Monday, November 6, 2017

Bring Your Own Audience

Every year, we announce several awards which are given out on the Foundation Day. These include Distinguished Alumnus Awards, Satyendra K Dubey Memorial Award, and the Institute Fellows. About 10-12 persons are awarded. Besides, we have addresses by a Chief Guest. Lately, we have added a Guest of Honor, who can double up as the Chief Guest, if the Chief Guest decides to cancel his travel at the last minute. And of course, we will have address by Director, a couple of Deans, etc. So, may be about 15 addresses in all.

If we listen to the awardees, who have all been told that they can speak for no more than 10 minutes, typically they start with thanking the Institute for educating them, their teachers, the committee that selected them, then it comes to family - wife is usually the first, then parents, and sometimes kids for not disturbing the parents. Then, if you are an academic, you will thank all your past students, if you are entrepreneur, you will thank your co-founders, and so on. Then you will say that every alum, and if not every alum, at least all other batchmates deserved this as much. You get the drift. More than 5 minutes can be easily predicted. So they have less than 5 minutes to share their pearls of wisdom.

Students (and most other people on campus) are smart. They can figure out that out of 3.5 hours of the ceremony, they might find 15-20 minutes of wisdom. While an oldy like me may consider 3 hours of overhead as an acceptable overhead to listen to 20 minutes of wisdom, not many would agree with that. And hence, the hall is usually empty, or have a very small audience.

The expectation is that if you are really as distinguished as the committee who looked at your nomination thought you are, you should be able to bring your own audience. Either there are those 10 kids who are super impressed with you, and will come to just celebrate you getting the award, even if you didn't speak at all, or you manage to convince 10 people to come to the hall. Who can be these 10 people. Well, bring your family. They really want to see you getting this award. Ask a few of your batchmates on campus, in Kanpur, and a few really good friends who may come even from Lucknow to meet you and see you getting awarded. May be a couple of your teachers are still on campus, who can be persuaded. If you are having a collaboration with someone on campus, they better show up. If you have been approached by any section of the campus for a separate talk, you can persuade them to be present in the award ceremony as a quid pro quo. I mean, if you can't bring even 10 people as audience, you have to think whether you really are distinguished.

So, with 15 speakers, if everyone brings in about 10 people, we have 150 people in the audience (which we never have). But every year, our hopes are higher. We started this function in the auditorium about 5 years ago which has a capacity of 1200. Earlier, there were separate functions for each award on different dates. We would have less than 100 people in the audience, and in a large auditorium that would look really bad. So, after a couple of years of embarrassment, we shifted to the lecture hall complex. Even now, we are doing it in a hall of 400 capacity, which looks very empty.

Of course, we try to encourage people to come. We have high tea before the event. The attendance in high tea is higher than the attendance inside the hall. It is obvious that a high tea is no substitute for proper organization of the event. But we will not learn. The distinguished alumnus award ceremony without much audience has been going on for more than 15 years now, and it used to have a huge audience before that. But we will not try to find out what happened earlier. Has geography of campus changed in between.

To me, distinguished alums are really really special, and giving them an award in an empty hall is really telling them that we don't care. Should that be the treatment meted out to them. Can't we ensure (through proper structuring of the event and better advertisement) that there is an audience, rather than expecting them to bring their own audience.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Efficient functioning of SUGC/Senate

Senate is the highest academic body in the Institute. However, the attendance in Senate meetings is very low. Most of the meetings are held without quorum, which leads to two problems - any affected party can go to court and challenge Senate decisions, any member of Senate can stop the meeting any time by asking to verify quorum. Every few years, there is a concern expressed regarding attendance, and a committee is formed to streamline the functioning of Senate. The hope is that if somehow the Senate can be more productive, it will cause more members to attend its meeting. Many of the suggestions are good but there is one major issue, which I think can go a long way in improving productivity but which is not there in any of these reports. (And, of course, I myself was a member of one such committee long time ago, and I didn't realize this at that time.)

Senate agenda sucks and it sucks big time. And individuals who are supposed to present the agenda come unprepared.

If there is a proposal for Senate to consider, there will be inadequate background, what is the problem we are trying to solve, what are the options, why this option is better, is there any data to support this. Worse, at times, I have detected inconsistencies in the document. In many occasions, when the proposal is coming from a Standing Committee of the Senate, just the decision of the committee is forwarded without any explanation. If we are proposing to change a rule, a typical legislative process would clearly articulate what clause is being removed and what clause is being inserted, with exact language of the clause. None of this would be in the proposal.

