By Agnidh Ghosh (UG ’23)
Ashoka inducted its largest and most diverse batch of undergraduate students in the institution’s history this academic year. Many incoming students left offers from prestigious public universities, to join what promised to be the most liberal and inclusive university in the country. However, the batch of 2023 was in for a surprise.
A distinguishing factor of Ashokan academics is its emphasis on research. However, in Ashoka’s quest for producing undergraduate research, the university might be creating an inhospitable environment for those who are not from privileged backgrounds. In their freshman year, students are required to write academic papers as a means of proving their proficiency in their field. While students from International Board and Cambridge model schools are already used to this, students from CBSE, ISC, and state boards, especially from tier II and tier III cities are often left feeling disadvantaged. It is contended that ICT classes along with additional help from the CWC can help bring students at par with what is considered “The Ashokan Standard”. However, are just 12 weeks of online ICT classes enough? ICT, or Introduction to Critical Thinking, is supposed to be the bedrock of an Ashokan’s undergraduate academic journey, but half our batch had to struggle through our first semester without it, as only 50% of the batch was allotted ICT courses in the beginning. ICTs are engineered to spark critical thinking, and hence it is crucial to have stimulated discussions in an offline environment. One cannot truly be expected to understand the standard expected of an Ashokan student, without interacting with fellow students. ICT is one of the only smaller classes one is a part of in their first year, and the intimacy is by design. A freshman can find themselves extremely disoriented and alienated in 150 cap Foundation courses, and ICTs exist to help the student understand the academic processes at the university, in detail. This does not involve just writing, but also the ability to read academic texts, analyse, correlate and decipher kinds of material one hasn’t encountered in the past. Without this training, one is completely at sea.
Additionally, this problem of alienation is compounded by a paucity of CWC counsellors. This limitation has led to a CWC session getting capped at fifteen minutes which is certainly not enough for learning an entirely new style of writing from the ground up, in a language one might not be familiar with. The academic system thus reproduces social privilege in an academic setting, and those of us not from privileged socio-economic backgrounds are left struggling with hardly any support.
Introductory courses are the next hurdle encountered by a student in their first year. Prior to admissions, we were led to believe that we could pursue whatever fields we wanted regardless of the educational background we had, unless faced with a mandated course requirement. Still, introductory courses consistently disadvantage those who do not have a background in those specific fields. Classroom discussions are more often than not dominated heavily by people who have prior knowledge in these fields and they end up complicating the class discussion to a degree that someone not acquainted with certain terminologies and concepts may end up completely perplexed. Nevertheless, one cannot blame the students for elevating the level of debates. Instead, especially for introductory courses, the professors and TFs should attempt to moderate the discussions and make them more inclusive. Making introductory courses increasingly intimidating can discourage students from experimenting or even pursuing certain disciplines going forward. It is baffling that at Ashoka, especially in more intimate classes, courses are still taught using the one-size-fits-all mechanism, without being cognizant of the composition of the class in terms of gender, socio-economic background, and exposure levels. Perhaps, the lack of overt efforts to include a certain section of the student body is not as troubling, as the problematic justification or complete invisibilisation of the hurdles we face, in pursuit of “academic excellence”.
Additionally, even in more concrete terms, the course allotment system at Ashoka gives a decided advantage to those with better internet on registration day, ensuring that students from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities have a much greater chance of not ending up with their preferred courses. Ashoka is an example of how an elite university partakes in the social reproduction of class and economic hierarchies. We might think we live in a bubble, but we really don’t.