After Seven Semesters at NSU- Time for a Break
Dhaka 27 April 2010
I felt obligated to write this piece. And thus I wrote it. It’s as simple as that
Goodbye don’t mean I’m gone
– Carole King
January 2008. Had I known at the time, I would have written down the date. It was in the first 12 days of the month. This is all I remember. I was not at home. At the dinner table I was informed that a phone call came. I was asked if I would be willing to teach as a Part-Time Faculty in Economics at North South University. This was certainly an unexpected proposal. Outside my own universities, Jahangirnagar and Cambridge, until then I had not taught at any other university. Accidents happen for two reasons. First for the bad; and Second they can also happen for the good. I wondered and then pondered. The last time I agreed to such an unexpected proposal was when I was asked to teach at the Institute of Business Administration of Jahangirnagar University. What started as a fun exercise ended into a wonderful experience where I met some of the best students from four batches of IBA, JU. This time, again I told myself, why not? What’s the harm?
Whatever knowledge I had about private universities till January 2008 was based on observation from other peoples’ direct experience and my own inference based on the stories and analyses I heard from others. When we don’t have direct experience we tend to rely on conjectures to form an opinion. This is unscientific. I have always tried not to comment on something I know nothing about. Since I had no experience with or about private universities, I thought this would be a good opportunity to see for myself what one of the top private universities in Bangladesh really is.
Universities in Bangladesh do not have a unified assessment system. Public Universities have two types of assessments- year-end (annual) and bi-semesters (six month) in one academic year. Except for a very few universities, Private Universities in Bangladesh assess students on the basis of tri-semesters (four month) in one academic year. The credit system of all private universities in Bangladesh differs from public universities in their open credit system. Through the open credit system, it is technically possible for a student to complete their under-graduate before four years (12 semesters). This was the first difference I noticed at NSU. One serious problem with this incentive mechanism is the classic lottery-utility phenomenon we see in risk and uncertainty analysis from the days of von Neumann and Morgenstern. When the stakes are high the potential for losses and wins is also high. Students can get caught up in a conundrum of risking their CGPA to save time.
Tri-semesters mean 12 weeks of class in a semester. There are two lectures per week. Each lecture is 90 minutes. Thus 24 classes accumulate to 36 hours of class per course. A course is divided into three parts. Part I is known as Mid Term I; Part II as Mid Term II; and Part III is the Final Exam. Total Marks is 100 per course. The final exam is not assessed on the entire course. The final exam covers only those parts that are not covered in the Mid Terms. In essence, each course therefore has three separate final exams because contents of each component are not revisited in other components. This is one interesting area where private and public universities in Bangladesh differ. Public universities assess students on the basis of a comprehensive final exam where short tests covering various parts of the total syllabus are also taken.
In between these three assessments, short tests are taken. The composition of 100 marks depends on the faculty. I follow MT I and MT II 25X2=50 Marks; Short Test: 20 Marks and Final: 30 Marks. Duration of the Mid Terms is usually 90 Minutes. Duration of the Final exam is usually 105 Minutes. Using the “I” implicitly implies that the distribution and assessment method of a course rests in the hands of the course instructor, the faculty. Although different individuals follow different distributions, the MT I, MT II and Final with short assessments are followed in unison.
The open credit system has its flexibilities. Each course is offered to all students who qualify for that particular course in each semester. However, there is a constraint. A course cannot be offered to more than a certain number of students by a single faculty in a single class. There is an upper limit to each class size. All students who qualify for a course are therefore divided into sections (classes). The cut-off number of students per section varies from one Private University to another, but tends to stay within 35-45 per section. Therefore if a course is offered to say 400 students in a semester, it could be offered in 10-12 sections where more than one faculty will be responsible for each section. Open credit system also implies that students from different departments can take the same course.
Freedom to choose does not always go in the benefit of students. Students can register to do a course under a certain faculty where the course will be offered by more than one faculty. This does not necessarily mean that the student will get the faculty of their choice. The distribution of courses is done through a system called “advising” where the director of the programme or the head of the department ‘advises’ who gets which course and which section (ie which faculty). Although there is no unified system in the advising sessions, senior students are given priority over junior students.
With an entire semester of classes sandwiched into 12 weeks and a full semester of within 16-17 weeks, the course teacher is the single assessor of a course. Students are shown their exam scripts where they do reserve the right to comment on any discrepancies. This is another area where private and public universities differ. In the public universities there is an exam committee where the course teacher and an external examiner submit separate questions to the committee. The committee moderates questions, where and if necessary. Two examiners assess exam scripts. The average mark of the two examiners is recorded as the final score. If the difference between the two examiners is more than 20 percent the script(s) goes a third examiner. The final average is calculated against the first two examiners to whom the third examiner’s marks are the closest. The composition of 100 marks varies from university to university and within departments of the same university in public universities. Students in public universities do not “usually” get to see their final scripts.