When this happens, there is confusion on the floor of the Senate. There is something written in the proposal. The committee chairperson presenting it says something else, and another committee member will give a third interpretation. And this leads to many people asking questions, making suggestions on how the language/proposal can be improved. If Standing Committees did their job well and sent agenda items which are properly drafted then lots of items can be taken care of in minutes.

And I can say this from experience of chairing at least a small committee, Senate Under Graduate Committee (SUGC) in 2006-07. (I do realize that what works for a 20-member SUGC, may not work for 200-member Senate, but I think my experience can give pointers to how to improve the quality of agenda.)

I was a member in 2005-06 and also in an earlier year and had seen how SUGC functioned. If I were to prepare a proposal for change, the typical process would be that it will be discussed in the first SUGC meeting after the proposal is submitted. People will discuss it and point out that there are some obvious faults, and ask me to improve the proposal. In the second SUGC meeting, it will be discussed again, and a decision will be taken to forward the proposal to all departments for feedback. In the third SUGC meeting, it will be decided that since only a few departments have sent their feedback, we should send them a reminder and wait till the next meeting. In the fourth SUGC meeting, if the feedback is generally positive then there will be some discussion and they will agree to forward this to Senate. Of course, sometimes the proposal will not get discussed because something more urgent (like terminations) will be there. Also, sometimes people will claim that department feedback can not be expected in vacation time, during exam time, and so on, and hence yet another month should be given. So typically, a proposal will take six months or more before it can be sent to Senate. Many members will get tired of pushing that proposal in this period and a quiet burial will be given to the same.

When I became SUGC Chairman, I changed the process completely. The day you submit a proposal, it will be sent to all SUGC members by email and they will be asked to send feedback within a week. The proposer will typically take a few days to fix the issues raised. I will request the proposer to have all the background information and justification being included as part of the proposal. Then I will ask the members if this is in shape that it can be sent to departments for feedback. Typically, the answer will be in affirmative, and an email will go to all DUGC Conveners (they are anyway members of SUGC) and Heads of the department. They will get 2 weeks to respond. Since we know that many departments would delay, in parallel, I would send an email to all faculty members asking them to ensure that their departments have a meeting at the appropriate level within this time, and in case it is not possible, they can send their feedback to me, and I will summarize that to the proposer. After 2-3 weeks, all feedback goes to proposer and s/he updates the proposal based on that. Now, we are ready to discuss this in the SUGC meeting.

In the SUGC meeting, the agenda papers would have the final draft of the proposal and the feedback received. At this stage, no proposal would ever take more than a few minutes to pass. So each proposal gets discussed only in one meeting and not in multiple meetings, and the total meeting time taken for this is about 1/10th of what was being done in the previous case. Since the proposal is drafted properly, Senate too would normally take only a few minutes to approve this, thereby saving a huge amount of time for everyone.

The day I took charge of SUGC, I announced that in my 52-week tenure, I want to submit 52 proposals to Senate, some as trivial as changing one course by another in the graduation requirements of a degree program, and some as complex as moving from course based structures to credit based structures (the entire UG manual was changed to reflect the credit based system). And still we had only one meeting in a month, and no SUGC meeting lasted more than 2 hours. (In the previous years, the number of such proposals sent to Senate would have been about 10-15.)

Regarding the routine student requests too (some can be taken care of by chairperson, but some are usually discussed in SUGC), instead of waiting for the next SUGC meeting, I would just send an email to all members. If even one member suggests that there is something that we need to discuss face-to-face, then the item will come for discussion in the next meeting. Otherwise, it is approved, and in the next meeting, the item is reported so that it is part of the records. The students too were happy since their requests were being taken care of quickly.

If I see the reasons for efficiency, basically, we were having virtual meetings through email, asking multiple stake holders to look at the proposals in parallel, and we were ensuring that the language of the proposal is very unambiguous when it does come up for discussion in SUGC. The exact process we used 10 years ago in a small committee may not be the best bet for Senate today, but the way to improve efficiency has to be to do these things, particularly, improving the quality of agenda papers.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ragging in IITK

A group of 2nd year students call a group of 1st year students, ask them to remove all clothes and press each others' genitals. The abuses and acts last for hours. (There are other things that have happened. But let me not waste time in describing everything in all their gory details.)

