Tuesday, September 5, 2017


Reposted from my Facebook post on my teacher Hari V. Sahasrabuddhe (hvs)

5th Sept, birthday of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, is celebrated as teacher's day.
As it happened I received a post quoting Ramana on the power of the Guru.
I cannot pretend to really understand the quote, yet it has a mysterious emotional appeal. Since it was teacher's day and everyone was posting around/about that I shared the quote [1]

So then some students who have gone on to be teachers asked me: “This may be right for people like Ramana. What about us zillions of sada 5th Sept-type teachers? How do we interpret/understand/benefit from this?”

Hmm… Now that's a knotty question!

Like Ramana who I highly revere, another is the Greek teacher G.I. Gurdjieff.
His words on teacher are also noteworthy:
«Our COMMON-FATHER-ENDLESSNESS is only the Maker of a (human) being'. The genuine creator, however, of his essence during the period of his preparatory existence is his 'Oskianotsner', namely, he whom your favourites call tutor or teacher.»
This to me is an important quote: The teacher does not primarily create knowledge. He/she creates being

Thinking further about it, its after Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan not quite a great-guru nor quite just-another-teacher. So is there something in there for us ordinary teachers??

Ramana, Gurdjieff Ive not seen. But Ive worked closely with hvs — first as a student, then under him as a colleague. And I feel he did more than teach me. He quite literally created parts/aspects of me that would not be there without him. So I thought I’d write on him as a continuation and concretization of my earlier Ramana quote. And as an illustration of Gurdjieff’s: A teacher creates being.

 I joined the PU-CSD in 1987.
A few months before joining, when I was in 6th sem, hvs took me for a walk in the univ campus. In which he broached the subject of me joining as a tutor in the dept. Oooo my favorite teacher inviting me to be his colleague!! I told him enthusiastically: “My most favorite course was the IP course you taught us. I want to teach better than you!”
He smiled indulgently. The deal was sealed.
Came home and told my mom about the offer and the conversation. She was aghast that I told him I want to teach better than him. “Sharam nathin?!?! Talking like that to your teachers?”

The first course I was given to teach was 'Discrete Math'.

Looking over the syllabus, I found it way too vast.
I went to hvs, "There's so much material! How to cover??"
hvs: Shall we make one course into two?
I: Two?! [I had not gone with any such agenda!] Uh… Well two /math/ courses?
hvs: No amount of math is too much!
I: (Still incredulous) But how can you do that?? Aren't there some boards etc to decide and deliberate these big syllabus change questions?
hvs (brushed aside the question): "I am the board"

I remember vividly
- His surety in his own deciding powers. This is something that remained… When one knows what one is doing, one does it and not sit on ceremony!
- It would take many years before I understood the resulting value of agility of decisions
[Compare with the norm where 'boards' can take 5 years to change a syllabus… in a field where 5 years is a generation!]
- Also remember that at time the course was ½ management ½ technical (CS). He clearly had a vision of reducing the management and increasing the tech. At that time it didn't seem wise. In retrospect it became so

So it happened that the very first course I conducted as an academic I had to not just teach but also design!
And it was much more foundational, purer math course than ever before… way beyond my maturity at that point…
This was, in retrospect a characteristic modus operandi of hvs. Put you in a spot and then help you… mostly laconically by the fact of the trust

And yet it was not roses-roses…

I worked very hard on the /material/ but really did not try (or succeed!) in /teaching/. At the course end there was a student evaluation. One student — the topper — ripped me apart as a disaster of a teacher.
Not only was the review terrible but coming from the top student made it significantly worse.

 Timidly, hesitantly I went with the sheaf of evaluations to hvs' office.
And pointed out this one.

He slowly read it… At first seriously then a gentle slight smile appeared on his face. He looked at me for a few seconds smiling.
“She doesn't like you” and flicked the paper aside as waste!

Its 30 years after that event. In which many people have said I am a very good teacher.
But at that point, 30 years ago my future teaching-career hung in the balance.
It would never have been so if hvs had not with compassion reposed /faith/ in my /potential/ against clear negative existing /evidence/.

Also that interaction vivifyied for me one of my principal life-understandings: The most objective thing is the *fact* of one's subjectivity

1988 hvs asked "What if we switch from Pascal to Scheme for Intro to programming?"
Others didn't have much opinion. I thought it was a crazy idea… But gave my enthusiastic support.
I became his assistant in that course
Much of the ‘originality’ of my subsequent 30 years of programming teaching can be traced to that decision and my being in-the-right-place-right-time

Finally in 1991, after a somewhat unsuccessful IP-course the earlier the question came of who would teach IP. I was adamantly and violently in the pure functional camp. hvs would not brook it
Achyut helped the situation: “You teach one half whatever functional you want, Cant you do C in the other?”
Reluctantly I agreed
Achyut definitely played the 'reconciling force' And hvs' wisdom, which I vociferously disagreed with in 1991, would gradually become clear to me across the next 20 or so years; viz.:

The dilemma is acute: What does a teacher teach? The pure the beautiful and the unreal? Or the real-world mess that scrambles the hapless kids' brains?
Neither extreme is right.
By making me balance doing a bilingual course spanning the beauty and abstract purity of a toy language upto industry-strength C in the same first-course, hvs put a rare and tough demand on me:
  • the real world has no commitment to being consistent
  • our minds better be!
  • And yet its our mind which comprehend the world

 I did not really see or know the uniqueness of what we were doing that until more than 10-15 years later when Jayant Kirtane came to the dept and said: “What’s happening in PU is only happening in world's Oxfords!”

Yes I was an important part of making PU into Oxford category. But I had no idea that I was doing any such thing! How come?? Because hvs made me make it happen

There were many many things I learnt from him — technical and human.
But for now I think I stop…

With this quote from Mark Twain as the explanation/justification for the many vigorous fights that we've had in our time together

When I was 13 I thought my father an utter fool
When I became 21 I was amazed at how much the old man had learnt in 7 years

It is with satisfaction that I inform the many diasporic students who have passed through hvs' hands that the university wishes to felicitate him for his 75th birthday next Feb.
Also PCI[2] of which I am a member, is strongly supporting

Hope we all come together to make this an appropriately memorable event!

[1] who is free

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