What are the problems with this open credit system? First: it depends on how many courses students take in a semester and the level of difficulty of the course. The ideal number of courses in a semester is three or four. Students can easily get tempted on taking five courses in a semester to finish early. That’s when problems can start and have a negative domino effect. If one course turns out to be a disaster and the student is late in responding, performance in other courses can and are affected. Students end up dropping courses to re-take them at a latter point, or they end up doing bad in more than one course.
Second: from my observation success under this system also depends on the physical and mental well being of the student during a semester. With classes and exams sandwiched into 12 weeks, students (and also teachers) do not have the luxury of missing one week of classes.
Every system must have its checks and balances to stand the test of time. With classes sandwiched into just 12 weeks, students do get a chance to sit for make-up exams of the two Mid Terms. If such a situation does arise in the case of the Final Exam, students can take an “I” grade. This “I” (Incomplete) Grade is at the discretion of the course teacher where the student completes the final exam at a convenient date later, preferably if possible, under the same course teacher.
Although the system does allow students to sit for make-ups of missed Mid Terms, make-up dates are not always convenient for the students. Another interesting loophole in the open credit system is clashing of exams. A student could find himself having two Mid Terms at the same time. These clashes can be avoided by discussions between and with the faculty, but the worst is back-to-back Mid Terms or Finals. The time in between would not be more than 15 minutes. I have seen students enter my final exam a few minutes late. This is not due to the inevitable traffic jam, but a jam of a different nature.
Third: Sandwiching courses into 12 weeks means that classes that are missed due to a national holiday or any other reason are compensated within the 12 weeks. This is usually done on Thursdays. Although this arrangement is good to ensure no “session-jam”, it can become very demanding for both students and teachers. With make ups of lost classes taken on a Thursday and Mid Terms almost always taken on Fridays and Saturdays, students and teachers can both find themselves not having a weekend break for three or even four consecutive weeks. If the teacher misses a class or foresees any such misses, they are expected to make-up the class at their convenience. From my observation and experience, this initiative to keep the records right can and does contribute to burn out of both the students and the teachers.
There is one arena where, I think, public universities are one notch ahead of private universities in Bangladesh. The VIVA VOCE. In all public universities, students are required to attend an oral examination. This can happen either at the end of each academic year where students are assessed on courses they covered in that particular academic year. It can also happen at the end of the Honours (or Masters) where students face a comprehensive viva that covers all courses in the Honours or the Masters. Vivas are effective because they train students to face a professional body and show how much of the contents of course(s) they have actually absorbed. It can also contribute to developing a sense of self-confidence in students. Since no private university in Bangladesh to my knowledge has a formal viva assessment, it will not be possible to comment on its potential if implemented. However, from experience and observation in the public universities I think such an inclusion will not go in vain.
My personal experience at NSU has been one that I have enjoyed to the brink or TOITOMBOOR as one would say in Bangla. I came to the teaching profession with a vow to make a contribution to influence the young. Teaching is one of the few professions where one has the privilege to keep in touch with young and fresh hearts. In the process it is the teacher who learns from students more than the students do from teachers. Teaching is upside down unlike any other profession. And it is the students who keep the teacher young at heart and updated.
My first observation has been how students can cope with large syllabi within 12 weeks. My trademark course at NSU has been Eco 203: Intermediate Microeconomic Theory-I. I have taught this course for six semesters at a stretch in seven semesters so far. At the moment, I am taking a similar course in Economics at Jahangirnagar. There we have the flexibility of teaching almost the same syllabus over a span of 8-9 months. That same syllabus would be covered at NSU in just 12 weeks. It is true that at JU we can go into a more in-depth analysis than at NSU. Still, having to do justice towards a course, covering crucial topics in 12 weeks is demanding for both the teacher and the student.
One common feature I have observed in students from both sides of the fence- is their eagerness to learn. I think this is because of the competition students are exposed to these days when they see their friends from school and college in other universities. When we were students, there were only four universities in Bangladesh where Economics was offered in the Honours. Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chittagong and Jahangirnagar. Honours in Business Administration did not exist during our times. Our job market was limited and it was possible to know who the top students in other universities were. Today the scenario is more complex. Economics students have to compete with students from public and private universities in the job market. Even worse, students of Economics have to also compete with students from Business Administration. With Business Administration offered in almost each university in Bangladesh, the competition in the job markets is fierce to say the least.
