Reflections of a student-teacher at IIT Madras

Devdas Menon

Text of an invited article that appeared in the Sept. 2019 edition of 'Contour', the magazine of the Civil Engineering Association of IIT Madras

It's been 44 years since I set foot on this beautiful campus at IIT Madras. It seems like yesterday. Time passes by swiftly indeed. Although there have been many changes at IITM over the years, in some sense, I feel nothing really has changed.

The campus is still as fresh and beautiful as it was when I first saw it. I am still wonder-struck seeing the spotted deer and black buck, the monkeys, the birds, the butterflies, the giant banyan trees, the green foliage everywhere, the wildflowers, the squirrels,... I am awed by the rhythmic orchestra of crickets breaking the silence of the forest at night and early morning. There is something powerful and alluring in this natural beauty and stillness; it just blows your mind away. I love especially the quiet open spaces and less-trodden paths, where it is easy to slip into timeless wonder - simply walking around carefree, enjoying the freshness, the freedom, the sheer beauty and the sense of oneness with Nature, our greatest teacher and loving friend. I deem it a great privilege and blessing to have lived, studied and worked in these serene sylvan surroundings.

This freshness and ever-youthful vibrancy can also be seen in the new students who come to join every year. Batch after batch, students keep coming and going, while we teachers remain here, renewed and replenished by their freshness and youthful energy. Time stands still. Like IITM today, I too feel 61 years young.

Of course, there's a flip side to this perspective. But if that's what we choose to focus on, we are likely to age and wear out quickly. Even students know what this feels like. You come in, filled with eager expectations, with a sparkle in your eye, but even before the first quiz is over, you know how heaven can turn into hell. During the course of the two or four / five years of IITM life as a student, the burden of ungratified desires in the academic rat race (and subsequent placement race) can wear you down - unless you are fortunate to stay on top, or have excelled in other creative pursuits, or have somehow learnt the rare art of living happily, regardless of how external circumstances play out.

The academic rat race is a reality for the teacher too, faced with the increasing challenge of "publish or perish". You come in with great expectations of interacting with the brightest minds in the country in teaching and research. The results of the first quiz can come as much a shock to the teacher (who sets a challenging question paper) as to the student. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the teacher of large BTech classes is the harsh reality that the majority are barely interested in civil engineering.

Were things significantly different four decades ago? Not really! Except, perhaps, for the fact that we were somehow less stressed, having more time for leisure, reading and fun during our 5-year BTech programme (with no digital addictions)! The majority of my classmates (and batch-mates) have now little to do with their core engineering disciplines. They have followed varied career paths, and many have excelled in their chosen vocations. I am amazed at the diversity of their disciplines and locations (spread all over the world), and especially the range of topics they speak so knowledgeably about (in our Whatsapp group). Almost everyone in the batch looks back nostalgically on the times we shared at IITM - the wonderful hostel life, the daily discussions in the hostel mess, interesting classroom incidents, the sports, literary and cultural activities, the OAT movies, the lovely hostel day functions (also attended by our teachers and their families, whom we would cordially invite - unlike present times)... Whenever someone in our batch wins some award, or IITM gets some recognition, we all feel elevated. We are also proud of the fact that the current Director of IITM belongs to our batch.

Students may find it hard to visualise that we teachers were once like you (and deep inside, we still are). Teachers will also do well to recall that we are made of the same stuff as students, who have the same potential - to excel in whatever they really want. I distinctly remember being open to many options in the final years of my BTech programme. Indeed, I never thought that I would end up as a teacher. Throughout my education, I simply worked on one principle: to enjoy, and to excel in, whatever I was called upon to learn. Humanities was as interesting to me at school as the Sciences, and I was tempted to pursue Literature and be a writer or journalist. But I also found it very interesting and challenging to solve the problems posed in JEE question papers (without any coaching), and as luck would have it, I ended up at IITM. Many years later, I realised my teenage wish of studying English Literature, by taking up a post-graduate course at Mysore University. Inadvertently, I also ended up realising my wish to be a writer, by writing a few books - on structural engineering topics (Reinforced concrete design, Structural analysis, Advanced structural analysis) and on life in general (Stop sleepwalking through life! and Spirituality at work).

It was only after I took up a job as a structural designer at New Delhi, immediately after graduation, that I fell in love with structural engineering. I have remained loyal to my love since then. I even ventured into business in structural engineering consultancy, setting up my own company - but soon realised that business was not my cup of tea. Being your own boss can be thrilling initially, until you discover that the clients are the real boss, demanding that you meet near-impossible deadlines. Working long hours is not a problem when you are young and unmarried, but what I found myself totally unprepared for was the ethical challenge of having to pay bribes to receive rightful payments in public sector projects. I knew something was fundamentally wrong, and found myself confronted by a key question I had never asked in the past, What is the purpose of my life? My restless search for answers to this query eventually took me to the Himalayas...

To cut a long story short, I ended up in academics, specialising in structural engineering. When I took my first class as a teacher, it felt like a fish taking to water. I loved it. It felt wonderful. But apparently, my classes were not so wonderful as to bring any significant change to the prevailing system. Students continued to drift from civil engineering into other pastures (primarily because of the 'pay package'). So, how do I continue enjoying my role as a teacher? How do I add value to students, so that they benefit in some significant manner from our classroom interactions?

These are the challenges all teachers keep facing. It is not for me to comment on the extent to which I may have succeeded or failed; that is for the students to decide. I wish them well, and hope that I have inspired them in some way. Some ten years ago, I realised that there were some fundamental missing elements in our education, related to the very questions I faced in my own life. This led to the launching of the first 'GN' (general) category (free elective) course at IITM on Self Awareness, open to all students in the Institute. It quickly became popular, and as students wanted to explore further, a second course, titled Integral Karmayoga, was launched. These courses aim at inner development and authentic living, including helping the student discover one's inherent aptitude and potential, as well as being able to deal creatively with the various challenges that life throws at us. Most important of all, the courses help us realise that the enduring happiness we seek is waiting to be discovered within us as a way of being, and not as occasional experiences dependent on external circumstance.

It's time to wind up this article. What is my concluding message to our dear students?

Find out what you're good at (your talents), what you love doing (you don't feel the time pass), what you have a deep inner calling for, and where your contributions can help transform society - and just go all out and walk that path. Hopefully, it will be in the domain of civil engineering - the branch you are married to. We have plenty of challenges in civil engineering: infrastructure, housing, transportation, water resources, sanitation, pollution control, etc., that need the best brains, hearts and hands to work on. Isn't that precisely what was expected from the IITs when they were set up? Our country needs you!

But, of course, you are also given the freedom to choose as you please! May you find fulfilment wherever you go, in whatever you do!


Engineering Education: Training to Produce Technicians or Scientists?

Perspectives in Engineering Education

We are the hollow men ...

Travel Light and Be Free!

Am I Making Spiritual Progress?

The Big Tree and the Blade of Grass

Trans-personal Growth

Mind Control

Evolution and Enlightenment

Exploring "Self-Awareness" with the Youth

Reflections of a student-teacher at IIT Madras