Tag Archives: culture

Madeira

Carnegie Mellon’s HCI Institute has joint masters program with the University of Madeira, located in Funchal on the beautiful island of Madeira. We visited the program toward the start of our time in Switzerland, in mid February. The joint masters program has been running for several years, but I had never visited the Madeira campus before. Instead, I’d interacted with students during their semester in Pittsburgh (at the start of each Madeiran student’s joint degree) and with faculty who visited Pittsburgh from Madeira.

It’s no surprise that visiting Madeira gave me a different perspective on things, just another example of how local a global perspective can be. Our visit was part tourism, part work. On the tourism front, we enjoyed traditional foods in local restaurants and at the homes of a faculty host; we experienced the island’s focus on the visitor/tourist, we enjoyed a tremendous range of fruits at the local market and saw the out door social time of local residents near a downtown bar. We nearly froze swimming in the volcanic (not hot) pools and wandered through the beautiful tiered botanical gardens a cable car ride away from the main city. We learned a little bit about the history of the island, its sources of power (always interesting to energy researchers), its imported wildlife (not much was there before it was settled), its variable climate (from base to top) and raucous celebration of carnival.

Coastline … along with interesting liquers Dried fish -- a local specialty Seaside volcanic sand
Madeira photos on Flickr

On the work front, the visit was a reminder of the value of face-to-face meetings, the distance that students must feel from those of us in Pittsburgh once they return to Madeira (and vice versa), and the importance of both social and structured work time.

It was also a reminder of how many ways and in how many places the same ideas are being explored by researchers. Whether in Bangalore, India; Zürich, Switzerland; Pittsburgh, USA; or Funchal, Portugal people who care about sustainability (or surely any other research topic) are attempting to create and deploy technology in the largest way they can, and understand how it works. Each of these groups could work in isolation, but working together we can (hopefully) accomplish more, and for me personally each has resulted in a very positive outcome: collaborations as diverse as the groups that I have come to know.

Observations of the Jungle and Human Behavior

Ananthagiri Hills Trek
Ananthagiri Hills Trek, (c) GHAC

I spent most of yesterday trekking through the jungle at Ananthagiri Hills with about ten people from the GHACand my two children. In between climbing old-creek beds off-trail, hiking through fields of torturous thorny grasses, telling stories to keep the kids happy and uncomplaining, and looking for and at stones, bees nests, peacock feathers, and even one scorpion, I found myself ruminating about the many relationships I and those around me have to the jungle here.

My friends and neighbors view even the small patches of jungle (Hindi for “forest”) near my quarters as dangerous and not to be entered. When the children play there, a neighbor calls me warning of snakes. The children and adults do not enter the forest. When I invite them to learn more about snakes (through the GHAC’s collaboration with the “Snake Sense” organization), the children jump at a chance to join me, but the adults will not accompany them. I must request permission to bring 5 children along with me, with no other supervisors. The event, associated with India’s wonderful “Children’s Day” holiday turns out to include a hike. We trek up and down a local hill, slide down a crack between boulders, challenge ourselves to pass along the edge of a large, highly angled stone, climb a tree. The children with me alternate between fear and enchantment, feelings of prowess and worries of inadequacy. At the end, each child receives a first aid kit and a reminder that they gain much from pushing their limits. Will they keep their adventurous nature?

GHAC group (c) GHAC
GHAC group (c) GHAC

Clearly, the GHAC views the jungle as a place for fun, adventure, exercise, and comradeship. On our hike yesterday, we launched ourselves from the edge of a hill up a mountainside through brush, thorns, and rocks. In contrast to my neighbors, concerns about snakes were not prominent. Indeed, from what I learned at snake sense, a dangerous encounter is unlikely (and likely to be precipitated in part by a lack of sense). The excitement of discovery, and the challenge of hiking these non-trails sustains my children through the beginning of the hike. As they begin to tire, I begin to notice that many trails snake through the woods and fields and across or along our path. Soon we are passed by herders walking their cattle down the trails. White birds fly among the cattle clearly benefiting from their presence. To these herders, the jungle and fields are not adventure but home and land. We continue on our way, unremarkable to those who share the space with us. Eventually, as we return, we pass the only “wildlife” we’ve seen besides a single scorpion: A lost goat bleating for its pack, unaccompanied.

