Of applications and interviews, while starting over:
Spring 2017. I flew down from Amsterdam to give an interview. It cost a fortune. But the stakes were high. We were relocating back home to Kolkata after a decade abroad and I was having to start over from scratch. A University job, even if at the lowest rung, would help me find a foothold. Or so I thought.
The interview was a sham: I wasn’t allowed to go through even half my Demo lecture; was quizzed on Medieval English literature like a KBC rapid-fire; asked a few more perfunctory questions; made to hear condescending remarks, and dismissed. By then, of course, it had been established that I know nothing.
To this day, I have not been able to understand why I was called for that interview, when the University requirement was for a Middle-English expert (which is what I came to know later). Did they not read my CV? Did they not see my specialization was Indian English literature & that I had worked on Partition fiction in both my Ph.D and postdoc, with two books on the subject? More importantly, did they not know I was bearing this huge personal expense (an international ticket on very short notice) to try and get this job? I had contacted the office several times from Amsterdam in the course of couriering my application. What kind of sadism was this? Staged interviews are not new in our educational system in India. But why make a candidate lose so much money?
I had not come for my Convocation in 2008, because it was within a month of our annual visit that year. I didn't want that expense to be incurred twice in such a short span. Hence, I had taken a provisional certificate with me. The memory of that haunted me in 2017.
The memory of that first interview, in the wake of my relocation to Kolkata, would also haunt me since. The dashed hope, the loss of money. The humiliation during the interview by a distinguished professor I had long admired as a scholar.
In another interview - this one was after relocation - I was selected for interview and then asked not to come. As the recruitment authorities couldn't decide on my API score and hence on the designation that I had applied for.
In a third, there was no panel for the interview. The well-known professor of a reputed university who was supposed to take my interview said she had never, in her decades-long career, been part of a one-person panel! She was the panel, as it happened, and we ended up chatting about my life and career. I respected her for being candid about the hoax of the interview, while still engaging with my teaching & research experience. Nobody, anywhere else, before or after, seemed to be interested in that.
In a fourth, I went through three rounds of interviews after the Demo lecture, with successive levels of management, spread over a month, bargaining about the salary like buying fish in the market. I was the fish here. They were trying to fix my price.
For the first year after my relocation, I was guest faculty at a hallowed institution, in which I would have liked to continue in a full-time capacity. But there were no vacancies there in the general category for which I could apply. One did come up and was advertized at one point, but nothing came of it… no recruitment followed from there, of anyone. And the department itself seemed to have no clue about the matter.
There were a few others – long, tedious applications all. In some I applied very early; in others, I was late. Most of them were desperate, yet reluctant applications – driven by sheer need. I wanted the jobs and dreaded having them at the same time!
This was my interview/application experience from early 2017 to late 2019 – in Universities and private institutions in Kolkata (most of them new). I had to restrict myself to these two categories for two reasons:
- I was well past the age for College Service Commission and hence had to rule that out. I had, in fact, started my career in 2001 through a full-time CSC posting (in a South Kolkata college) and had become ‘permanent’ a year later – but I had left the service in 2007. That door was now closed for me. And in any case, I couldn’t have taken any posting in WB outside of Kolkata... which would have most likely been the case with CSC.
- I couldn’t apply outside of West Bengal, for personal limitations (though the temptation to do so was high).My career options were thus limited. In one’s mid-40s, with a child and other familial responsibilities, that is usually the case. Especially for women.
STABILITY & RESPECT
This post is not about the challenges of starting over in one’s 40s with a small child. That was a personal choice that had been dictated by unfortunate circumstances. And that journey would have been difficult, anyway, even if I had been in some other profession.
It’s also not about particular institutions, which is why I’ve refrained from naming them. In my understanding, they are all part of the same vicious system; and the differences between them are really one of degree, not kind.
