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Exploring the “Fault” Lines at NLSIU: Part III – Coping with COVID: On the Brink o

This article has been written by TooCoolForQuirkCatalystStillWingingIt, and SayMadArthi. The illustration is by Anonymous. This is Part III of Exploring the “Fault” Lines at NLSIU, a series on the student-admin relationship. This part explores how college functioned through COVID and its impact on the student-admin relationship. It also examines the reasons behind certain expectations of various stakeholders, and how we can possibly move forward and build better relations hereon. You can find Part I discussing the problem of miscommunication here, and Part II discussing the problems of mistrust, apathy and lack of inclusivity here.

The trust between the student body and the admin has completely broken down after the way ‘rigour’ was still enforced at the time of the second wave of the pandemic. In such extraordinary times, we expect empathy and an acknowledgement of the terrible times that we are living in from those around us – especially our teachers, the administration, and anyone else we work with. To act as if nothing has changed and proceed in the same manner is exasperating, to say the least, and exacting and crushing on those who really faced the brunt of the second wave.

In the March-May trimester, the burden was on the students to continuously highlight their struggles and demand the bare minimum of concessions that could be given to them: extensions for projects, seminar papers, and a more spaced out exam schedule.[1] After multiple mails which were acknowledged with seemingly last-minute placatory replies of ‘oh, we’re so sorry for everything you’re going through’, we were given an extension of six days for our projects and seminar submissions. There were people who were quite incapacitated and couldn’t submit their work even with this extension – those who fell really ill and couldn’t even attend class, those who were admitted in the hospital, or had a loved one in the hospital, or those facing bereavement in the family. The administration promised us that these students would be considered on a case-to-case basis, but almost no one who applied for an additional extension got one. These promises were made seemingly to pacify students, and many ended up getting carries in various subjects as they couldn’t submit their work. The admin’s response was to offer a Hobson’s choice between submitting their projects within the stipulated deadline or redoing the entire course in the next academic year.[2]

The exam schedule was also very hectic, with many batches writing exams on consecutive days, and with many students writing exams in both the morning and the afternoon slots, and then another exam again the next day. The SAC sat down with the UGC to make a slightly more relaxed timetable, which extended the last date of the exams by 2 days, but this was again rejected by the administration. At this point, if nothing that the students propose, even with the UGC’s support, is getting accepted, the students see no more point in negotiating and engaging with the administration, and believing them when they say that they care about us (wait, have they actually said that ever?). After a point, we just give up hope, knowing that our efforts will be fruitless and will only result in a lot of wasted time, energy, anxiety, and stress.

The justification that the administration gave in an open house to students was that when concessions are given, students take that to form a legitimate expectation and then go to Court claiming similar concessions based on past precedent. This is apparently why the admin is hesitant to step outside of the AER. This argument is fallacious because 4-5 students going to court does not justify the remaining 500 students being put through extreme “rigour” with no relaxations even during tough times, and no consideration for their health and mental well-being.

Whether university affairs ought to be taken outside for external adjudication is a separate question in itself. But this does not justify “litigation paranoia” that pre-emptively stops the university from acting in an empathetic manner towards students. What this requires is a larger, more honest conversation between the students and the administration because it clearly indicates differing expectations on both sides. Cutting off communication and refusing to create a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment for the students is not the way to deal with the administration’s litigation paranoia.

This litigation paranoia has also led to greater apathy. First, it led to emailed information becoming a once in a blue moon phenomenon for fear of litigation and “creation of precedent”. Second, whenever that rare email is sent, it might as well have been written by the automated program which tries to sell Spotify Premium to me each week. The tone and text of the mails could not be more template-like. After a reminder from the Interim SBA President, these template emails were sent from the VC Office to reject most (if not all) extension requests. The issues raised by students were left unacknowledged and reduced to “unfortunate circumstances” even when they arose on the University campus. This led, understandably, to outbursts from students in an open house with the admin. While the admin, and perhaps some students, objected to the tone and the way in which the grievances were expressed, the substance of the concerns are undeniably justified. Post the open house, we were faced with another communication impasse, with the students feeling tone-policed and the admin possibly feeling disrespected. The admin refused to engage with us on our concerns thereafter unless our communication was formal and polite.

While it is definitely understandable and desirable that conversation happens in a civil manner, here is where this argument falls flat. Mere formal communication from the admin is neither automatically polite nor effective when it fails to have the minimum decency of acknowledging and displaying an understanding of the gravity of issues students are facing. Without this, these conversations of the admin are received as just casually cruel in the name of being honest.


Good Faith

The recent open house between the Vice-Chancellor and the student body demonstrates how admin-student relationships have completely broken down. What we saw during the open house wasn’t simply apathy or mistrust, it was hostility on both sides. The issues of communication, empathy, and inclusivity are a vicious cycle with both sides to blame. However, we can’t break out of it by ranting on the batch group or by writing another frustrated email – those are getting us nowhere. Perhaps what we need are acts of good faith – something that can make us believe that there is scope for us to work together. This is necessary because without good faith from both sides, we are going to keep going down this spiral.

However, after everything that has happened and after our concerns have been either ignored or inadequately addressed, this feels hard to do. In the face of such apathy in these extreme circumstances, if the responses we get are mechanical and emotionless, we as students feel unheard, ignored, and hopeless. It makes us feel like giving up. These sentiments came up in the open house – this is where that anger comes from – hopelessness.

But we haven’t given up. We’ve taken the first step by extending our hand of good faith with the apology email we sent across, which acknowledges that we need to move forward. Several students raised concerns about this too – it seems too idealistic to simply ignore everything that has happened. Except, let’s take a breath and a step back, and look at two things. One, how does the admin’s perception of us prevent good faith and how do we want that to change? Two, what acts of good faith are already there in front of us that can maybe be a starting point for us to revise how we communicate and empathise with the admin?

