Friday, May 28, 2004

High School Reading

Lots of political material to write about today: The Indian government has released the first draft of its Common Minimum Programme, the situation in Iraq is, unfortunately, not good, Indian-Americans are becoming a more politically active community. Still, politics will have to take a back seat because there's a much more interesting subject: Teaching English literature in High Schools.

Via Critical Mass, I found this excellent post on The Reading Experience. An extract:

I have myself almost come to the conclusion that literature ought not to be taught in the schools at all. Any use of it is destined to reduce it to stale schoolroom platitudes and musty classification. The most common justification is the one quoted above, that students will be led to read The Scarlet Letter after they've read Tuesdays With Morrie. It doesn't happen, or at least it only happens with students who were probably going to seek out Hawthorne or Dickens for themselves anyway. It happens so rarely that if this is the primary reason why literature is taught in school it's going a long way and to a lot of trouble to accomplish very little. Perhaps students who show an interest in reading serious literature should just be given a list of books they might want to seek out. If they'd like, maybe they could talk it all over with the teacher after school. In this scenario it wouldn't matter if the books were contemporary or classic, just as long as the student wasn't made to hate them or to trivialize them and maybe even indicated an interest in reading other books without being prompted.

There are interesting comments on both threads, but I'm just wondering how this applies to India. I agree whole-heartedly that teaching contemporary work of a lower quality merely to get students interested is not the best solution. It also short-changes students who are interested in good literature. The Indian problem, though, is different. Several high schools use syllabi an intelligent eight-year old can follow adequately. My own school followed the ICSE/ISC syllabus. One can't complain of low standards in the selection of material. A fourteen-year old is introduced to Shakespeare, and does two plays before graduating from high school. The poetry is equally good; in my senior year we read (among others) Milton, Yeats, Coleridge, Keats, and a selection of Indian poets. Still, I think that the average ISC graduating student knows far less of literature and literary criticism than a typical American student. I'm addicted to reading, but in my sixteen years of formal study, I have rarely been seriously challenged or stimulated by the literature we read (Two notable exceptions were Hamlet and some of the poetry in my final year). Of course, English is not a first language for most Indians. This isn't the most significant factor, though, because many students at my school both speak and write English with almost native fluency.

In spite of the wonderful curriculum, students don't benefit because nothing is expected from them. Essays require little insight or original thought; my final school-leaving exam had a question (20% of the final grade) which merely asked us to summarise one of the short stories we had read. This seriously hampers the growth of the occasional student who genuinely loves reading. Until I was twelve or thirteen, I would have considered myself the equal of a reasonably good English student anywhere in the world. (Ok, so I'm immodest. Deal with it!) After that, my literary reading stagnated to the point where I think I'm little better now, at 21, than I was seven years ago. Until that age, I read voraciously on my own, discovering new authors and books non-stop. Once I had exhausted my school library, I had nowhere to go (figuratively, not literally!). Books are expensive things to a fourteen-year old, so I stuck to authors I knew I would enjoy, rarely going beyond my rut of 'safe' books. This is where challenging school classes or a reading list would have been most useful, but I was unlucky. On the flip side, though, I began reading a lot more science/technical stuff. I already knew I wanted to study Computer Science, so I guess it worked out ok.

So what's the solution? First of all, Indian school boards need to acknowledge that there's a problem. Second, and this is crucial, students should not be tested on superficial knowledge of a book, because that leads to rote learning and studying Cliffs notes or the equivalent. Another solution might be to offer a separate, more advanced stream for some students. Finally, we need better English teachers. My class went through seven teachers in two years! One reason good faculty don't enter the profession is that in India, humanities are considered 'soft' subjects, less respected than the sciences. I've got no clue how to address that... I don't have all the answers. Ideas, anyone?

Thank You All

Since I began writing about the F1 visa process, a lot of people have contacted me. In particular, Herr Dr. Prof. Lance Fortnow ;) from U. Chicago and Prof. Jeff Erickson from UIUC were thoughtful enough to provide a link and leave this blog's first comment respectively. Thanks for all the good wishes!

Unfortunately, the embassy officials seem a little strict about J1 visas this year. In the last week, there've been two cases of doctors I know being denied J1 visas to spend a few months in the US to look at some interesting research. Both were accused of wanting to emigrate. They'll apply again, but there are no guarantees. In particular, one of them has spent over a month's salary on rejected applications for himself and his family. Worrying...

Thursday, May 27, 2004


It appears that yesterday's post about cameras being banned in Iraqi military compounds was incorrect; the Department of Defense has refuted it. There are some new directives, but they are related to the use of wireless devices. A good article from The Register explains how the rumour started, but also claims that it just might become true.

With my blog having only 2 viewers, I doubt that my post has caused any harm to Rumsfeld's reputation. Besides, he seems to be doing a good job of that all by himself. (Ok, couldn't resist!). Still, I apologise.

Thanks to the commenter who pointed this out. Also thanks because that was the first comment on this blog. I wish you had left an id; I would have written to thank you.

An F1 visa... Part Two

In desperation, I mailed a friend of mine, Arpith Jacob who was in the same position. A talented programmer, he had written a script to scan the appointment website every few minutes and SMS him whenever a date became free because someone cancelled an appointment. Using it, he moved his date from mid-July to June 1st. As my mobile phone wasn't working, he modified it to send me an e-mail.

