As learners, we spend most of our lives answering others’ questions and least through finding the answers to our own. As teachers, we reiterate to our students most of the questions that we tried or failed to answer as learners. This ritual of questioning and answering is largely marked with the experience of diffidence and ambiguity in both questioners and answerers. I know I was never bold enough to ask questions as a student, both at school and at university. So, I realized long ago, especially when I decided to become a teacher, that I had deprived myself of many crucial opportunities to practice education in a real sense.
With this minor repugnance for the times and deeds irretrievable, I have recently begun an experiment with the undergraduate students of Kathmandu University. This involves asking them to ask me ‘probing questions’ during consultations or as writing assignments. The questions take anything that can be called too personal and too professional. I at least emphasize that they should not only be probing but also educational. A simple maxim works here: being able to ask informed questions is the mark of education and intellectual maturity.
This act of letting the youngsters peek into the academic and personal facets of my life sometimes brings interesting questions. Some of them, such as the ones documented below are the most general yet challenging inquiries. I have not been able to think of a word about them without serious retrospection, reflection and probing into my own journey as a university teacher. There could be more interesting ruminations, but I would much love to present the responses to at least six of the hundreds of queries I have received in the last two years since I started this activity.
What do you think is best/worst about being a professor?
One who has decided to become a teacher has decided to sacrifice a number of other (perhaps) more appealing things. This may include pursuits for quick money, quick name and endless contests that demand the power to trick upon the contenders. Teachers are unique beings in that they have the responsibility to guide a new generation to work for the society and for the nation (though the idea now might sound a bit idealistic). Teachers are probably the longest serving people with direct contact with the society, and with a chance to inspire hundreds of aspiring minds every day. What can be better than this? So, the best thing about being a professor is that you live and work to guide and be useful because ‘so long as the humans rule the world, the need for learning and education remains fundamental and teaching will exist.’
Worst? There is nothing bad about being a professor. Teaching is plus many practical things. A teacher may be able to do almost everything other people do, but not everyone is born to become a teacher. Teaching is more about being able to transform lives than just passing good things on others.
What challenges should one face in achieving the title Assistant Professor and holding it as a responsible person?
Being an Assistant Professor (AP) lies somewhere in the middle of your journey towards professorship. You do not reach the middle unless you have the determination to reach the top. You would not begin without the zeal for reaching the middle. When you are an AP, you leave behind an exciting history, and move towards an exciting path of challenges and achievements. You continue to live a period of struggle imbued with youthful aspirations and a desire to be with young and energetic people. This is the most productive period of a teacher’s life. This productivity is what one requires to achieve the title of AP.
One genuine challenge an AP meets every day is of maintaining balance between being a junior and a budding senior. There is this arduous course of studies and heavy-workload tenure at hand, and the future of the tenures of leadership, supervision and mentoring. Thus, the actual challenge involves preparing oneself as a future leader, a supervisor – a teacher of mature people – of grownups, who approach you for mentorship both as a specialist and an intellectual. The potential for specialization, leadership and mentoring is what one requires to achieve the title of AP. Not being able to exhibit this potential, simply, is the key challenge to achieving that title.
As an AP, you are faced with the necessity of increasing the number of publications and ensuring international exposures. This necessity often accompanies tackling financial limitations and making balance between family and professional needs because you are mostly engaged in building up a family, gathering assets and keeping savings for the children while working hard for your professional upgrade. Besides, as an AP, you live a time when most of your old acquaintances have dispersed to newer directions. You get so engaged as to being led to personal estrangement from your former connections. So, you remain aware of creating, fixing and retaining important relationships as much for your generation as for the ones that follow you.
In a nutshell, being an AP marks a life of passion and perseverance for professional upgrade, of attachment with and love for young people. It also embodies the exercise of patience before reaching newer heights in life and of tolerance towards making and learning from mistakes. Thus, the instinct for service, the passion for upgrade and the patience for slow and steady (non)material gains in life are what one requires to achieve the title of an AP. Lack of such qualities is the key challenge against holding the title responsibly.
Do you feel that you have had an impact on the students that you’ve taught? If so, in what way?