What is strange is not that this happened, but the widespread support this activity enjoys, the kind of justification that are being given (of course, anonymously on IITK Confessions page on facebook), and how it is not ragging, and how it is not sexual harassment. So what are those justifications:

1. The foremost is that this is part of "IIT Kanpur culture" and professors won't understand the value of culture anyway, and hence this should not have been investigated by a committee where the majority of members are professors.

2. We (the 2nd year students) are doing a great favor to 1st year students by doing something to them which we ourselves don't enjoy, but has to be done. This will initiate them into adulthood, they will become more mature, more confident. They will be able to handle difficult situations in life more easily. By reading those "confessions" it seemed that sexual harassment is a magic that instantly converts a shy villager into a confident Kanpuriya.

3. This is the price they have to pay for all the help that they will get from us in the next 3 years of our overlap with them, and even after graduation. Isn't this such a tiny price.

4. Of course, this was completely voluntary. Anyone could have, at any stage, said that they are feeling uncomfortable and they would have been let go. After all, it was for their own good. What do we get out of this, nothing. And consensual acts cannot be considered as ragging or harassment.

5. The first year students are advised by their respective Student Guides to go through this tradition. Now, if the Institute Counseling Service, who are the first line of defense against ragging, is itself advising the students to go through this tradition, obviously they think that it is not ragging.

Then there are people who argue that even if it is ragging, no action should be taken against the students involved. Their arguments include:

1. It would be impossible to get proof of anyone's involvement. A couple of 1st year students naming someone cannot be considered as a proof. They have just come in and could easily be confused about the identities of people who are present. And there is no video recording or photographs of such events. So, if we only consider memory of a 1st year student as evidence, we would be punishing many innocents. If we do not have any other proof, everyone should get a benefit of doubt. (Of course, they have been around for a month, and in many cases have met those 2nd year students multiple times.)

2. It has been going on for several years. Counseling Service (read, Student Guides) has been involved. When several 100 students get sexually harassed (if you can call it sexual harassment), is it possible that wardens did not know, Dean did not know, the head of Counseling Service did not know, the anti-ragging committee did not know. Of course, everyone must have known, and yet they did not even issue a warning. If so many authorities knew and did not even warn, we can only conclude that this was acceptable to the Institute. We always thought that consensual acts are not ragging. Now, if you are changing the rules of the game, the new rules can only be applicable prospectively and not retrospectively.

3. Even this year, this has been done by 100s of students. The Institute has been able to identify only a few (because only a few stupid and weak first year students have given complaints). Is it fair to penalize a few for something that has been done by a large number of students. (If you can't catch all criminals, you shouldn't put any criminal in jail.)

Now, my take on this.

I feel really sad when an IIT Kanpur student tries to argue that sexual harassment for a few hours is not ragging, is for the benefit of 1st year student. In 2017 when there appears to be a consensus in the society that ragging never helped and there are better ways to have introductions and make friends, our student body appears to be stuck in the 20th century beliefs. The faculty always blame the societal ills for student indiscipline. If students cheat in exams, it is because of what they see in the society. But in this case, the society has moved on. And it is only based on what they have learnt at IITK. We must take those to task who were responsible for ensuring that such things don't happen. What were previous Deans and Associate Deans doing. What was Chairpersons of counseling service doing.

The only point I agree with is that innocent students must not be punished, particularly if the punishment is removal from IIT Kanpur. I hope the committee has reasonable evidence against each of the 22 students whom they have recommended for termination. And just to satisfy the student body that due diligence has indeed been done, may be the committee can indeed invite all these 22 students and talk to them for a few minutes each. May be some of them will be able to convince the committee that they were not present when this act happened and could be given the benefit of doubt. The others, of course, must be removed from the rolls of the Institute.

My prediction. The current Director, Prof. Manna, has only 7 weeks left in his term. Throughout his term, he has been very reluctant to punish any student, even for grave issues. In a few instances where the matter reached Senate and Senate decided on a tough punishment, he has taken the matter back to Senate after a few months, and requested them to undo the earlier punishment. Even in this case, as per the law, an FIR should have been lodged against all these 22 students. (Even if some of them are innocent, that is up to the legal process to find out.) But it hasn't been done even though it is almost one month since the complaints were received and 10 days since the committee report has been received. One of the recommendation of the committee is to remove the President Students Gymkhana from his position since he has been named in one of the complaints as abetting ragging. Even though the recommendation was initially accepted by the Director, even this has not been implemented. The matter of termination has been forwarded to Senate as per rules. The Senate meeting is on 21st September (Thursday). My own prediction is that the matter will not be discussed in Senate on that day. If it indeed gets discussed, the chances are that the disciplinary committee (SSAC) will be asked to do additional due diligence. The Director cannot afford to let Senate rusticate 22 students, since he does not have time left to come back to Senate a few months later to undo the rustication.