So there I was, signed into MSN messenger and waiting for the 'you have received a new email from...' pop-up. I got lucky; there was a cancellation in an hour. Unfortunately, by the time I logged in to the site and selected "modify", the slot was gone. I decided I could shave a few seconds off my reaction time, so I opened a web page to the 'modify/cancel' login screen, typed in my id and password, and waited. Sure enough, in half an hour the script mailed me again. In less than half a second, I've pressed enter and logged in. Again, someone was there before me. I sat at the computer all afternoon, watching this happen 6 times. Finally, I was lucky enough to be the first person... but the slot I got was still in mid-July, not quite early enough. Eventually, late that night, a slot came free on June 21st, and I swooped in first. An interesting experience, but one that can't have done me any good, especially with a family history of hypertension.

Veterans of the visa ordeal tell me that this was the easy part. The nightmare of the interview is still ahead of me. Last year, a friend of mine called Jacob Thomas was suspected of being an 'Islamic terrorist' and had to defer his admission until the FBI cleared him! I suspect that by August, I'll be able to add to the fund of horror stories.

Decisive Action

I intended to continue writing about the visa experience, but this is too good to pass up. Donald Rumsfeld has decided to ensure that there will never be another scandal like Abu Ghraib. The world will never again see photographs of American soldiers humiliating prisoners. How has he managed this? He's banned cameras and mobile phones fitted with digital cameras from military compounds in Iraq.

Tip of the hat to American Leftist.

UPDATE: My sincere apologies to Donald Rumsfeld; this story has recently been denied by the Department of Defence. Extremely remiss of me to post it without confirmation. However much I might disagree with his views, I should have known this was too silly to be true.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

An F1 Visa... Part One

Today's post was supposed to be about politics, but there's a more pressing concern. I'm going begin my Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I'm not a US citizen, which means that my time these days is largely occupied with getting a Visa. What a nightmare!

To begin with, my passport was issued in 1997, when I was 13. It's valid for another 3 years, but the photo it contains looks nothing like me (I'm 21 now). So my government decrees that I have to get a new passport. In my naivete and knowing the Indian bureaucracy, I presume that this will be more difficult than getting the actual visa. I was pleasantly surprised, though. I spent about an hour at the passport office, and received the new passport at home 3 days later and 150 km away.

This is where the fun starts. To begin with, Indian students, unlike people from many other countries must have an interview at the US embassy / Consulate. During summer, the peak season, the interviews must be booked online two months in advance. Before I got my new passport, I booked an interview for June 21st. Once I had it, I hoped to change the passport number, and retain the old interview. A reasonable hope, considering the website has a cancel/modify section. I must have been nuts!

To begin with, the only thing that you can change is the appointment time. Still, I figure I can come up with a workaround. I booked a new interview appointment with my new passport, and couldn't find a slot before July 26th. This is where genius kicks in... I log in with both ids to modify the appointment. I selected July 27th for the first, wait a second or two for the database to reflect the change, and then switch to the other id to look for free dates in June. Not a chance. Panic sets in... I've given up my June 14th appointment, and have not been able to move the new one. July 26th is just too late.

I later found out that the website holds on to freed dates for a while before releasing them. I can't imagine why they would want to do this, unless people were booking dates in bulk and "selling" convenient appointments for a fee. Actually, that's a very Indian thing to do, so I'm not surprised. No consolation for me, though; it appeared that I wouldn't get an appointment before the end of July. As I had to leave at the beginning of August, this is Not a Good Thing.

I stayed logged onto the website for almost 24 hours (blessing the free campus Internet connection), hoping that someone would cancel an appointment, and that I could get their slot before it was gone. Set the page to auto-refresh every minute. No luck. I watched that screen for nearly three hours before magically, a slot appeared. Unfortunately, someone beat me to it. It happened 4 times that day before I gave up. Disappointment doesn't begin to describe what I was feeling! And irritation with the incompetent programmers who can't set up proper database locks. And no, don't explain why they were right. Perhaps they were (I'll admit now) but then I was in no mood to be charitable.

What happened next? Stay tuned for tomorrow's post with the next episode of this riveting human drama.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

First Post!

While it is a tradition to celebrate being the first poster on any thread, I think it's a bit much to do the same when there isn't anyone to compete with. Still, I'm going to celebrate my first blog post.

For the last few days, I've been relaxing at home and reading. More precisely, I've been re-reading old favourites. Many of my friends can't begin to understand why I do this, but I believe that if a book is worth reading once, it's worth reading again. And it's a comfortable feeling to curl up with a book you love, especially if you haven't read it in a while. Perfect for the beginning of a holiday.

But I digress: I wanted to post about hypocrisy. Perhaps that's a little strong; but why do people not admit to liking certain books? Most people I know do it to some extent; I've caught myself at it on occasion. (Another digression. (Readers of this blog will just have to accept my rambling on occasion. Also expect nested parentheses) This reminds me of a scene from FRIENDS, where Ross is quizzing Joey and Chandler. One question: "Rachel claims this is her favourite movie." The next: "Her actual favourite movie is?". End of digression.) Just yesterday a friend came over and asked me to recommend some books, which got me thinking about the subject. Why do we do this? Are we ashamed of liking lurid thrillers or mushy romance novels? Do we want to impress people with our choice of 'intellectual' books? Or (even worse) is it just me? Comments, anyone?

For now, though, it's back to 'Pride and Prejudice' for a relaxing afternoon. On the other hand, I just (while typing this) got a copy of Valentine William's 'Okewood of the Secret Service.' Hmmm... timeless classic vs sensational spy novel. I think I'll go with Desmond Okewood!