At home, just down the road from our quarters, the workers who are helping with the campus expansion enter the forest frequently, it is their bathroom, washroom, and perhaps more. Behind the residence, the local organic farm is engaged in transforming parts of the forest into food. The forest sounds, smells and sights reflect these activities. It is clearly lived in, not just because of the trails that run through it and the plants that grow in it, but also because of the pervasive presence of garbage. In contrast, during our hike, garbage was rarely sighted: Those living on the land preserved its cleanliness. Why, I wonder? Fewer people? Different lifestyles? Perhaps a sense of environmentality that grows from using and being responsible for the land, benefiting from its preservation [1]?

At the end of our hike, we traveled to a local lake to relax, cool off and play. We share the surrounding coastline with those who simply live there and other visitors, but we have managed to find a corner of the lake that only one other person, a man chopping wood. The adults in our troupe of adventurers spend hours sharing food and playing in the water. We have brought no toys, boats, or other equipment. A half-full water bottle doubles as a ball for a while, then the play turns to tag. Meanwhile my son repeatedly splashes at those he knows will react by chasing him, throwing him into the water. I am struck by the sense of playfulness and community among this group of strangers who have just met and spent the day together. I think an american crowd might have more quickly run out of things to do, perhaps splashing, then splitting off into small groups swimming. I can’t remember the last time I saw adults playing tag.

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At the end I am left with a question: What creates these different relationships to the jungle, and how might they change? Agarwal’s paper describes a particular transformation in one community’s relationship to the Jungle. From viewing the forest as something that must, by necessity, be pillaged (and that is big enough to take it), one informant says “We protect our forests better than government can… For us, it is life… Just think of all the things we get from forests. If we don’t safeguard the forest, who else will?” [1, p. 2]. After presenting this initial transformation, Agarwal spends much of the rest of his article deconstructing its genesis in the varied regulatory structures and enforcement mechanisms put into place in the decade over which the transformation takes place. He argues for the role of “intimate governance”, rather than “government at a distance”, in creating environmentality. What is promising about the specific success he observed is the way in which it “led to a cascade of changes in institutional, political, and social domains connected to the idea of community” [1, p. 21].

While my observations lack the scale or depth of Agarwals, it seems likely that the different relationships, ownership, and upbringings I observed also have a direct impact on the preservation and use of the forest. Given the interdependency of these factors, as well as the impact of relationships among stakeholders, community attitudes and identity (e.g., [2]), lasting behavior change seems unlikely without multi-faceted, multi-level solutions1.

1I have argued elsewhere that there are multiple reasons to consider multi-level, scalable projects that engage with governments, organizations and individuals in sustainability research (and, as an aside, that much of the research we do now on sustainable HCI may be lack valid motivations). The analysis here seems to provide additional evidence for the need to think more broadly about the work we do.

[1] Agarwal, A. (2005). Environmentality: Community, intimate governance, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology, 46(2).

[2] T.Dillahunt, J. Mankoff, E. Paulos.  Understanding Conflict Between Landlords and Tenants: Implications for Energy Sensing and Feedback.  In Proceedings of Ubicomp 2010.

Indian Bureaucracy

The scream, Edvard Munch
The scream, Edvard Munch

I hesitated to post this for a few days (not least because I can never seem to spell the word bureaucracy correctly), but I’ve decided this story is worth sharing, if only so that it prepares other travelers for what they might face. As an added bonus, a usability bug made the experience about 10 times as bad as it might otherwise have been.

I and my children are in India on an entry visa (accompanying my husband). Due to an error on the part of our travel agent, my visa expires in a few weeks (November 18th), more than a month before I am due to leave India. This is because (unlike what our travel agent told us), our 6 month visas began on the date they were issued, not the date that we entered India. As a result, I needed to visit the FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Offices), at the old airport about one hour from my home, in order to request a visa extension. According to what little information I could find online, we would need to submit a request, and if accepted, we would then wait up to two months for the visa to actually be extended.