The other issue is the feeling of 2nd year students that they are the best well wishers of 1st year students. In all my interaction with 1st year students, I always tell them to avoid seeking any advice from 2nd year students. They are very immature, and have really not experienced enough to answer questions of 1st year students. I always advise them to contact 3rd or 4th year students. When I was at LNMIIT, we made sure that 1st year students lived in the same hostel as 3rd year students. At IIITD too, when a mentorship program was being designed, it was decided that only 3rd and 4th year students should be mentors. Once the first year students have spent a few months on campus, they would know which 2nd year students can give good advice (and of course, 2nd year students will also mature as weeks and months pass by).

Lately, I am interacting with many folks from IIT Gandhinagar, Ashoka University and IIIT Delhi, and I find that in all these places, the relationships across batches are far stronger and more mature than relationships at IIT Kanpur, and all these three places have no ragging. So this whole thesis that ragging is good for first year students and there is no better way to forge friendships is plain and simple bullshit.

IIT Kanpur has no option but to become a ragging free zone again.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I wish to remember my IIT Kanpur as...

I am a Delhi-ite and was assigned IIT Kanpur against my expectations of going to IIT Delhi. Today, I feel surprised at the negative perceptions of IITK before and during JEE-counseling. But then I realize that it's easy to forget how disappointed I myself was when counseling results slowly loaded on the computer screen, and I saw 'Kanpur' appear where I was sure 'Delhi' would be. After that, the usual well-wishers started giving me advice about Kanpur 'being too academically rigorous', 'not as lucrative in terms of placements as the big-city IITs', 'not having enough industry interaction', 'not fun enough' or 'not giving enough all round exposure', which only added to my disappointment. I think I distinctly remember my reservations being shaken at the main gate itself, where I was welcomed by a sign, and engulfed by the green monsoon growth and the sounds of the peacocks and insects. 

I knew that some of my friends also felt that the stereotypical IITK image wasn't something they could relate to. I reached out to some of them, and they have helped me to make a little diary of how they remember their IITK. Some controversial events of the recent past do not contribute to these memories, and I am leaving them out of the documentation.

I wish to remember my IIT Kanpur as:

A place with top class infrastructure in the student hostels, non-academic and academic areas. Where “the hostels had students from three academic years living together making inter batch interaction smoother, and yet we had our own closed groups within our same batch living together on the same floor, who formed a family away from home.” (Shivam Kumar, Y9). A place where the well-maintained infrastructure was in a beautiful balance with the natural beauty. The baghia and the pond near the main gate. The laburnums which would paint the ground yellow in April, or the gulmohars which could make everything brighter with their reds.  A place which would drench itself in beautiful colors throughout the year, from grey and lush green during the monsoons, to yellow and red during the summers.

The laburnums and gulmohars which grow all over the campus just before summer each year.
A place which made it "almost ridiculous when friends from other colleges narrated about curbs, restrictions and rules when we had so much freedom in our own campus (other IITs had curbs on internet usage and hostel visitors which seemed outlandish)." (Shivam Kumar, Y9).

A place where new instruments (from music to technology) could be ‘discovered’, and people could hone their skills to become proficient users. There were many guitarists who promoted themselves from Tujhe dekha toh yeh jaana sanam to the best Pink Floyd solos. A place where I had the huge freedom to be able to visit my cultural club at 4am, because that's when I felt like recording my songs (A song I recorded with the natural morning bird sounds in the background).

A place where we organized national-level student festivals spanning technology, arts and sports, primarily on our own (with help from administration), inviting participants and popular personalities from all over the world.

A place where either we taught ourselves the responsibility that came together with this freedom, or were made to learn this by experiencing the consequences of our actions. We could cherish both in the long run.

A place where the Counseling Service held our hands and welcomed us warmly into the campus. A place where we could have our own families (amma-baapu, behen-bhai, mausi-chacha traditions) which would continue much beyond just our degrees. 

A place where most of us had our first, awkward, trysts with formal wear, before donning them with ease during our respective professions.

