Good classroom teaching has no substitute

Abhijit Guha

In this cyber age when online instruction is fast becoming the ‘New normal’ the classical method of classroom teaching is taking the backseat. The legendary teachers of the universities are now almost forgotten or may have no value for our educational planners. The COVID-19 has further pushed classroom teaching in a marginal position. Teachers are now busy in taking online classes and webinars with power point presentation and short slide shows. Under this onslaught of online teaching field based subjects like anthropology suffers most because fieldworks cannot be taught or done online. Meanwhile, a new sub-discipline within anthropology named cyber anthropology has emerged in which the anthropologist participates with his respondents through social media but in this new endeavour the importance of offline observations also occupy a crucial position. It is high time that we take a stock of the whole situation and look back in history and listen to the merits and beauties of classical classroom teaching in the golden era of the University of Calcutta which produced many legendary teachers who just used blackboards and books. But before that one should have a closer look at some basic definitions. Let me begin with them.           

What is not good teaching?
In an educational institution, whether it is a school, college or university the main task of a teacher is to teach properly. Now what is meant by proper teaching? Very simply, it is good teaching. What is good? Let me spell out what is not good teaching. Good teaching is not to satisfy students with good notes, materials and books. It is not also to ensure them with good suggestion of questions for the examination. Good teaching is not gossiping with students to make them laugh and entertain them in the classroom.

What is good teaching?
I believe good teaching is to make the students attentive towards what the teacher is teaching. Good teaching is sometime like a bitter medicine, rather than a sweet chocolate which tastes bad but cures the disease. Good teaching is always innovative. Unless a teacher cannot raise questions and arouse interest in the minds of a student he or she is not a good teacher. Furthermore, the cardinal quality of a good teacher is whether he or she can give examples to prove the point or not. Just making general statements is not good teaching.  

How the great teacher Tarak Chandra Das used to teach?
In this article I will give an example of a good teacher in Anthropology. The name of the teacher is Tarak Chandra Das. (1898-1964). He was a brilliant fieldworker and founder teacher in the first Department of Anthropology at the university of Calcutta in our country. He taught many famous anthropologists like Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Surajit Sinha, B.K.RoyBurman, André Béteille, A.C.Bhagabati and many others. He was contemporary to Nirmal Kumar Bose, Biraja Sankar Guha, Verrier Elwin, Irawati Karve and many luminaries of Indian Anthropology.

Professor Amitava Basu a renowned anthropologist at the Indian Statistical Institute  once narrated to me how during his student days, he felt uncomfortable when T.C. Das asked him to describe his journey from home to the Department of Anthropology at Ballygunge Science College in an oral examination on fieldwork! Basu told me ‘If a student of Anthropology could not describe events and human behaviour encountered during his daily life, how he could be able to depict the culture of an unknown group of people?’  This was the view of Professor Das towards the younger generation of would-be anthropologists who received the primary training in ethnographic fieldwork under his supervision’. It was no wonder then that the brilliant ethnographic description of the Purum Kukis of Manipur by Das was the result of successive fieldworks conducted for training the students of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta. Das’s unparallel study on Bengal Famine of 1943 with his colleagues and students by using the classical methods of social anthropology is another brilliant example of his innovative fieldwork developed through teaching at the University of Calcutta.

T.C. Das’s classroom teaching had a characteristic flavour. Through my informal interactions with his students who have now retired from their long and successful academic positions, I could figure out some of the personality traits of T.C.Das as a teacher. My sources were Buddhadeb Chaudhuri(former B.R.Ambedkar Chair Professor at Calcutta University), Ranjana Roy( former Professor at Calcutta University and Ranjit Bhattacharya( former Director of the Anthropological Survey of India).

Let me now narrate the three incidents of excellent teaching of T.C.Das, These narratives are taken from my recently published book on Tarak Chandra Das. Let me reproduce the narratives.

The First Narrative
I will first narrate Professor Buddhadeb Chaudhuri’s anecdote which I freely translated from Bengali like the other two in this series.

It was raining throughout the morning and many of us arrived late in Das’s class, who of course reached on time as he did throughout the session. T.C.Das waited for some time and when most of us arrived he went to the blackboard and we were surprised to find that he noted the time of arrival of each student in the attendance register. Then he started asking each of us about the distance of our residences from Ballygunge Science College where our Department was located. After that he tabulated the time of our arrival against the distance of our residences and to our utter surprise we found that the students who lived nearer came later than those who had their residences at more distant places. Das then began his class lecture on the importance of collecting ethnographic data before reaching conclusions guided by preconceived hypotheses (personal oral communication at the Department of Anthropology Vidyasagar University during 2008-09).

The Second Narrative
The next anecdote came from the experiences of Professor Ranjana Roy who was specialised in Prehistoric Archaeology and she was the most meticulous teacher who was simply excellent in drawing prehistoric tools. She narrated her classroom interactions with Das in the following manner:

We not only respected T.C.Das as a good teacher but we also had tension about his meticulousness. One day when we arrived in the practical class on material culture at the undergraduate level in which we had to draw the tools and implements used by the tribal people by hand under the supervision of Das who was very strict as regards drawing. On that day we were surprised to find that Professor Das was sitting in his chair with a big head gear of some tribe of northeast India! He then instructed us to draw the head gear which was a kind of hat made out of bamboo splits. We requested our teacher to put off the hat from his head and allow us to draw at our ease as we did earlier in his classes. Das disagreed and said that a field anthropologist had to learn about how to draw material cultural objects not only as a museum specimens but also as living things in use whether in hands or on heads of the people. We finally could draw the head gear with a lot of trouble and he taught us how to do it without disturbing the informants (personal oral communication at the Department of Anthropology Vidyasagar University during 2008-09).

The Third Narrative
Now the third anecdote from Dr.Ranjit Bhattacharya.

Now-a-days you teachers in the university classes are worried about the number of books and papers you could recommend to the students when you teach them a topic. In our days, it was not so. Take the example of T.C.Das. He taught us courses on kinship and social organisation by using all his practical skills of drawing genealogical diagrams which he learned by himself in the field. But when it was about the books, he used to refer W.H.R Rivers’ Social Organisation. His teaching was something like this. He used to read some pages from the classical book and then explained the themes in his own words and after that gave examples from his own field data collected from the Purum Kuki or some other tribes of the northeast India.Das’ objective was to finish reading the classic to the students. His philosophy was when read a book, read it exhaustively and learn the themes with the help of your own field experiences. His method of meticulous and painstaking teaching was some time boring to us by now I understand and realize that I have at least read Rivers in full and not in a hurried manner (personal oral communication at the Department of Anthropology Vidyasagar University during 1996-97).

I hope I had been able to sketch a profile of the skills of a good teacher in Anthropology, which have contemporary relevance..

The readers who are interested to know more about T.C.Das may go through my book named below.

Tarak Chandra Das: An Unsung Hero of Indian Anthropology. 2016. (Foreword by Hari Mohan Mathur). [ISBN: 978-93-858830-1-9]. Studera Press: Delhi.

The author taught Anthropology at Vidyasagar University, Medinipur, West Bengal during December 1985-August 2016

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Jul 6, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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