The Nation, Lahore

25 Rabi-ul-Awwal, 1418 - Thursday, July 25, 1997, Lahore


A genie and a professor

Dr Rana Jawad Asghar

Agraduate student (doing post-graduation in a US university), a post-doc and a professor were walking through a city park where they found an antique oil lamp. They rub it and a genie comes out in a puff of smoke. The genie says - "I usually accept three commands only, I'll obey one each from you. So, speak on." "Me first! Me first!" says the graduate student. "I want to be in the Bahamas, driving a speedboat with a gorgeous woman who sunbathes topless." Poof! He's gone. "Me next! Me next!" says the post-doc. "I want to be in Hawaii, relaxing on the beach with a professional surfer on one side and a beautiful girl on the other." Poof! he's gone.

"You're next," the genie says to the professor. The professor says, "I want those guys back in the lab after lunch."

Well, not all the professors here are like this. They may give you one day off if you promise to finish your remaining work the next day.

The system of education is very different indeed here in the USA. There are no attendance sheets to sign on in the classes. I do remember that in Pakistan, some very unpopular professors always had a battalion of helpers just to make sure that everyone should sign the paper. So, the study was by force and not by free will. Anyway, who wanted to go to a class when your professor never had the time to prepare his lecture (with his private practice) and everyone knows that these lectures are prepared by someone who is just one or two years senior to you. So, they had to use all the means to bring students to the class. But I also remember that there were some good professors in Pakistan too, in whose classes there were no attendance sheets to sign but nevertheless their classes were always packed (though they were a rare commodity). May be, no matter what we say about our 'students', they are not dumb and they know who knows about his subject and that who is their real 'teacher'.

Here in the US too, there are 'good' and 'bad' teachers. But even these 'bad' teachers are doing great researches and it is a life time experience even to listen these legends of modern science. There are no roll calls or attendance sheets. Lectures are video-taped, so you could just watch them if you had something else to do in the lecture time. That was the advice given to us by our professor on the very first day. No complex about students leaving between classes. As a student, you are considered as a responsible human being and not as a young fool who has no respect for teachers and does not value his time. But everyone tries his best to be in the class as the matter being taught in the class is really a loss to miss. (Can we say the same about our classes back home in Pakistan?) Even the most competent of professors sometimes forget simple things and it is not suicidal for the students to tell them their fault. To error is a human thing and no one is ashamed of that.

In one of my very first classes, I was told to question everything as it is a basic tool of science. Even in the syllabus, it was written that there is no single correct answer to a question. The important thing is how you argue about your answer. And I remembered that when I was a student in Pakistan, we had to find that what the professor wanted to hear from us. The very same order, exact words, same examples, otherwise, no matter how correct your answer may be according to new medical textbooks or journals, you can never pass a viva voce exam (and if you fail a viva, you automatically fail in the written part, no matter even if you have secured 90 per cent marks).

Let me give an example of one of my exam papers. There was a question which required some arrangements of data and calculations. I arranged the data and tried to answer it but wasn't successful. I tried the data otherwise, but again was not able to get the values I wanted. As time was passing fast, I left the question and answered the other questions. After finishing the remainder questions, I still had a few moments so, I tried again and again but was not successful. In frustration, I wrote on the answer sheet that by that data I couldn't get the answer. After the exams, we realised that nearly everyone had the same problem so when we consulted the professor, he told us that it was the correct answer - 'we cannot solve the question by this data'. It may look funny but with this style of education, we feel that we are learning something and are not wasting time by rattaas. And we also know that our exam is going to be of our knowledge and logic and not only of memory.


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