I am not sure how much impact I make on my students. It is them to tell, frankly. From the informal feedbacks I have received over the years, I can say that most of my students are not in a position to curse me for not being useful, for not telling things that counted, for not giving them a sense of importance as responsible learners, for not showing the crucial pitfalls of life seen with my more matured eyes. I at least have so far had confidence to tell them that I do not waste their times, nor mine, and that I have not taught without passion, without love for them as learners and human beings, and without the satisfaction of being able to do it.
One thing that I make sure to leave behind after every class is the message that teaching is a responsible adventure, and teacher a passionate innovator, a preacher, a guide, and a leader. Each year, I pursue my work with a couple of ‘taglines’. For instance, my catchphrase for students for the ongoing session is ‘Think as a leader’, which I try to implement simultaneously with my own permanent motto, ‘Performance is the key.’
I believe, if the questioner (one of my students) had any doubt about my potential to make impacts, he would not craft such question. He knew I had a confident answer to this.
What is success to you? Do you consider yourself successful?
To me success is not a single, ultimate reality. It is rather a part of an infinitive journey. I mean, success is not an end, but a pause in the process, a comma or maybe a semicolon, but not a full-stop.
Success comes in different categories corresponding to my multiple identities and roles. The society tries to see me for what I have done and achieved as a son, as a parent, as the member of a community, as a professional and overall as an individual. While I may have done a lot in one role, I may have done little or nothing in another. My realization of gains remains in continuum. When I gain something, I only feel a momentary sense of achievement and be immediately aware that there is more to do in life.
And I see success simply as the absence of failure. If my actions have not led to damages, or visible gains, I take it for the success of maintaining the minimum order in the process. You may not do wonders or construct ivory towers to symbolize your grandeur. You may simply perform the duties assigned, and ensure that your actions do not harm others. This still means success, at least to me.
Success is being able to achieve a few new steps, a few more meaningful smiles, and a few more memorable acquaintances. This is similar to saying that success is about not causing pain and tears, and not losing old connections for the sake of new. I consider myself successful for not causing pain to people. I have not been a burden to anyone, but been a part of a community that ever grows with new knowledge, new dreams, new aspirations and optimisms. This is my success.
If you could restart your life, what would you do differently?
I now feel that I did not do many things in my life even though I had chances to. I do not want to think about things that were impossible for me. Well, I used to stand first in my class only through my classroom exposures. I paid little attention to study at home and during holidays. If I could restart my life, I would do several things differently than I actually did. I would study harder at school for the sake of greater learning, if not for marks. I would dare to speak with the teachers more frequently and ask more questions from their experiences. The fact is I was extremely shy and timid in front of my teachers.
If I could restart my life, I would spare time to study and examine our religious scriptures more profoundly. I would spend more time with my grandparents and ask them to tell more stories of their struggles and sufferings. I would mingle with kids of multiple backgrounds. I would go and eat in the houses of the so-called untouchables and see how they felt to see a Brahmin lad break his traditional rules. I would also mix up with girls and be familiar with their emotions and aspirations. I would take up music side by side with my higher studies, learn more instruments and seek public exposure in singing. And I would do many more things which I never did.
What do you want to do further in your life?
Like the definitions of successes, I have wishes corresponding with my roles. As a father, I want to educate my kids to the level they can ensure greater achievements in life than I and their Mother. I want to bring them up as good, kind, fearless human beings capable of influencing many people.
As a teacher, I want to help my students grow and spread in different institutions and networks of Nepal. Simply, I want to see them reach the highest posts of the government. How about seeing a day when one of my students becomes the Prime Minister or the President and does something really great for the coming generation?
As a writer, I want to write a book that can educate thousands of people and inspire many to work selflessly for the benefit of the less privileged sections of the Nepali society. In my writing, I want to dispel the general disillusionment that life is better elsewhere and subsequently establish the conviction that Nepal can be developed, and each Nepali has some share of responsibility in it.
As a scholar, I want to build and be a part of such intellectual community that works to instill optimism, dynamism and perseverance for excellence. It sounds utopist, but to dream such a time and such a society is not really impractical.