From being new at formal wear... a pre-graduation 'photo-shoot' (the brick is symbolic of the Civil Engineering education we received J)
A place where people were under lesser pressure to 'compete' with the 'city crowd' (which may plague some other big-city institutions). This acted as a great leveler between people from different rural and urban backgrounds. There maybe a notion that there's nothing 'to do' in Kanpur, but the same perception made me more involved in what I loved to do, within the campus, all while developing much more meaningful friendships without any pretense; there was no one to impress, well apart from the festivals ;)
"I firmly believe that the deep relationships I have with my IIT friends is because we had no city to distract us from being together on campus." (Amit Kanudia, batch of '88)

Photo by and of Awadhesh Kumar (a Y9 alumnus)
Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi in the library of all places :)
A place where students and teachers were equally enthusiastic to share a happy moment together outside class. A place where some teachers could be real mentors whom you could confide in, even your deepest insecurities, without having the fear of being judged. A place where the institutional setup allowed you to go privately to the Counseling Service and take help when you felt the need.

A place where the golden hearted SIS guards, despite having to work tirelessly in their uniforms without fans in the peak summer and in the cold nights during peak winter, could always share some friendly words with you over a cup of canteen or MT tea when their shifts changed.
Photo of a SIS guard at work, by Anushank Jain (Y13)
A place where I could use the beautiful swimming pool and be inspired by my affectionate sports instructors (I'm sure people who did other sports have similar stories). 

A place where I grew up with not only my friends, but also with our barber and our dhobi. We've all grown older together. We've all migrated to touch phones now, but they have a few more wrinkles and many more latesht songs than I do (which they got from our high speed internet downloads!). 

Photo by Nitica Sakharwade (Y10)
A place which made “you feel like you had a magical world of your own away from the real world” (Shivam Kumar, Y9)“A place which was relaxing due to its sense of security but inspiring at the same time” (Nitica Sakharwade, Y10).

A place where food places had their signature specialities. Hall-8's Sagar Maggi, lalaji's methi malai paneer. A place where food was available throughout the day except maybe from 4-6 am. Not to forget the dhabas which lined the GT road around the campus. The shehtoot near the library and faculty homes, the jamun, ber and aam were available in plenty during their respective seasons. "The mess food was decent, but the mess talks with friends unforgettable." (Shivam Kumar, Y9)

Students of Jagriti during a science exhibition at Lodhar (2011),
'teaching' the best teachers in the country (Prof. H.C. Verma in the second photo).
A place where some students and teachers also understood their social responsibility towards the members of the campus community and people of the neighboring regions, particularly children. 

An advanced campus (with its own markets, banks, marriage halls, the possibility of cashless payments for juice or chaat) next to villages without any public transport, electrification and other basic needs. A place which has developed like an oasis of comfort amidst the chaos of a rural-urban divide (we are very close to the district border between Kanpur Nagar and Kanpur Dehat).

An aerial view of village Bansathi near the campus (Photo by Sri Harsha, Y8)

A pond in village Bansathi (Photo by Sri Harsha, Y8)
I don't remember anything from placement time, I do remember distinctly some moments from Antaragni, bulla sessions or Physical Education - 101. I don't remember my grades in detail, but I do remember some enthusiastic teachers who care deeply about me even today and the many support staff (in canteens, offices and shops) who contributed to a wonderful life at IITK. I remember the awe-inspiring discussions with some of the more open faculty, students/friends from everywhere, rickshaw pullers, motorcycled doodhwaale (milkmen) from nearby villages (2nd generation upgrade from cycles 😊). I remember the apnapan (belongingness) which I felt while greeting so many people with a warm 'ram-ram' already during rickshaw ride into the campus when I returned from my parents' home every time. Though I left home, I always had a home welcome me. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Treatment of Alum at IITK

The following has been written by Mr. Vaibhav Vaish, a 2004 graduate of IIT Kanpur. It has been reposted here with minor editing and formatting changes with his permission. This refers to an incident on August 30th, 2017.

[A more readable and formatted version of below letter is posted at…/0B0L0SZqvEK56bGozN2prR2xnb1E/view . Also note that I am traveling and will be slow in response.]

Dear friends,

#1. Incidence
#2. Some pertinent questions
#3. A request

#1. The incidence

I want to narrate an incidence which happened with me on our campus (IITK) today. I am officially visiting IITK for academic reasons and am staying put in the VH. Being an alumnus (BTech/EE/2000-2004), I still have a continuous connect with campus members (mostly faculty), some of whom I am in close touch with.

