“Think for Yourselves”


T5E talks with Prof. Nitin Chandrachoodan, one of this years’ recipients of the Young Faculty Recognition Awards. Prof. Chandrachoodan is an associate professor in the department of Electrical Engineering. (Interviewed by Raymond Joseph)

nitin-mugYour first reactions when you got to know that you were one of the recipients for the YFRA this year?
It was quite an honour to receive this, especially knowing the quality of the other faculty who were short-listed. Naturally I was very thrilled to hear I was one of the recipients.

Many people have expressed strong views in the context of the present system of technical education in India, something that was pointed out by Prof. Srinivasa Rao during the awards ceremony. Are you content with the present system or would you suggest changes to be incorporated into the system?
I do feel there are certain concerns with the system as it stands now. The fact that there are discussions on these topics is a good sign, but I don’t think the solutions are simple. So I shall remain politically correct and duck this question for now.

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?
Yes, I have always liked the idea of teaching. The idea of explaining difficult ideas in a way that makes them understandable has always appealed to me. An academic career also includes a healthy dose of research, not just teaching. And the freedom in terms of choosing what you want to specialize in is more in academia than in industry. What high paying jobs? How can any amount of money compare to the joy of seeing enlightenment on young eager faces?

What is your idea of a good teacher? Were you inspired by one of your teachers?
There are many different ways a teacher can be inspiring – there are some who are extremely systematic, constructing the course like a cathedral, while others are hands on and intuitive. I have definitely been inspired by people who taught me (both here at IIT and later in grad school), and different teachers have shown how different approaches can work. The one common factor would have to be their own love for the subject matter, but there are many good ways in which that can be conveyed to the students.

What according to you might be the reason for young graduates’ reluctance in joining the teaching field?
The “plethora of high paying jobs” you mentioned earlier has got to be one of the bigger reasons. That said, there are many companies today doing excellent research with access to cutting edge technologies. The ideal situation in my opinion would be for people to gain some experience in industry and then bring that back to academia – it would reflect well in their approach to teaching and research. So I don’t think there is a problem with young graduates not going for teaching immediately, as long as they keep their options open. I also feel that if we are able to use our teaching assistants more effectively and give graduate students teaching experience while they study here, many more of them would discover their own teaching potential.

In the awards ceremony, you spoke strongly in the matter of the increased role being played by the Internet in student’s lives. Kindly elaborate on this.
All the immediately obvious outcomes are negative – students using the Net as a shortcut for assignment solutions, plagiarism in term papers and reports, time spent playing LAN games, watching videos, and general lack of any kind of physical exercise. That said, the sheer access to information is something we couldn’t dream of 10 years ago. There is a lot of ongoing discussion on how to adapt teaching techniques to harness this, but at present the Internet is definitely more of a problem than a solution. I think this is a teething problem and we will find ways to absorb it into the teaching process in time, but meanwhile, the best advice I can give you lot is to install alarms on your computers that scare you away from the Net at regular intervals.

The recent hullabaloo on the research being carried out in the IITs not being credible, quality and quantity-wise saw many faculty and alumni seeing red. Your take on this?
This is one of those topics (similar to “is Tendulkar the greatest batsman of all time”) that will generate a lot of heated debate without any reasonable conclusion. We need better publicity for our real achievements, of which there are many; perhaps outreach programs to schools, like the Open House, are one way towards this.

What returns in terms of quality improvement have you got from working in IITM?
Interacting with very high quality researchers both within the institute and at the various companies that interact closely with us has been very rewarding. I have also been involved in designing some complete electronic systems, which has been a very good experience in terms of what can be done by students given the accessibility of resources and technology today.

Your take on the apparent decrease in the quality of IITs and the IIT brand in general and IITM in particular.
What do you mean, “apparent”. In my day, students were 10 times as smart, 10 times as hard working, and 10 times more physically fit. We walked 10 km to class, uphill both ways, and wrote exams with one eye closed and one hand tied behind our backs. You young whippersnappers… Oh wait a minute, I am still “young”, am I not? Personally, I find the term “brand IIT” a bit silly – makes it sound like you are cattle or sheep. That apart, is there a decrease in quality? I definitely feel there is a drop in student motivation levels – it seems to me that too many of them are burnt out by the coaching classes, there are many distractions once they get here, and so on. I don’t know the solution, but yes, there is a problem.

Being awarded the YFRA is certainly a considerable feat. Any specific future goals that you would like to pursue?
I would prefer not to think in terms of specific goals to pursue; right now, I am enjoying my work and teaching. As long as I can convert this into tangible outputs, things are going well.

Any particular advice to the IITM student community that you would like to render, given you are also a graduate from IITM?
No. Learn to think for yourselves (smiles).

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