Another interesting feature I have noticed is the emphasis on English as the medium of instruction at NSU. Teachers are required to deliver lectures in English and students are required to answer in English. I think this is good for international competitiveness. However, having said this, this trend is also catching up on students in Economics at Jahangirnagar these days. Competition between the two types of universities in course of time can only be for the good of the students.
Not all is rosy though. In education it takes two to dance the Tango. If students face pressure keeping up with the busy schedules of classes and exams, then the teachers face equal pressure in taking exams, marking scripts and returning them within the shortest possible time. In a 12 week semester there can be no scope for any margin of error. This at times can become very stressful. And this is why I have decided to take a semester off from NSU this year. It’s time to have a break. It’s time to have a Kit Kat.
I would like to re-state that I enjoy teaching. I am very happy I am in a profession that I enjoy. For this reason I never feel that I am working. Financial rewards have always been secondary. If it comes, great. If not, still no complaints because I am doing something that I enjoy.
Last year, our daughter, Amira Labiba Chowdhury aka Annapurna, started school. From now on, she will be enjoying an annual vacation during the summer semester at NSU. This is why I have decided to take summer semesters off from now on. Much as I love investing time with the young and fresh hearts and the minds of tomorrow’s Bangladesh, I also need to invest quality time with my daughter, Annapurna. Also, the travelling distance and the impossible traffic jams have started to their toll on my health. I get exhausted very quickly these days. This is where I need to elaborate on two tragic incidents in my life that have disturbed an otherwise smooth path.
I had a brain operation in 2004/05. I was diagnosed with aneurysm with blockages in my brain vessels. At birth two of my brain vessels were thin. For this, I have experienced terrible headaches from childhood that would last for up to one week. Not being able to focus on work and then trying to pick up the threads I would get depressed. Medical science still has not been able to find a cure for depression. At the time had I known it was due to a problem in the brain, cure may have been possible. It was almost too late when we found out that I was diagnosed with aneurysm. Fate was on our side and my heavenly Mother’s prayers paid off. We went to Delhi to the Indira Gandhi Hospital (also known as All India Institute of Medical Sciences, AIIMS). The operation was successful. However, I was advised by the doctors at AIIMS not to stress myself for the rest of my life. Ever since, I have tried to follow this prescription. A couple of years later, I lost my Mother. I was very close to my Mother. Her departure was a shocking experience from which I have never recovered fully.
The brain operation and my Mother’s death disrupted crucial targets and goals in my life. I lost crucial years in my career and have black spots of unfulfilled desires. It is only recently that I have come to terms that as long as one is in good health, one can always pick up lost time and lost goals. May be that may never come in the way they were originally intended to, but come they will in another guise. I am happy I am in good health. And if I remain in good health, I know I will be able to make up for any lost time and lost cause. I ‘think’ I am now finally in the mental frame of mind to pick up on lost time I should and could have a long time ago.
The seven semesters at NSU have been a roller coaster ride. Fate had it that except for the first and the seventh semesters, I have never taken one course in a single semester. It was only in the seventh semester I was kindly given three sections of my trademark course Eco 203. I am grateful to the Chairman, Ataur Bhai (AAR as he is known at NSU) for this. At the same time, I am also grateful to him and the previous Chairman, Gour Da (GrG as he is known at NSU) for giving courses I could automatically adjust to.
My two greatest challenges came in the semesters of Spring and Summer 2009. In Spring 2009 I was asked to take a section of Eco 303. This is the next part of Eco 203 that delves into a more rigorous analysis of microeconomics. I was happy because this would mean a chance to revisit selected topics and especially one that has always baffled me- game theory. As the semester started I learned I would have to do two sections of Eco 303. That would not have been a problem if the duration of classes were the same for the two sections. That was not to be. The afternoon classes (1:00-2:30) were of 90 minutes and the evening classes (6:30-9:45) were of 180 minutes with a 15 minute break. This meant 24 classes for the afternoon slot and 12 classes for the evening slot to keep in line with the 36 hours of lectures in a semester.
Two sections with two different time allocations was simply too demanding. Whatever I could cover in two classes in the afternoon slot would be very difficult to cover in a single class in the evening class. The reasons are obvious. It takes two to dance the Argentine Tango. By the evening, I would be exhausted from classes during the day. This is the story of the transmitter. And by the evening the students in the class were exhausted from either lectures from the whole day; or even worse office and then commuting to class. This is the story of the receivers. This still would not have been a problem. A section of the evening class was graduate students. This meant having graduate and under-graduate students in one class. The graduate students took the course as an optional requirement for their Master’s programme. On this note, I must say that I was lucky. All the graduate students put in a big effort to cover the topics in the course.