Since there was an Open House in L-19 (faculty and students, administration was also invited but didn't turn up) on a recent issue* at IITK campus, This was being organized by around fifteen faculty members, several of whom I knew personally, and they also invited me to attend the same. However, when I reached there, the security denied me entry, saying that the "permission" is for faculty and students only, not for alumni. It was not personal, since they realized this only after asking for my I card -- but have we come to this that at a meeting organized by students and faculty, the institute decides who can or cannot come? And the alumni are no longer welcome?

At this one of the faculty member became very upset, and asked me to go in and said she would talk with the security. There were other faculty members who intervened as well, one of them told the security personally that he will take any responsibility. I really had to speak less than a sentence to the security and instead I just went in and attended the whole meeting, to my mind it was a minor confusion.

The meeting itself was attended by, apart from students, around two dozen faculty members. A few faculty members gave a presentation, yet another convened, and several faculty members and students spoke at length. I knew many of them personally, and they certainly wanted me there. Altogether around 150 students and faculty members attended the event.

After the discussion got over, we went out, and it is then that I realized, the security has brought in UP police to question me! Apart from UP police, there were also a dozen security guards. Again nothing personal, clearly, but ... really? They wanted to "take me aside, just to ask questions". Only when several faculty members, including some younger faculty members, vigorously questioned them that they relented and we were let go. Again, I had to speak less than a sentence, but throughout, the security was also very threatening toward the faculty members present, as well as the students. Note in particular that it was not the police but the campus security which was threatening; the UP police person just seemed amused. Also note that through-out the event, the campus-security guards were wearing cameras, and recording everything, and I only hope they would make public anything and everything they recorded so that this conversation is truly public.

In the meeting I also learnt that a Hall-1 student was "brought to SIS control room for questioning" one day before the Open House meeting because he was putting up posters for this meeting in Hall 5. The argument they made: there is no permission for putting up posters that they are aware of. So now a separate permission is needed to put up posters by a student in a student hostel?

I also heard of some other sad accounts indicating of how much of a security state the campus has turned into, but many of them are too horrendous and still unverified to be posted publicly.

#2. Some pertinent questions

Is this what we have come to?
• Are the students and faculty now indeed required to show ID cards just before entering a lecture hall whenever the administration so wishes?
• That the students and faculty can no longer invite an alumnus to a meeting they organize if the administration does not want it?
• That the security is now superior even to faculty members, abusing them at will?
• That for a matter such as above, the security is expected to bring in the police?
• That the students can no longer advertise an event in the student hostels, even when there is an express permission for the event to take place?

These were the stories I (due to my erstwhile connect with Prayas) kept hearing from servant quarter kids living in campus: how public playground (including one contributed by the alumni!) is violently denied to them. These were the stories I kept hearing from the workers (due to my erstwhile connect with Hamara Manch): how even a gathering of a few can be enough grounds for firing. But this is the first time I saw it in action. Truly, at this stage, the question that is really running in my mind is:

• Has the institute really become like a police state?

#3. A request.

I do not really know if the institute has really become like a security run state or not, but I do certainly know, it shouldn't. Certainly not a public institution, certainly not my alma-mater, certainly not IITK.

I was talking to some faculty members after what had happened - they told me they will raise it vigorously within the campus, faculty forum, and faculty senate. I could see one of my old professors just looking too dejected to even respond. But it seems to me that we as alumni need to ask questions too, lest we lose the democratic space of our alma-mater of which we are all proud of.

In this age, when we seem to have become numb to signature campaigns and FB posts, I would request all the alumni who feel about this issue, to call the Director's office** directly. A lot more is at stake here than just someone not being allowed in by the security and in spite of being an alumni. For, by all accounts, this is not an isolated incidence.

I am being optimistic, perhaps hoping against hope, that if we question the authorities enough as a community, we can indeed force the administration to act on this situation.

With regards,

Vaibhav Vaish

PS: Any queries are welcome, but please do note that I am traveling and may be slow in response.

*The Open House itself was organized to discuss the events unfolding in Visitors' Hostel, the invitation for this event can be found at
** From IITK website, director’s phone number is: +91-512-259 7220

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Branch Change at IIT Kanpur

In the Senate meeting last week, one of the agenda items was to approve the change of branch (program) of under-graduate students. 66 students were allowed to change their program. And, of course, IIT Kanpur is unique in further allowing change of branch in the second year. So the expectation is that about 100 students would be able to get a change of their branch. That is pretty liberal for a batch size of just above 800 students.