The first time we asked for a general extension in the new admin era on the grounds of bad internet (which had been the pillar upon which our extension requests had rested for half a decade) the same was denied. We were shocked and outraged. As a group of students who were so used to the “yes, permitted” era – a rejection of the extension request was perceived as a sign that this new admin was not student-friendly. Ever since the new admin has stepped in, the expectations we have of them are that of the “yes, permitted” era. In that era, whether it was a legitimate attendance shortage waiver because a family member was ill, or an extension request because the pigeons ate the Wi-Fi (seriously, pigeons? We could’ve at least gone with sandalwood thieves or rats), our requests were rights to which we were entitled – the “yes permitted” was a mere formality to show to ED. An expectation was created that we got what we wanted, exactly how we wanted it – regardless of the reasons behind it.[3]

As lovely as that was, one can hardly expect that a university will agree to every student request. Further, the fact that we got what we wanted so easily, using the admin to override faculty discretion has resulted in us being perceived as scamming all the time. While we might have used “yes permitted” to our advantage in the past, this is now working against us in situations where we genuinely do need concessions (like this pandemic), when we have genuine reasons for the faculty and admin to be on our side. They no longer trust us, and they are apathetic because of it. This disproportionately affects those who need concessions the most.


[4]

When we impute bad faith to the admin, that leads to breakdown of the student-admin relationship. At the end of the day, it makes us disregard many of the positives, however few and far between they may be. This is not to say that we must ignore the negatives, or that the positives make up for all the issues we have faced in the past. However, saying that it’s too broken to fix is simply not an option here (especially for those of us who still have years left in this place) – we need a starting point to go somewhere from here. If we want to have any shot at fixing what has happened and making sure that things get better as we go on, we need to start from a place of good faith.

The admin has taken measures to improve several aspects of our college experience. For starters, in the past year, the new admin has brought in, and continues to bring in, a host of fresh faculty with excellent credentials (several of whom are alumni), not counting the several great elective options that have been offered.[5] A majority of students also felt that the admin had gauged feedback regarding faculty moderately to extremely well.[6] The lack of good faculty is something that we seem to have been lamenting about for several years now, and it has seemingly been one of the top priorities of this admin (as it probably should be for any educational institution). Further, measures such as the lowering of the pass/fail grade by including C and C+ grades is much appreciated. The measures taken by the admin regarding mental health such as feedback being taken regarding counsellors, and better, queer-affirmative counsellors is a step in the right direction by them – although there is a long way to go in the college adopting a more holistic and structural approach to mental health, especially in times like these.

The point here is not to say that these positives make up for the negatives, or that the issues we face and have faced must be forgiven and forgotten. The point here is that there have been instances in our extremely contentious past interactions where the student body and admin have agreed on things, where we have appreciated measures taken and been grateful for them. And that’s as good a place to start as any when we try to fix what’s broken. However, there needs to be reciprocation too – good faith is a two-way street, and the students have begun to tiptoe down their side. This will not sustain if there isn’t reciprocity from the administration in the form of legitimate and empathetic acknowledgement of student concerns and tangible efforts to address them, without hiding behind red tapes and AER black letter law. It would also help if the admin actually displayed empathy towards students, thus making us feel actually seen and heard. After all, justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done.

Conclusion

In this paper the researchers have In true NLS fashion, we rehash the intro in our conclusion, starting by saying – please don’t out us. We have lives to live.


For those of you who have made it this far into the article (or skipped over to the conclusion hoping for an executive summary – coming soon!), we don’t intend or expect our analysis of the problem or our suggestions to be perfect – we’d love to hear from you and have you add your thoughts to the discussion we hope this piece will start. We would also love it if faculty, non-teaching staff, and other members of the administration could share their comments and suggestions. It would be a good way for us to reflect on our findings and the way forward. The point of this article is to initiate a conversation on how we can change the status quo. You may engage with us through the comments section, Quirk’s feedback form, or by passing on comments/questions to any Quirk member.

 

[1] Measures such as waiving off attendance requirements, longer extensions, assistance from professors in catching up with coursework (amongst other things) can all go a long way in helping students.

[2]  Email from the SBA dated 26 May 2021 which highlighted the options available to the students as had been conveyed to them by the admin, titled ‘Letter from the Student Body: Apathetic Nature of University Administration Towards Student Concerns’. It would be interesting to note that this decision was notified to the students two days before the deadline and was contingent on the governing body agreeing to allow the students to redo the subject with the previous year’s attendance and no reflection of the same on the transcript.

[3] This article published in Quirk in 2018 also argues that these expectations have started to become the norm in Law School: “Somewhere along the way, significant portions of the student body stopped caring – about academic standards, about faculty, about grades and about each other. Submissions became a burden as opposed to a natural function of being a student, and a burden that we fulfil disingenuously at that. Extensions became the norm not solely because of a poor internet infrastructure or various law school events, but because we only found it convenient to start working a few days before submission. More and more, projects started to look the same every year (but of course, so did topics)… The system became easier to scam as time passed, and many of us took full advantage. We are not altogether innocent in why makeups, revals, extensions, exemptions and FAs have taken on negative connotations among faculty – and that includes faculty that we legitimately care about and are assets to the institution.”

[4] This could mean asking for less mass project extensions on the grounds of student events or pigeons eating Wi-Fi wires in order to ensure that when events happen in specific areas which affect students, their requests are easily accepted as genuine and without requiring too much proof which could prejudice them.

[5] While a majority of students felt that students should be given a greater say in electives, a few of these students also agreed that the admin had done a great job with electives, perhaps even better than our Elective Comms.

[6] Here are the survey results.

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