What Pain Is This: On-Duty Leave

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There are many issues on our campus which are frequently a bone of contention, and the subject of various heated debates. The ‘What Pain Is This’ series is a T5E initiative which provides a constructive avenue for the students at large to present their qualms related to the Institute and attempt to find consensus on the issue through debate and dialogue.

A few months back, all of us found the following message amidst our Smail:

My dear Students,
Many among you have enthusiastically represented our Institute as an official member of one or more teams that participate in national and international competitions. This is indeed laudable and places a feather in your cap.
As per prevailing rules, every student/ResearchScholar is required to fulfill 100% attendance in the courses they register in. It is only to account for exigencies or special situations (sickness, major family events, unforeseen circumstances, participation in national/international competitions as an official member of an IIT Madras team, etc.) that students are permitted a maximum of 15% absence from the classes, and if and only if sufficient evidence is presented to satisfy the concerned teacher(s). So, please do not interpret this 15% as an automatic “bonus” or “slack” provided to students by our Institute.
Even in the specific case of leave being taken to enable participation in national/international competitions as an official member of an IIT Madras team, such leave should not exceed the above mentioned 15%.
In the above context, I wish to draw your attention regarding your applications for special leave to enable your participation in some of the competitions. The due authority to grant special leave rests only with the Dean (Academic Courses).
The DoSt can only certify that a specific individual is a member of a specific IIT Madras team, and this must not be construed or used as a statement of permission to proceed on leave to participate in a competition. The DoSt has no authority whatsoever to grant such leave.
I do acknowledge that the attendance rule is contentious among many of our students and many have sought clarifications quite often on the basis of the situation prevailing in other Institutions, including other IITs. One must respect and follow the prevailing rules, even though one may wish to question them on another front.
Best wishes,
LSG.
Dean of Students (DoSt),
IIT Madras.

This mail dealt with an issue that has caused several students to crib, complain and try to make changes to the case of On Duty Leave, which can be defined as absence authorized by an Institution to an individual (that represents its name) without imposing a penalty upon the said individual’s attendance record. This is a contentious issue in several universities — while some permit it on a blanket basis, merely requiring proof of participation for sanction, others believe that the primary responsibility of students is to focus on their own academics. Insti however, has taken a rather unique in-between stance.

Students who wish to participate in events, conferences and competitions as IIT Madras Representatives receive bona fide letters from the Institute on request. If their absence coincides with the semester and classes, they are not granted any waiver, as the above letter clearly states. Nevertheless, several members of the student community have indeed participated in such events. They either use the allotted upper limit of 15% attendance to attend said events, or they request individual professors to allow them this waiver with a promise to make up for the same. While the former poses several constraints upon the student, the latter is not a guarantee despite the existence of precedence.

Several students have attempted to appeal this fairly rigid policy, to almost no avail. While the policy seems to provide no chance of a respite, the opinions about it within the community take three major forms.

Some, especially those whose tryst with co-curricular and extracurricular activities have coincided with the holidays, believe that it is all right for the student to work within the allotted fifteen percent attendance. Since a large number of events geared towards students take place on national holidays and their succeeding weekends, students can attend a fair few competitions while losing a negligible amount of their classes.

The above comes with particular discomfiting caveats. The most obvious and overwhelming one is that there are several excellent opportunities that do indeed occur during the working week or stretch beyond 2-3 days. It is hard to document what those are since their annual occurrence is not over fixed days. However, the most significant among these are leadership symposiums, summer internships and research opportunities that stretch into the upcoming semester. These provide excellent exposure to the student and add value to both their CVs and towards shaping their future goals and ideas. The only additional benefit such students have gained in the past is that they have been allowed to do their semester registrations late. Moreover, for the events that occur more towards the heart of the semester, this spatially limits the ability of a student to participate. While events within South India are more within their reach, as the distance increases, so does feasibility of participation. Manthan (whose Finals and Awards ceremony were held in Delhi last year), cultural festivals of colleges in North India, Robocon, etc are among those events that have in the past garnered wistful enthusiasm amidst interested students, whose choices were either to miss the opportunity or lose a significant portion of attendance.

While students who miss such opportunities despite being keen on them are left with their ‘What Ifs’, the others need to be wary of several other roadblocks that appear over the semester. They need to choose which of these activities they prize the most, since the fairly paltry attendance limit coupled with the numerical limit on the choices available ensure that students can barely attended a couple of events in one semester. They need to work around quizzes, group presentations, paper submissions and a plethora of activities that require their physical presence while constantly having to face that now overwhelming fear — falling ill and gaining a big fat ‘W’.

Another dominant stance on this issue, especially popular amidst alumni, is that an Institute must not try to restrict and shape the way they choose to spend their time. They swear by policies, espoused by most universities abroad, that do not mandate an upper limit on the number of classes one may miss. Such a policy relies on a largely 100% attendance mandate, but does not penalize the student for failing to meet the same as long as individual professors are informed of their leave. It relies on the maturity of students to understand the responsibility placed upon them and prioritize their time such that they neither jeopardize their academics nor lose self actualizing opportunities.

The primary objection to such a stance would seem to be the evident lethargy that pervades students. This argument runs on the premise that disillusioned and periodically restless individuals need some sort of rule and associated penalties to incentivize them to attend classes and give them a chance in terms of both time and effort. It is hard to argue against such logic since such an attitude, en masse, would lead to abuse of the freedom with respect to such attendance — an abuse that could well manifest in dipping grades, focus and overall direction.

Abundant rebuttal suggests that giving the students the chance will perhaps lead to pleasant results — students who no longer have external checks upon their attendance may well activate their self checking mechanisms. The risk, however, is one that the administration and teaching staff feel unwilling to take — perhaps since such a policy is not common among Indian institutions, while articles berating any freedom meted out to students certainly are.

Recognizing the above, the third stance on the issue of On Duty Leave takes shape. Students espousing such a stance believe that on a case by case basis, this rigid attendance rule may be tweaked to benefit students to gain exposure that they may otherwise lose. Students may send in applications to gain waivers to participate in particular competitions, conferences, etc. in advance. These applications could perhaps be routed through their HoDs or even directly to the Dean(s). If the opportunity is deemed important, bereft of any hoaxes, and if the student makes a convincing argument in favour of attendance waiver for that case, they would ideally not be penalized for participation. Their 15% is then calculated excluding the time they spend making use of said opportunities.

This stance faces opposition in the form of ease of abuse. While such concerns are understandable, removing them is indeed logistically feasible. As mentioned above, the interested student must place the appeal in advance, and post participation, must submit proof of the same. The event should be one that requires them to use the name of the institute — ie, they must officially be representatives in order to be eligible for such a waiver.

The paperwork involved might at first glance make one’s head reel. But let’s think beyond the surface. Students today are trained to skip past events that occur during the working week no matter how much they seem to appeal. Cultural Clubs in IIT Madras are highly under-represented at festivals that go beyond our forested home. Parallelly however, most awards for graduates (The Governor’s Medal, the Institute Blues awards, etc) prize extra- and co-curricular activities that the students have added to their name.

It is hard to fathom how this policy has co-existed for as long as it has with such a viscerally rigid attitude towards attendance waivers. Perhaps it is time to work out a more simple solution?

 

Have an opinion on this issue? Is there another issue that you’d like for us to take up? Let us know in the comments or by writing to us at [email protected]com

Subject enjoys reading, eating, sleeping and Instagram. While exam season may dissuade it from doing three of those four things, Instagram persists.

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