While one needed to have a CPI of 10.0 (on a scale of 10.0) to get into Computer Science, the next most popular programs were Electrical Engineering and Mathematics (and Scientific Computing). Both programs accepted students till a CPI of 9.4. Economics was the next most popular and closed at 9.1, leaving behind Mechanical Engineering at 8.9. Chemical was the only other program that needed a CPI greater than 8 (8.4, to be precise). Aerospace was available to students who just missed a B-average grade (CPI of 7.9). Civil managed to fill its quota (and the two additional seats that we allow at the time of branch change) though it did that at a CPI of 6.4, and Material Science was surprisingly full too at a CPI of 5.1.

Physics had its seats full though the additional 2 seats that we allow at the time of branch change did not have takers.

Programs in Biological Science and Bio-Engineering, Earth Science, and Chemistry had all lost lots of students to fill up the few vacancies in other programs and also the 2 extra seats in each program.

What are the implications of this.

First of all, students in least popular 6 disciplines, viz., Civil, Material Science, Physics, Biology, Earth Science, and Chemistry, could easily exchange their programs even with much below average performance in the first year. Last year, Aerospace had a closing rank of 2988 in JEE Advanced, and Earth Science had a closing rank of 7469. What the branch change statistics is telling me is that a rank of 2989 and 7469 made no difference to what you will eventually be able to study.

During the counseling period that just got over, people were so concerned about some of these programs. Should I take Earth Science at IITK or Civil somewhere else. Well, if you had taken Earth Science at IIT Kanpur, you would be able to change it to Civil at IIT Kanpur. You don't have to constantly think of those few marks lost and how you deserved a better rank and all that. Just take whatever you can get in IIT Kanpur and then change. Note that we are only talking about change within the 6 less popular programs, and to get a change to other 7 programs, you still need to work very hard, and you still need to have a lot of luck.

A liberal branch change policy has ensured that someone with a rank of 3000 and a rank of 7000 are on equal pedestal in terms of their choice of program. And therefore, if every IIT were to have similarly liberal branch change programs, the stress can be reduced tremendously all around.

The other interesting point about this data is that Economics is becoming the darling of many students. During JEE Counseling, when there is tremendous external influence on students, they seem to prefer Mechanical and Chemical over Economics. The argument is that we studied for JEE to be an engineer. But once they are away from that influence, they are willing to take an independent decision. In this it helps hugely that perhaps Economics is the only department on campus, which actually tries to answer all questions by students, tries to give a lot of information through social media, etc. I am sure that if other departments were to try talking to first year students, they too can attract more students.

The next observation is that while the order of popularity in branch change is different from the order of popularity in JEE Counseling (due to Economics), there are hardly anyone who has sought a change of program from more popular to a less popular program. That is disappointing. One would have thought that after one year, there would be at least one Electrical Engineering student who would want to study Mechanical or Chemical instead.

Maths, Economics and Computer Science are the only three programs from where not a single student has sought a change of program. And Earth Science and Chemistry are two programs where not a single student has joined the program. Earth Science has been a huge disappointment. As a new program, they were expected to reach out to students and excite them. But they have done nothing of the sort.

Last point, I think we must think of making the branch change rules even more liberal. As we can see, they reduce stress across the board, give more students satisfaction of following their interest (even if that interest is guided by that awful thing called money). In fact, when many people argue that we should have program selection only after one year, I tell them that a liberal branch change policy can achieve the same result with less stress.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Use of Email at IITK

Recently, I checked my emails at IITK after a few days, and was surprised to find a large number of emails that were sent to a mailing list which included all students, faculty, staff, and many more. There are perhaps more than 10,000 users on this list.

The list is supposed to be used only for important, urgent information to be sent out to everyone. The rights to send an email is restricted to about 10 persons - Director, Deputy Director, all Deans, Head of CC, etc. Anyone interested in sending an email to all, can send an email to one of them requesting them to forward it to all. These people are supposed to use their discretion to figure out whether the mail deserves to be sent out to 10,000 users or not. But at least one of them would decide that it is not worth his/her time to go through all such email requests and filter. And the campus community quickly figures out who is that person who is willing to forward most easily.

In a typical university, mails to such a large list would be rarest of rare occasions, usually 1-2 emails in a year. But in IITK, we already have seen about 600 emails to all in 2016, that is about 2 emails a day.