Spring 2009 was the first time Eco 303 was offered in two sections at NSU. The size of the two sections surpassed my wildest imagination. 104 registered with 100 sitting for the final exam! Still I have no complaints. I got the chance and also the privilege to meet the cream of the cream of NSU in Spring 2009. When the receivers have sharp and faultless antennas, the transmitter has to be at their toes all the time. I have no regrets. It was in this semester and in this course that I realised game theory is not as difficult as it seems. It was my dear students who taught me. It was not the other way round. Teaching is truly an upside down process. And for that, Thanks to the students for ‘fine tuning’ the transmitter.
After Spring 2009, Gour Da asked if I would be willing to take Eco 341- Labour Economics. Once again, I took this as a challenge because Microeconomics in Bangladesh seldom focuses on factor markets (the buyers market). It has a very strong bias towards product markets (the sellers market). Labour Economics would give me a chance to learn how labour in the factor market works. Once again, I met the cream of the cream of NSU. And I was once again facing problem in giving grades. In a class of 37 students, 17 (almost half) students had a CGPA of 3.7 and above. This is very unusual in a single class. 3.7 at NSU is the A Minus. These were senior students who had done well in most of their previous courses. Otherwise how could they have got a minimum CGPA of 3.7 out of a band of 4.00? And once again, the students taught the teacher. And once again, the teacher found it more than a pleasure to go beyond his capacities.
Eco 203 is the first real taste of microeconomics for undergraduate students at North South University. It is a compulsory requirement for students of economics and those from the business school who do a dual major in economics. The course is divided into three components. Part I analyses the consumer; Part II analyses the firm and perfect competition; and Part III discusses selected markets. I have always felt that 12 weeks is not enough to do proper justice to a core course like Eco 203 and also Eco 303. Nevertheless, it is quite surprising how students can cope with the content in such a short span of time. In our days we would study the entire content of Eco 203 in a whole year. Even then, in those days, we never covered Game Theory. Game Theory has become a regular feature in microeconomics in Bangladesh in only the last half decade.
This brings me to one small unfulfilled targets regarding Eco 203, which has almost become my trademark course at NSU. Microeconomics courses in Bangladesh tend to neglect factor markets. For this reason I emphasise on monopoly and monopsony. Oligopoly can almost never be covered more than the Cournot and the Stackelberg models. By the time I start the latter model, the bells of the final exam starts. This means game theory can never be started in this course. Nevertheless, concepts of game theory are covered as strategic behaviour in the Cournot and the Stackelberg models.
This is not too much of a loss because industrial organisation is offered where students can get study product markets under imperfect competition. Labour economics is also offered where students can learn how factor markets of labour function. Finally, game theory is also offered as a separate course.
The last time I said goodbye to a stint of teaching outside Economics, Jahangirnagar, was when I discontinued after four batches at the Institute of Business Administration, Jahangirnagar University. I had a wonderful time at IBA, JU; and thus felt obligated to write a note that was later printed in Star Campus of the Daily Star.
This time round I again feel obligated to write because I have enjoyed my time at NSU, TOITOMBOOR. If I survive another quarter century or more, I will once again write another piece on my times at Jahangirnagar after retirement.
The inevitable consequence of a beginning is an end. Rather than grumble an end, we should try to celebrate the end. I have learned this after my Heavenly Mother’s death. If you can celebrate a death (end) you will feel happy and appreciate the times you had in the lifetime (during the continuum).
Now. Goodbye don’t mean I’m gone. I do plan to return in Fall 2010. If not then in Spring 2011 assuming a place is still available by that time. I am tired and exhausted commuting between two jobs. I haven’t been able to read any new book (academic and non-academic) because of two jobs. I haven’t published professional pieces because of two jobs. I need a break.
The pleasure is on this side. I am happy that I was offered to teach at NSU. I got to see with my own eyes how one of the top private universities in Bangladesh functions. But above all, I had the privilege of meeting wonderful fresh and young minds. Fresh and young minds who will one day rule Bangladesh and the world. The youth is the same in Bangladesh- whether in the public universities or in the private universities. Why? Because they both come from the same schools and colleges. The source is the same. How can we convincingly say one is better than the other?
The power of youth is universal. And may this power of youth take Bangladesh forward. The ball will soon be in your court to play.
Goodbye to you all and see you soon, ceteris paribus!
Asrar Chowdhury, ArC to NSU students
27 April 2010