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  • Prerana N.

Education Amidst the Pandemic

As a student who decided to continue her education during the outbreak of a pandemic, I have been strangely absent in my academic and non-academic life. I moved to institutional quarantine on campus six months ago from a lockdown at home. And I still haven’t seen the new city I have moved into or to fundamentally say, anything beyond my university campus. Even though most of my peers are on campus, the classes have been taking place on zoom. Although I sit next to them, I end up viewing, understanding them only through those tiny frames in class every day. And to graduate from the very same window where my picture would probably be displayed and was displayed during my undergraduate -- I really ask, what does a classroom or a campus mean? To call attention to this spatial and architectural understanding of academic institutions seems of relevance right now for a lot of students like me - who are on campus but have never met the other stakeholders of academic life, for those who are at home with their family or locked up in their rooms, forwarding and recording lectures, there can be only questions after questions while we all try to disseminate the answers as we evolve across this context and time.

While there is a consensus on adapting to the ‘new normal’ as stressful due to sudden disorder and uncertainty, classrooms have been one of the quickest spaces to have taken a new form easily than other spaces of engagement. While most of us are grateful for technology and the extensive connection social networks bring, there needs to be a self- reflection on the idea of cohesiveness of the community that students can build or are building and to what extent.

Pursuing Liberal Studies for a year at Ashoka University, I find it hard to truly feel a part of the Ashokan community, simply because I have held discussions only through video calls. Although the space has been inclusive, it is separate and isolated. Developing a sense of frame across such apparent disconnections, I find the medium of online education to be expensive and also a difficult stage to be caught in. There is a sense of relativity among my peers themselves for some have been able to easily see themselves getting a job or studying further while I still stand at crossroads. This in fact, as an emotion is purely limited to the opportunity that Ashoka as a university gives to its students of a conducive living atmosphere. However, there is a very common saying that this in itself is a social bubble. And to see it manifest during the pandemic has been cathartic. Comprehending this growing discontent even though my physical needs are met, the failures of it have been visible individually on my mental health and my academics. And institutionally, there is a different story altogether - the resignation of eminent professors having a serious effect on the education that the university provides itself.

Funnily enough, having had several conversations over the making of Ashoka University often revolved around the founders, trustees and the amount of money involved in providing reality to a vision of education in India, it only took a couple of days to see these closed- door talks unfold as a discourse in itself - on democracy and freedom of education. A change of landscape in engagement here, provided a sense of relief to see students come together as activists and to demand to know the real story. I would not want to call it the truth as it far from what one can think of and can probably never be known given that we are at the far end of the academic stake and the very centre. Having a sense of urgency, my peers and I participated in articulating our sentiments of frustration by boycotting classes, conducting webinars, attending meetings with the vice-chancellor, painting, and talking to the student government to collaborate with other universities and stand up for student politics. With the amplification of solidarity over emails and online meetings, a lot has changed concerning how activism is practised. Perhaps, I can narrow it down to how activism has sprung in a private institution during no physical interaction amongst students that are on campus or are a part of the university.

As a part of the generation that is used to seeing Twitter threads growing into a movement offline, it has been easy to assume that persuasion works in this context. However, there is a distinction that has to be made between pressurizing and mobilizing. It is a lot easy to use a hashtag or stand in support for a cause online but to really see it being created in person by students in university or as students outside of university holds significant power to help more voices, participate and emerge. The trade-off has been relative, I would use the word ‘relaxing’ as the amount of vulnerability is difficult to measure.

Another fold to this is personal and yet representative - How do I, as a student who enjoys financial aid from the university engage in activism? And to see the same end of the bargain is it something that one can afford at times - to skip classes even though I believe in the bigger cause of taking part in a strike. This very understanding comes from the notion that education happens only inside a classroom.

I would say that my understanding of a class is not a room anymore. Frankly, it probably is not the teacher anymore. I understand, it is a collective experience one gathers in a university to truly call it education but mine has been personal and political than anything close to academic.

-Written by Prerana N.

(This article has been written as a reflection piece. All the views and ideas expressed here are personal.)

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