Being somewhat familiar with the difficulties of interacting with this office, I prepared as well as I could (printed out the official government form, filled it out, gathered the necessary photos; a copy of my husband’s employment letter; a new letter stating that IIIT Hyderabad wished us to stay until the end of may (carefully written to include the passport and visa numbers for each of us), a copy of my husband’s registration (he was required to register when he arrived, as a resident of Hyderabad, in addition to having a valid visa), and all of our passports. I also requested the help of the IIIT Hyderabad employee who has experience with the FRRO (and can speak Telugu, Hindi, and English) and arranged for our driver to be available. I left the children behind, because I knew that the chances of success were about 0.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the office, I was told that I had filled out the wrong form. Additionally, I was told that I and the children all needed to register as Hyderabadi residents in addition to my husband (news to us!) and that I would have to pay a late fee ($30 each), and bring a letter verifying my residence at IIIT Hyderabad. I filled out a new form, which they provided, with the same information as the old, and was then sent home to get bank checks ($30 each, plus $80 each for the visa extension) and fill out an additional web form for registration. This meant going back to campus to collect my paycheck in cash, and then to the bank to get the bank checks. I was unfortunately sick with the flu, so the day blurred by, but the whole effort took from about 9am to 5pm.  I was given a 10am appointment the next day when I could complete the process.

That night, my husband and I both struggled to fill out the web form, with no success. After completing the whole form, we repeatedly ran into a bug in which it requested an exit date, but claimed that each date we entered was invalid (either because it was before the arrival date, or after it). We tried every possible combination of exit and arrival dates with no success, and were stumped as to how to complete the visa extension process.

At 9:15am (15 minutes late), my driver showed up without his helper (who apparently did not want to come and/or had assumed things would go smoothly from here on out, which I doubted highly). No one on campus could explain what I should do about the broken form, but finally a friend suggested I simply print out each page of the form in the hope they would accept them (a long shot). And hour and 40 minutes after we were supposed to leave, and a full 40 minutes after our appointment should have begun, the kids and I (all still sick) began the journey to the FRRO. When we got there, they would not accept the printouts. Luckily, I had my laptop and a 3G modem with me, so they assigned a technical support person to help me fill out the form (a laborious process given the network speed we had over the modem). He made a few adjustments, and we ended up with the very same bug. However, through some miracle unexplained to me, the piece of paper we needed to proceed magically appeared on the printers of the FRRO.

At this point, things got very strange. The man whose desk I was near (and who had been yelling at people left and right all morning) tore into me for wasting their time when clearly I knew how to print the form. He told me to go to an Internet cafe and fill it out again for the kids when I tried to explain that I had no idea where the printout had come from and ask for further help. He did not seem to understand that I already had an Internet connection. I went ahead and filled out the form again on my own (for about the 10th time in the last 24 hours), got the same error, and went to find the person who had magically appeared with the missing piece of paper. In doing so, I apparently entered forbidden space, and this time the angry yelling man tore into me so loudly, and so threateningly, that the children were in tears. He told me he would revoke my ability to stay in Hyderabad if I did not go to an Internet Cafe and refused to let me seek help from the tech support person. Everyone assumed that I was at fault for the form’s problems (classic!).

I hate to admit it, but at this point I was in tears too. I don’t handle being yelled at well. No one seemed willing or able to help us, and I was ready to leave India in November when my visa expired rather than continue this process. I sat down and tried to collect myself, and at that moment, I was reminded about the other side of India. A complete stranger walked up to us and handed the kids candy with a smile, telling them to cheer up. The IIIT helper accompanying me suddenly got moving and found a way to bring the tech support person back. Suddenly, I had all of the forms I needed.

You might think that at this point things would proceed smoothly. You would be wrong. I won’t go into as much detail about what happened next, but a few highlights: I was in trouble for not having registered within 2 weeks (or at least 3 months) of arriving despite never having been told to register; I was only going to get a visa until December 8th (still too early) because my husband’s registration (not his visa) expired then; I was kicked out for engaging the kids in a card game (they were miserable, and needed entertainment, but the people in the waiting room are not allowed to enjoy themselves because the FRRO folks are working!); I was stranded outside on a curb for about 30 minutes because my driver and helper had absconded to get themselves lunch (not thinking of us); I had to cancel my 3:30pm talk because all of this took until 5pm to be complete (despite my original appointment being at 10am); and finally I was told to return (without the children, thank goodness) next Tuesday to complete the process.

As it happens, I am simultaneously applying for my swiss visa (which requires birth certificates for the kids for some reason, which I have had to request from the states they were born in as they have vanished from my house in Pittsburgh). Even with those bumps, it is a far easier process!

Wish me luck finishing all this off! I still don’t know whether my new visa will expire on Dec 8th (in which case I will cut my trip short rather than face all of this again!) or in May.

Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

I am in Delhi for the week (mostly with family obligations), but I was able to sneak away for a few hours this afternoon (less time than I hoped) to visit the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, also home to innovative programs likeSarai and IM4Change.

I have been trying to get in touch with them for a few weeks, ever since a collaborator recommended I visit, and it was well worth the trip. I knew about their Hindawi project (which was one of the first attempts to localize the computer experience (specifically, RedHat, because open source meant possible to modify), and that they have a library of social science research.

When I got off the Delhi Metro and walked to their building, I found myself in a quiet area of Delhi. The complex is unassuming and not very guarded (how different from the experience of visiting more high-tech offices). I simply walked in and was taken quickly to the office of the one person I knew a name for, Mr. Ravikant (from the Sarai program). We had an interesting conversation about the Hindawi project and his studies of movies in Indian society, and then I headed off to the library.

The library is about 6 rooms packed with books, and when I arrived also hosted an art exhibit that took over much of the main room (and cut it in half, literally, via a diagonally placed window pane). Despite the whimsy of the room-sized exhibit, the mood in the room was rather serious. The library was run by an older man working on his PhD who pointed me at the room where I might find books on health and sustainability. I had less than an hour to explore it, so I moved quickly to pick out the most relevant books. I came downstairs, arms loaded, and was greeted by a frown and the information that I should be only picking up 4-5 books at a time. Undaunted, I started working my way through my finds only to learn 30 minutes later that the library was closing 15 minutes earlier than advertised.

In the end, I had time only to write down the references for the most interesting books, skim 2 or 3 of them, copy a few quotes, snap photos of a few pages, and so on. The collection was truly unique, with many books published in India or even self-published. I fear I will not be able to find many of these anywhere else. I end this post with a smattering of what I found.

After leaving the library, I ended up walking home beside a member of CSDS who works on media and journalism. His work attempts to translate information needed to improve the accuracy of indian journalism, and we had a long and interesting conversation about localization and stereotypes during my metro ride home (we overlapped for quite a ways). We had a very interesting conversation about his work on IM4Change and indian society overall. We talked about the difficulties I am having in developing an intuition for “india” and the fact that one reason for this is the diversity of who india is and where it is going — this requires a form of localized thinking that echoes the need to think at the individual level in assistive technology. It is not easy to hold on to both the specifics of one environment/context and also the generalities of a whole (and very diverse) set of societies/country. One interesting insight I gained from the conversation is to think about in what ways (and how universally) scarcity defines Indians. Overall, the visit was a reminder that I need to further immerse myself in Indian culture, especially rural culture, if I am to have anything useful to say about those settings. As we’ve learned in HCI, each user is unique. Similarly, in India, each locality is unique (there are 17 languages and over 800 dialects here, just to give a sense of the diversity of different regions across India). While good HCI eventually comes to conclusions that can generalize across users, it is often very effective to first get to know specific users very well. This becomes even more important when the user is foreign to the designer. I don’t know if I’ll get there in my short time here, but at least I have a sense of the road I need to travel now.

Relating to Sustainability:

ML Dantwala (1996). Dillema’s of Growth: The Indian Experience. Sage publications: Looked at agricultural policy; rural development. one chapter concerned with the adoption of high yield seeds.

Conservation for Productive Agriculture. published by the “Publications and Information Division; Indian Council of Agricultural Research; New Delhi. Ed: V.L. Chopra; T.N. Khoshoo: Articles contributed by scientists worldwide. Chapter on water conservation (#7, p. 98)  discusses india’s vast water resources

Rabindranath Mukhopadhyay (1999). Growth of Indian Agriculture: A study of spatial variation. Classical Publishing: Abridged doctoral dissertation. Statistics oriented

Mahmood Mamdani (1972) The Myth of Population Control: Family, Caste and Class in an Indian Village. Monthly Review Press, New York.

B. K. Pradhan, M. R. Saluja, S. K. Singh. Social Accounting Matrix (SAM) for India: Concepts, Construction and Applications. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Detailed modeling (input out put, and SAM ) for workers in india, exploring gender differences, etc.

