will follow.

[1] See, the subject that I studied in JNU as per my Facebook Profile. This is not a new entry. The term ‘transactions’ has the same meaning as in here; anyone interested to read ‘Social Sciences Teaching and Research: Its Resilience and Relevance in Times of the NEP and Pandemic’ by Rukmini Sen and Krishna Menon, Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, XXXV (1) January 2021, pp. 47–58 may connect with the authors through rukmini[at]aud.ac.in and krishanmenon[at]aud.ac.in respectively.

Respected teachers and other members of the CESP community, can you notice my trembling feet and choked voice? I still carry a legacy that began with something that happened during one of the early lectures on Microeconomics in 1992. Anjan Sir inquired, perhaps to gauge the level of
knowledge of the new batch, what happens to output under CRS production function when input doubles. There was nothing but silence. This may be little exaggerated, but the underlying point is quite clear. Ask anyone from the alumni, however brilliant, sincere, hardworking and meticulous an academician she or he is. In front of our teachers, one is rather shaky with the rigor, no matter how much effort is involved.

After all, excellence has no upper bound. Such is the legacy of the Centre, whose students are carrying its baton to all corners of the world, at times even without realising it. It is this legacy that has taught us to question the obvious, extend the accepted and think beyond the existing.

We have been fortunate to have been taught by teachers with both a philosopher’s stone and a touchstone, which is a rarity. Such rigorous training and scrupulous testing is often daunting, no doubt. But, no sooner than you pass out from the centre, you become aware of this asset. The probing questions that you ask at all forums, the way you make your students work, the scrutiny that you undertake before exposing your work to the outside world, for all these, this legacy is solely responsible. Thank you teachers, for making such a lasting impression in our lives, both academic and personal.

At times, it goes a little further though. For example, consider the phrase given to a classmate of mine in a dumb charade while on a field trip: methodological discrepancies between NSS and CSO data.

To me, the word retirement is a terminology which has only administrative connotations. It has no other meaning for a teacher or for his or her students. Thus, in my understanding this rendezvous is for the students and the teachers to come together to look at the shared past with distinct contributions from the three senior-most teachers. It remains a good idea to look at the history but only if it matters for the future. Today’s togetherness will be more meaningful, only with the legacy of the Centre carried further in time with as much care, zeal and dedication as these three teachers did along with others.

Some of us had been lucky enough for the privilege of interacting with Anjan Sir, Prabhat Sir, Utsa Ma’m, and many other teachers at both personal and academic levels. To me, it is this relationship that gives us the strength to surpass the challenges and cross it with confidence and style.

For throwing light on the academic contributions of these three stalwarts whose contribution to the Centre have brought us all here, I am the least qualified. Rather I will share with you, glimpses of some of the cherished moments that I have spent with them.

Not many have had the experience of singing popular songs with Utsa Ma’m on board a train to Udaipur for the fieldtrip in the Production Conditions in Agriculture Course. Or for that matter, not many have had a serious academic discussion on the agrarian crisis in India, while sitting on a rickety bench outside one office in the Dumdum municipality office in Kolkata that had prompted the in-charge to come out and offer seats inside!

Not many, again, have had the privilege of sharing with Anjan Sir his happiness, agony and at times tension over the Centre, its students and even his health. Over a discussion to convince an ailing Prabhat Sir to teach us the “Theories of Imperialism” course, not many could hear, “I will take the course, even if I die”. In 1998 perhaps, the hard disk in Utsa Mam’s home computer developed some bad sector, and not being able to find anyone else, Prabhat Sir saw me. I still find it unbelievable, that Sir was making a request with folded
hands to do something to restore Ma’ms work. I was at a complete loss of words.

During the last 9 years, while I have not been a regular here, during each of my occasional visits, not less than two in every year, one room that I have almost always found open, is that of Anjan Sir. And this is just not my observation, but of many such occasional visitors. Perhaps that
influenced my subconscious so much that I used to do the same at the University where I have been teaching. It raised many eyebrows.

On winter afternoons, it was a common sight during our MA days to find Deepak Sir and Anjan Sir starting a discussion outside their rooms enjoying the sun, with Satish Sir and Prabhat Sir joining them in no time. This vivid image of camaraderie is so deeply embedded in our hearts, that one always seeks a similar environment in the institution one is in, only not to find it.
The mutual respect among these teachers belonging to a different vintage is exemplary for those belonging to later generations. Once, a visibly agitated Prabhat Sir, over a proposed UGC regulation on evaluation of Faculty members on the basis of their publications, literally yelled, “Is there anyone who can review Anjan’s work?” On a lighter note, a PhD student of Anjan Sir, often used to debate with me about the brilliance of Prabhat and Anjan Sir. We could agree about the size of the difference: epsilon almost equal to zero, but not its sign. The spirit of being receptive and respectful to each other’s work, however different the other person’s methodological and ideological position has now found its place in the Schedule I of the Wildlife Act — the list of endangered species.

Let me finish by narrating a story, over email communications. These days Prabhat Sir is rather email savvy, but this was not the case earlier. This was 1997 or so. JNU had given an email ID that ends with ernet.in to all the faculty members. One PhD student used to operate Sir’s email ID. One day Sir could not find him, and seeing me in the computer room he had asked me if I can send an email. On receiving a positive reply he gave me a piece of paper with a name and the text.

I was confused, and thus asked him to which address the letter is to be sent. His look was equally quizzical: you don’t need the address for the email. I explained that it is email address, and not postal. His reply was you have the name, isn’t it sufficient!

To carry the story further, on one morning, he again had to send an email but this time he could not even find me, but saw one Phd student of Anjan Sir. He enquired whether the student can send the email, this time with an email address and the text. After sending the email, the student went to him to report that the mail had been sent from Anjan Sir’s account, as he did not know Prabhat Sir’s email ID or password. Sir was perplexed, and asked him, but then, how much do I have to pay?

You can well imagine Sir sitting in his chair, in front of a pile of dust covered books and materials, with that look. You can also imagine without much effort, Utsa ma’m in the middle of a dust covered but well organised pile of books and materials, and her restlessness touches you. You can also imagine a poised Anjan sir, with neatly kept dust free books and materials, looking at you with all seriousness through his heavy glasses, even when you are discussing the everyday. I carry these images, and that defines the Centre, for me. Diverse yet defined, linked together with the thread of academic excellence.

My gratitude to all three of you, for imbibing in me the innocence, sensitivity, romanticism, restlessness and rigour, for the motivation, courage and confidence in excelling in every little thing that I do, for the dedication, commitment and care to the institution and finally for making me a

Wishing each one of you a very healthy and happy life.
Nandan Nawn
MA (1993–95)
MPhil (1995–98)
PhD (1998- )

MA, CESP, SSS, JNU (1993–95)



Nandan Nawn

An economist by training, and reasonably familiar with political, social, regulatory, institutional, social and ecological dimensions of Nature.