A Passion for Teaching


Iitm_maingate_logoT5E talks with Prof. Pattabiraman, one of this years’ recipients of the Young Faculty Recognition Awards. Prof. Pattabiraman teaches Physics, specializing in Atomic & Molecular Physics and Quantum Optics.

(interview by Jatin Mandawat)

Your first reactions when you got to know that you were one of the recipients for the YFRA this year?
Well, it felt good. Awards are a pat on the back. It represents someone telling you: “We like what you do, but you can do better”.

Did you always want to join the teaching field considering the plethora of high-paying jobs available? What was your inspiration to take up teaching?
Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”.
I was fortunate to recognise early that I found it exhilarating to discuss a subject in front of an audience. Students often tell me that they don’t know what to do in future and are worried if they ever will know. If one is ready to work hard with discipline, the ‘right path’ will present itself. Don’t ask me how! It’s a bit like the wand choosing the wizard.

What is your ideal of a good teacher? Has any of your teachers inspired you?
All teachers play a part in developing ones character and personality. The good ones inspire you and the bad ones … force you to learn the subject!
In a classroom everyone is a student and the teacher has the best seat in the house. The key to effective teaching/learning is to quickly latch onto key ideas. A ‘good’ teacher helps the student recognise this. There are several ways of doing this. I personally prefer to show the student how confusing the subject can be and that they are not alone with their questions. The student must let the confusion drive his/her effort. This is the key to understanding. A teacher must allow some time and space for the student to achieve this.
My research guide and mentor, Prof. G. Rangarajan, Dept. of Physics (IITM) played a big role in shaping my character and approach towards life. What I owe him is beyond measure.

What, according to you, might be the reason for the young graduates reluctance in joining the teaching field?
Well the pay is low. So can you blame them? In any case no one should take up teaching unless they have the passion for it. Even with the passion, it takes a teacher tremendous courage to ignore peer pressure and the chance to earn much (much!) more. I think we should be worried about the quality of teaching in our schools. All teachers irrespective of who they teach must have some research exposure. Research is a humbling experience. It teaches you to respect questions and not smother a student’s curiosity by saying, that’s the way it is! Teachers with research exposure should be hired in schools, paid more and provided enough freedom.

There has been a recent hullabaloo on Research being carried out in the IITs not being credible, quality and quantity-wise; what is your take on this?
The way I see it, the hullabaloo was over performance in an atmosphere with bureaucratic constraints. The point is in spite of such constraints many faculty do world class research. IIT faculty transform lives on a daily basis. In my department, I have lost count of the number of tongue-tied rudderless Ph D students who have evolved into confident and focussed researchers. While we should all strive to become better in everything that we do, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over such hullabaloo.

What returns in terms of quality improvement have you got from working in IITM?
IITM offers me tremendous freedom to try different things in the classroom. I also have complete freedom to pursue any research I want. Every other day if not everyday students show me how to look at the subject in a new light. I get paid to learn physics!

Your take on the apparent decreasing quality of IITM students, IITs and the IIT brand in general and IITM in particular.
The IITs provide students with an environment in which they are trained to cope with the pressures and hardships of life. It provides great opportunities for overall character improvement. Students can free their minds and think clearly about what they really want to do in life. It of course is one of the best places to learn subjects of their choice. If students keep this in mind while preparing for JEE, we don’t have to worry about quality. If students write the JEE because of “good career prospects” (read fat pay check), quality will naturally suffer. School teachers and parents must encourage students to pursue JEE for the right reasons.

Being awarded the YFRA is certainly an admirable accomplishment. Any specific future goals that you would like to pursue?
Read more; Blur the boundaries between theory and experiment in the classroom, the lab and my research; Make the lab a place where students can enjoy physics without fear and inhibition; Interact more with school and college students; Keep my research simple but thorough;

Any particular advice to the IITM student community that you might have?
Nurture your individuality. Say no to peer pressure.

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