Sumi Krishna (1996). Environmental Politics: People’s Lives and Development Choices. Sage Publications: Very nicely focused on India and environmentalism. Suggests at the end “Perhaps it is environmentalism that we need to redirect” Raises 4 areas of concern. “First, the environmentalist approach to a range of interlinked inequities, such as gender, caste, and class, seems to be limited because many environmentalists, despite their varied approaches, actually share ‘ideological roots’ with the very paradigms that are sought  to be changed” (e.g. “ecofeminism restricts women just as patriarchal systems do” … “Second, environmentalists have been largely unconcerned with the mechanics of establishing the decentralized institutions (like panchaayats) necessary to achieve sustainability. Centralised environmental management prgorammes … can have little chance of success, if they are conceived by administrators and technocrats, who may themselves be insensitive to the people in the environment … Third, the recognition that commercialization and market forces have a powerful corroding effect on the natural resource base does not mean that we should sentimentalize the traditional interaction of communities with their local environment. … the question is of choice and control – who determines the course of change? and of anticipating the consequences of change. And fourth, environmentalists have had little idea of how to create the necessary ‘value-orientation’. Values operate through interests. The strength of the environmental movement … mobilizing people who do not face an imminent threat is a much more difficult task … how can we build a base of shared values?”

Forests, Environment and tribal economy. Deforestation, impoverishment, and marginalisation in orissa. W. Farnandes, G. Menon, P. Viegas. Indian social institute, tribes of india series.  1988.  Looks at tribes and forests. Tribal traditions, causes of deforestation, consequences, official solutions (10) devolpemnt progammes and people’s solutions (11). Complements agarwal?

D. R. Sha (1985). An economic analysis of co-operative dairy farming in Gujarat.  Somaiya Publicatinos LTD:  Analysis of a specific market economy in gujarat…

Healthcare:

Human Development Report  Uttar Pradesh — Lots of status on health spending & so on. Get the same for AP?

Tribal Health: Socio-Cultural Dimensions (1986). Edited Buddhadeb Chaudhuri. Inter-India Publications, New Delhi: Goes into great depth about medical anthropology in india. has a whole section on interaction of traditional and modern medical practices. Ch. 26 (p.  311- 321) deals specifically with the conflict between traditional medicine and a western program that was implemented, and how these interacted. “This study depicts the failure of state government health programs in motivating the Santals, whereas the health programs initiated through Sriniketan influenced the Santals in a positive way” (no surprise here!). In general the chapters in this book are short.

Sheila Zurbrigg (1984) Rakku’s Story: Structures of ill-health and the source of change. Printed by George Joseph, on behalf of the author! She is a canadian doctor. Sems to be an ethnography, very interesting if I can get it. Available from Centre fro social action, gundappa BLock, 64 Peme Gowda Rd. Bangalore, 560 006 or Sheila Zurbrigg, 1120 the parkway, london, ontario, n6a 2×3 canada.  Talks about the medical model of health and the fact that social factors (food distribution & access for example) have much more impact on overall health than individual disease, and in fact were responsible for improvements in world health before the germ model was even developed.

Om Parkash Sharma (2000). Rural Health and Medical Care in India (A sociological Study).  Manak Publications Study of the “modern healthcare system” in india, focuses on Uttar Pradesh.

J. P. Naik (1977). An alternative system of health care service in india: Some proposals. Allied Publishers Private Limited.

Meera Chatterjee, 1988. Implementing health policy. Manohar,  Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Policy focused. Looks at community participation in health care (chapter 5) and the role of the private voluntary health sector (6) spreading primary health technology (7). Life without food? (8).

Not specific to India:

Andrew Jamison. The making of Green Knowledge: Environmental Politics and Cultural Transformation. Cambridge University Press 2001. Not specific to India, but very interesting. Looks at the dilemmas of activism in  chapter 6 p. 147-176

Eco-Phenomonenology: Back to the earth itself. Edited by Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine. State University of NY Press. Also not specific to india. Has a chapter on Heiddigger 😛

Ecology, Politics & Violent Conflict. Mohamed Suliman (Ed).  ZED Books, 1998.  International perspective on conflict driven by environmental issues.

Isomäki (r.) and Gandhi (m.) (2004). The book of trees. Other India Press. Global look at trees, written and published in india. seems more manual than introspection.