The emails even included a request for donation because a kid in some part of India can not afford his/her medical treatment. We don't even know whether the request is for real or a scam, since the kid has no connection with IITK.

And the story is same on other large mailing lists as well. We announce every MTech thesis defense, and a reminder (and sometimes another email about change of location) on a list that has about 500 faculty, academic staff, and retired faculty. There are about 1000 such emails in a year. We announce every PhD State of the Art, Open Seminar, Thesis defense (and their reminders) to such a list. Another 1000 emails in a year. What would be the attendance if these announcements are made within the department, and the student/supervisor forwards the emails to a few more who they know are working in similar areas. The difference would be zero. I have attended many such vivas in CSE department, and never seen even one person there who claims to have come there because the event was announced on the large mailing list.

Clearly IITK is in love with emails. But is it an effective communication strategy. Clearly, the answer is in negative. A large number of users routinely delete such emails without even reading it through automatic filters. Today, people have moved way beyond emails. If you want to communicate, you must use multiple channels and more focused channels. Forcing people to listen to you through a "push" channel from where they can't opt out will only lead to installing such filters and even otherwise, not paying enough attention to those emails. In the last 10 years, one has consistently noticed very poor attendance in most Institute lectures and seminars, and notable exceptions have been those which I have organized (and I have organized many). The difference really has been that I am not dependent on email for informing users. I would use social media for many such communications, besides direct messaging to small focused groups. I used to manage FB lists of my connections who are IITK students/faculty/staff and post restricted access items about things at IITK. I got far more traction on FB than on email, even though FB placed a limit of 5000 "friends" and only 2000 of those "friends" were IITK students at that time.

We receive about 10 emails about Antaragni, the Student Cultural Festival, sent to 10000 users. Every day multiple emails remind us of important events, where to park our car, what are the entry points, where will security be, and so on. Why should such mails be sent. If I am interested, I should go to the festival website, which should have all this information. In fact, today, Antaragni should have an app, one can download that on one's smart phone and check everything from phone. But the emails are important because we haven't moved to "newer" technologies like website. If you look at Antaragni website (and I should clarify that I am only talking about sites till 2014 when I was on campus), the sole purpose of the site appears to be to tell the world that we know all the technologies and make sure that we don't give out any information whatsoever. Finding a schedule of events was a huge challenge, and if you managed to find one, it wouldn't have been updated. We were a couple of decades late to start using email, and I am sure, we will be a couple of decades late to start using web effectively.

So why does IITK love its email so much. Besides inertia, there are two problems. One we don't understand the cost of an email, and second, we don't realize that email is increasingly becoming ineffective.

For the cost, let us do a small calculation.  Consider the number of seconds that it would take an average user to read the Subject (and perhaps the first line) and hit the delete button. Multiply that by 10,000, convert that into number of hours. Consider an average cost of manpower, the kind of manpower that gets such emails. What would be that number.

Is 10 seconds a reasonable time to read the Subject and realize that it is not worth reading. That makes it 100,000 seconds, or 30 hours. Now if we look at the bottom of the pyramid - the lowest payment is for BTech students at about 100 rupees an hour. If we consider that as the average (obviously, the average will be much higher), we are talking about Rs. 3,000 as the value of time spent. Note that it assumes that everyone is smart enough to delete the email in 10 seconds. The real costs are much higher.

Also note that I am not talking about the cost of infrastructure, nor am I talking about the cost of manpower in managing lists, email servers, networks, etc. Assuming that the incremental costs are close to zero. Of course, there would also be some cost if someone is downloading email using mobile data. But let that also be ignored here.

Would these senders send that email, if the cost were to be borne by them, instead of being forced to share by 10,000 users.I can bet that 99% of the senders to "all" mailing list won't want to bear those costs. This would result in more efficient communication strategies. We will have more focused mailing lists. We would have mailing lists which are opt-in and instead of forced. We would start using whatsapp, facebook, googlegroups, and what not. We would have better websites.

I see use of email at IITK as yet another symptom (if any was needed) that we don't change with time. That we are stuck in history. You could see it everywhere. We don't want to video record the lectures. We don't want to use moodle or any other Learning Management System. We don't use social media. We don't have good websites. And mind you, all these technologies that I am listing above, most good universities have been using for 10-20 years.

So besides the cost, it is not even in senders' interests to use email. Unless, of course, the senders are only interested in ticking a box, and not interested in reaching out to their audiences.