US classroom is informal but rigorous
Updated on Mar 18, 2017 - 11:22 a.m. IST by Brijesh Nair



On the first day of my Master’s (Civil Engineering) at an American university, I feel nervous and all the more diffident. Being the first to arrive in the class, I wait for others to join me when a man carrying a rucksack, a McDonalds pack and a Pepsi walks in. He seems to be in his early 40s, greets me, takes a seat, and begins to eat while reading a book.I ask him if he is there to attend the class. He nods his head in the affirmative. I am puzzled. 

 

Next enters a man wearing T-shirt and shorts and carrying a laptop. As he connects and tests the laptop, I find myself guessing he should be one of the technicians like the ones we are so used to in India. Around this time about 10 students march in, most of them carrying food packets.


At 12:40 pm sharp, the ‘technician’ introduces himself as the professor! I think uneasily that I had not stood up to greet him on arrival as we do in India. Won’t the professor take that as a sign of disrespect? And what will he tell the students who have brought food inside the classroom?  The professor makes a cool remark that 13 students registering for the course is a ‘big number’ for a graduate course. I have never heard even a class of 50 students being described as a ‘big number’ in India! 
 
Odd one out
During introductions, I realize I am the youngest and the least experienced member of the class. There is a 62-year-old who has recently retired from an airline company. There are students from South America, Europe and China. I long to see an Indian face, which appears in a virtually wish granting manner at the entrance, with a polite, ‘Can I come in Sir?’ The professor looks uneasy at seeing a student 10 minutes late and interrupting the class by asking for permission to enter. 
 
The Indian, who chooses to sit beside me, is fresh from his bachelor’s in engineering, just like me. The professor gives each student a two-page handout that has his name, contact information, and the words, ‘Office Hours,’ among other things. He tells the class he has fixed ‘Office Hours’ on certain days and times and asks if any one of us has an issue with these timings. Neither of us has a clue as to what the professor is talking about. 
 
The handout advises, ‘No need to buy a textbook’. The professor says he will be referring to multiple books and “peer-reviewed journal papers” and will give handouts wherever necessary and I have no idea as to what these “peer reviewed journal papers” are.
 
Ain’t seen such exam
 
The handout lays out the grading system: 25 per cent of the marks for seven assignments of home work, 25 per cent for one mid-term, 40 per cent for the ‘open book conceptual final,’ and the remainder for ‘class participation’.  ‘Open book conceptual final’ is explained as an exam that allows the use of books, notes and even the laptop and has no time limit. I am tempted to think of copying my way to success. Three months down the line and a couple of hours into the exam, I will be realizing how wrong I was.

The 10 books that I will be carrying with me will not result in ready-made answers to any of the questions. The exam will be starting five in the evening and by the time the last examinee will have finished it will be well past midnight. ‘Class participation’ turns out to be participation in discussions and asking questions, leaving us more daunted.
 
Solidarity for survival

Here comes another handout in the form of five questions about the subject to be answered by the students. The information is needed to design the course-work appropriately. As usual, we Indians again find ourselves struggling like anything.
The class is over at 1:55 p.m. Students and the professor leave the room but we the Indian pair are too out of our depth to think of leaving immediately. We both wonder if we made the right decision in coming to the US for our Master’s. We also decide that we need to work together if we have to survive.

A few years later, the other Indian became a close friend. After completing his Master’s, he has been working in the US for eight years. I did my PhD and currently work in India.

The two of us can never forget the day when we thought we will never be able to get a degree from a US university.

 

Brijesh did his Master's and PhD from Arizona State University, Tempe, US.


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