On Saying Thanks

One of the things that constantly surprises me here is how welcoming everyone we encounter is*. The surprise is not so much that the folks I encounter here are so caring, open, and giving, as that I don’t expect it: This tells me that my training back home was to expect closed doors, minds, and hearts much more than I realized. Not so much from my close friends as from those I am just getting to know, acquaintances, familiar strangers, and so on. Some examples of small daily surprises here:

  • The stable owner where we ride each morning invited us to watch a Polo game. At the end of the game, a complete stranger came up to us and handed each of us a bag of chips and a box of mango juice, left over from what a student group at the same game had been given.
  • I forgot to bring any cash with me when I left for the game, in a rush, with a sleeping daughter in arms. When I exclaimed aloud about this without thinking, a passenger in the car, whom I barely knew offered me 1000 rupees with the vague notion that I would see him in the next day or so to pay him back.
  • The GHAC members we have meet invariably show the kids with snacks and candy and requests for photos. When we finally organized the cleanup of our local playground that the kids have been requesting since our hike to Ananthagiri hills, one GHAC organizer offered to attend and bring the leadership of GHAC with him to help. We assured him this was not necessary, but he and others at GHAC helped me to find gloves appropriate for picking up broken glass, and were generally supportive of me and full of praise and support for the kids in doing the cleanup.
  • Other families in the block have offered to watch the kids, include them regularly in happenings such as Pujas (as well as myself), and generally made us feel completely at home and as though we’d lived here for a long time already.
  • The staff at IIIT have worked hard to meet our every need, often coming to our flat to bring things to us if we were not able to come right away to their offices.
I’m sure if I stopped to think about this I could come up with many more examples, including many from our time at RGUKT, others from my interactions with the GHAC and Hyderabad Polo and Riding Club, and more. But my goal is not to document every example. Rather, it is to take note of how nice it feels to know that a neighbor is a friend, how friendly it feels to help and be helped by those around us, and how open and open hearted a society I find myself in.
For the most part I believe I am adjusting well to these differences, both as one who can give and as one who accepts help and affection from those around me. I want to adapt to this new way of doing things and hope to bring some of it back with me. However there is one thing that I find most difficult to change: One of my friends here asked me very nicely to please stop saying “Thank you.” It makes her uncomfortable, and is abnormal to say it so often.
Each time I am touched or surprised by the givingness of people around me, calling it out and thanking them for it is my instinctual reaction. However, it is culturally awkward to do so (and perhaps would seem less necessary if it seemed more normal to me to be surrounded by such giving). So I will try to adapt, though I fear I could step wrongly in the other direction (or that I will simply find this change too hard). But allow me an indulgence, here on this blog, one that may help me to rein myself in later: Thank you, to everyone I meet here, for being who you are and doing what you do.
*I am not claiming that there is nothing negative here. For sure, we have been asked for money (beyond simple borrowing), stolen from, and beggars are also common. However, the overwhelming feeling is that of a positive, giving environment in which far more people reach out to help each other than the reverse.

Breakthrough!

Today was one of those days that makes you want to dance. In order to explain why I need to back up a bit and describe a little about the teaching I’m doing here at RGUKT. Many of the students at RGUKT are from rural communities and the vast majority are here on scholarship. Their main language is Telugu, and although they are taught in English, not all of them speak it perfectly. The university aims to admit students who excel at their local school from all over Andhra Pradesh. My understanding is that students are not required to pass any national exams before being admitted. This means that while the students here are smart and motivated, they may not all have equal background. They spend their first year (or two?) here covering needed pre-college material.

RGUKT has a very large student body, all taking the same classes at first, and courses involve a combination of lectures and watching videos. The students all have access to shared laptops at least once a day (if I understand correctly — my understanding has been shifting over time) and do their homework either on paper or on laptop depending on the assignment. Internet access is carefully controlled and quite limited, though the campus does have a fairly fast connection (unless several thousand students are hitting it all at once 🙂 ). Internet is not usually turned on in the classroom, and when we requested that this change in our class, it took much of the first class to get everyone up and running. Outside of class, we had to download the documentation and files for our programming course so that students could access them without Internet (through the campus LAN).

The students here live on campus, and many only see their family members when they head home (the trip here is difficult and visits usually only last one day). Girls and boys live in separate dorms, sit separately in class (girls in front), eat separately, and do sports in separate locations. Impressively the student body is at least 1/3 (maybe even close to 1/2) female.

There is time for exercise and recreation, along with studying, every day. The students are friendly and cheerful, and often visit (usually to kidnap one or both of my children for fun, sometimes to talk to myself or Anind). When we join them in the sports fields or the mess hall, many are eager to talk and ask questions about the best engineering field to major in (this is an engineering focused school), how they can use their degree to make a difference at home, what jobs are best, why we are here, and much more.