In four years, I taught at four institutions – as Guest faculty in two in the first year (these were among the oldest institutions in the city, where I taught for the length of my contract); and as full-time faculty in another two over the next three years. In the latter, I taught in one for little over a semester, and in another for two years. In both the full-time jobs, I had entered with the hope of continuing; in fact, of building a career afresh. God knows, I needed some stability in my life. A stable job was important for that. But I had to leave both.
The most ironic part of my leaving was that, I’d had good working relations with both colleagues and non-teaching staff in the institutions I resigned from – not to speak of bonding with students. And there had been no direct confrontation with any authority, either. If anything, I’d been treated with respect by them – in outward forms of address and manner, that is. But the only respect that really counts in a professional sphere is when one is given one’s due - in terms of designation and salary - and one’s contribution is valued. Respect also has no meaning in a fiercely exploitative environment.
DEVALUING OF TEACHERS
Getting recruited was one thing, teaching quite another. There were absurdities I experienced I wouldn’t have imagined possible: an entire department been run with only two full time faculty (one of them in an ad hoc position) and two guests, roped in later; a Bachelors and Masters course begun simultaneously, in the maiden semester of a university. And as if that was not enough, plans of RET being conducted underway in the second semester. Another thing I will never forget is having to take CL during Christmas week!
Things may have changed later, but I faced the worst of it in the initial months, being in charge of a fledgling department with scant resources & had also suffered a health breakdown soon after.
Private institutions are a different universe, I was told; they are run on corporate principles and timings, but without the salary and other perks of a corporate job. One is hard put to accept that. It is harder, still, to gulp the fact that institutions can be run with no uniform recruitment or promotion policy; worse, with no vision for the future of either individual departments or the institution as a whole. Just a workable functionality being aimed at year after year... till the next impending NAAC visit rouses everyone into suddenly remembering and hastily following UGC guidelines.
The worst thing, however, is the devaluing of teachers as utterly dispensable commodities to be bought at the lowest possible price.
This has ultimately to do with a botched supply and demand ratio. The supply of qualified unemployed young, at any point, is at least ten times more than the demand of any vacancy in any institution, making it possible for private employers to recruit early-career academics (with little or no teaching experience) endlessly. They join to gain experience before their CSC/PSC posting happens, or out of fear that it might not happen, or happen in a location they can't accept. They continue where they begin, as CFT's mostly, and the way up from there is always uncertain.
These are people who have invested years of hard work in trying to enter this profession -- with excellent grades, NET/SLET qualification, and some research experience (they are usually young scholars who have just finished their M.Phil/Ph.D's or are working on it). And many are here because they genuinely love to teach. But that love soon turns into disillusionment when they don't get the salary they deserve, or are supposed to (which can be anywhere between half or one-third the regular scale). And they also find soon enough that there is very little opportunity for growth as a scholar, which the profession demands, but their long teaching hours and administrative/other responsibilities in campus don't allow.
When they do leave for their CSC/PSC jobs, or better opportunities outside the state (sometimes reluctantly, after years of service to an institution), they are replaced easily by those in queue. No effort is made to retain even the best and brightest of them. And so it continues. With departments becoming merely transit points in uncertain career-paths, rather than a dedicated site for the dissemination of knowledge of a particular discipline.
That dissemination does happen, but not in the structured way it should. It's random and utterly contingent, with new teachers constantly coming and going -- disrupting the teaching-learning rhythm of the department, as also teacher-student relationships that is ultimately inimical for both.
All this is so shameful! I condemn what goes on in the name of higher education in many institutions. As I said before, they are all part of a vicious system -- one where educational excellence, nay education itself, is the last priority for those in control. And where - for all the corporate talk - the only investment that is not done is in the educators.
What I have faced in the last few years has been experienced by countless others, many of whom I know personally.
I am a middle-aged woman now & have been a bit of an anomaly in the system I tried to re-enter. But my heart breaks when I see young people losing faith in this profession, owing to what they are experiencing very early on in their careers. I can't blame them. I only hope things will change... and soon!