We are each teaching three sections (“batches”) of about 70 students (a total of about 420 students) for an hour each, 5 days a week. The students rotate through the same set of laptops, which brings challenges (it is impossible to easily give them each a clean environment, or even to ensure that they each have their own set of files, especially given the confusions they have early in the course over which file to edit, where to find them, and so on). As described above we (now) have Internet access in the classroom (most of the time). Because of this, it is a precious opportunity to let them work on code/the interactive, online class pages (created using OLI). We do this 3 days a week (T/Th/S). To add to the challenge, Internet is not always available, and sometimes the power goes out for some or all machines as well (luckily not too often!). The day we had the worst power troubles, the students had to move in ever larger groups from laptop to laptop around the room as each died.

In the class room, the students are very different … or at least have been for the last week and a half. They all rise politely when I enter, speak in unison in response to my “Good Morning.” They sit quietly during class with notebooks open and scribble down as much as they can about what I have to say. Getting them to interact with me instead of their notebooks is very very difficult. The typical answer to a question I ask is “Yes ma’am,”  while the answer to “Are there any questions” has been a uniform shake of the head or empty silence in most cases. As an instructor, my job, then, is to find out why. Luckily, and slowly, the dam has broken open. The mother hen of the campus, a kind and wonderful, fatherly man who has taken care of us along with hundreds of students with which he is close friends or more  has given us feedback, as have the instructors who are helping us with the course. I speak too fast, we are covering a huge amount of material, my accent is difficult to follow. These issues, combined with cultural differences in question asking and answering, and stylistic differences in RGUKT teaching versus my own make it difficult to make forward progress.

Here are some of the things I have tried to use to rectify this in the last week plus:

  • Ask the students to stand up and sit down only if the answer to [pick a question] is [pick an answer] (this after the first time I asked them to vote on something and got no hands raised for any option). Verdict: It got us over the first hump (not answering even yes/no questions) and doesn’t require students to speak in a language they are uncomfortable with
  • Ask the students to discuss my question with a neighbor and then vote again (rinse and repeat until most students vote). Verdict: Also fairly effective early on, though often I have to ask more than once to hear more noise in the room when they are supposed to talk with their neighbor!
  • Tell the students that they have to ask a question but it doesn’t need to be about the material. Verdict: Mixed results. In one section, when I suggested the question “Ask me what I like most about India” I got a bite, but another section didn’t respond at all
  • Hand out my email address and respond quickly and kindly to email messages. Verdict: A definite success. It got me comments (“ma’am, please speak more slowly”) which I told them about in class, and I think helped them see that I was open to answering questions
  • Walk around the room while students try a task. If a question is good, go back to the front and answer it for everyone. If it is asked twice, tell them so and ask anyone else with the same question to raise their hands. Then point out how many hands are up and ask again that they speak up when they have questions. Verdict: I think this one takes time to sink in but helps.
  • Regale them with crazy facts when they have no questions to ask (did you know dog owners in America pick up their dog’s poop?) and make them laugh when they do ask questions (I can make myself into a Picture object and point at my own Pixels. Today I explained the “private” keyword by comparing my “teach()” method to my “kissHusband()” method)

I’m not sure what made the difference, but today things finally changed. Looking back I can see it wasn’t just today. One student told me that others might be embarrassed to speak up (I asked him to please set an example for others by speaking up himself), another asked me what this “learn by doing stuff” was for anyway, an email message asked me to speak more slowly, … each time I got feedback of this sort I made an effort to let the students know I understood the difficulties they faced and how much I was asking of them, and to tell them about the feedback I had gotten and show them that I did not feel upset or criticized.

All I can say is I was ready to dance for joy in class today. When I stopped after presenting each new bit of material and asked for questions I usually got one, two, three or more questions, spread across multiple students. This happened in multiple sections. Perhaps they can understand my English just a little bit better, or have gained some confidence in my expectations. For my part, I praise their progress and let them know I have a long way to go in both speaking (slowing down) and understanding (I still have to walk up to each student and ask him or her to repeat the question until I understand it — between their accent and the ambient noise of the fans in the room I have a hard time). Perhaps they feel more comfortable with me, or have resigned themselves to the fact that I won’t give up. I don’t know for sure, but each question is a gift, especially knowing how far it had to travel. For me teaching has always been a conversation, and not a one-sided one. I am grateful to have achieved that, with the students’ help, here at RGUKT.