Humanities in Science and Technology Institutes (A case study of one institute in India)

Sundar Sarukkai

Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities

Manipal University, Karnataka, India

Humanities in Science and Technology Institutes: (A case study of one institute in India)

Abstract: In India, bifurcation between teaching and research has led to the creation of universities, which focussed on teaching, and research institutes, which focussed on research. This bifurcation, among other reasons, also led to the gradual deterioration of quality teaching and research in universities. A few years back the government started a series of science institutes (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research – IISER) which offer undergraduate and postgraduate programs in teaching but which also promote research like in the research institutes. In these institutes and the earlier ones in science and engineering (Indian Institute of Technology – IIT), there are humanities departments. However, these departments have often been viewed as second-class departments which were primarily there to offer ‘service’ courses to the science and engineering students. In this note, I discuss a particular case illustrating the challenge of integration between science and humanities departments in one of these IISERs.

Introduction

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are well known across the world. All these institutes have a department of social science and humanities but their impact on the ecosystem of the larger institute has often been quite patchy. For too long they were seen primarily as a ‘service’ department rather than one with their own autonomous identity and independent programs.

A few years ago, the Government of India started a few institutes in ‘pure’ science, called the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), on the model of the IITs. These institutions were both a research and teaching institute with an undergraduate program in the sciences. These institutions also planned to have department of social science and humanities but the establishment of these programs has been slow in comparison to the rest of the institute.

There is a history to this development of research institutes, as against universities, in India. Post independence, policies bifurcating universities and institutes were put in place based on a misguided view that universities should concentrate on teaching and research institutes would do research. After many decades of this experiment, not only has the research output been quite problematic by any international measure but there has also been a sharp decline in the quality of education in the universities (which till recently were all government run). One exception to this was the IITs, which were both the premier teaching and research institutions in engineering. The government, spurred on by the scientific community, has also been increasingly worried about the lack of quality in science education and has thus started some institutes in the sciences similar to the IITs. These institutes are both a research and teaching institute but they are not ‘universities’. So the larger lesson about the importance of universities has still not seeped into the minds of the policy makers but at least this is a start in insisting that research institutes must also do undergraduate teaching.

I have been associated with one such IISER in developing a curriculum for the humanities department. Because the leadership of the institute was very open and ‘respected’ the pursuit of humanities, it was easy to introduce core courses in History of Science and Philosophy of Science to the students. The science students also have to take more courses on Indian society and related themes. Having seen the impact of these courses over the two to three years and having interacted appreciably with the students and faculty on their perception of these humanities courses, there were some major issues that I felt are unique to the establishment of a humanities program in dominantly science and technology institutes in India. In what follows, I will highlight some of these issues and also some possible ways of addressing them.

Firstly, the greatest challenge in both the IITs and IISERs has been the legitimacy of non-science departments. Disproportionate number of faculty in these departments feel that they are secondary ‘faculty’ in the institute. The support system for these faculty is often lesser than the core science and technology faculty. More importantly, they are many times restricted in the kind of academic and teaching programs that they can initiate. I have myself seen in some of these institutes the kind of aggressive critique directed towards the non-science faculty by those from the sciences. So in the first instance there is a disciplinary tension between the sciences and the non-sciences that is pervasive in these institutes. And since all the top level academic and administrative positions are almost by default held by the scientists, it leads to having to constantly validate the humanities disciplines in the eyes of the scientists.

There is perhaps not much one can do about the mutual uneasiness between these ‘two cultures’. Perhaps the best way to bridge this divide is to have public events where communities of both these practitioners discuss their disciplinary practices. But even here I have often found the scientists to be dismissive of the epistemology of the non-sciences without a proper understanding of them. As a faculty in an institute similar to the ones described above, I have seen the negative impact of this antagonistic approach by the scientists towards the epistemology of the non-sciences on doctoral students (working in the social sciences).

Rather than hope for a sensible rapprochement between individuals, I tend to believe that institutional practices are the way towards a better understanding of these communities. And among the first such practice should be to make these humanities departments completely autonomous in the sense that they will function as if they are an autonomous group with their own teaching and research agenda. Moreover, the humanities group within such science institutes must always strive to be more visible and more well-known than their science counterparts so as to balance out the inherent suspicion towards these disciplines by the scientists.

One of the ways of asserting this independence is to create innovative and useful humanities courses for the science students. Instead of becoming ‘service’ departments where basic ‘skill’ courses (such as communication English) are only taught, these humanities departments should be able to create their own teaching programs as well. However, given the challenge of working within a science institution, they will be forced to work within some constraints in the choice of programs that they can offer. That is the reason why I believe that such humanities departments should offer courses related to science, such as science education, science journalism, art and science, and so on.

Challenges

A major challenge to these science institutes like the IISERs is that the students who come to study science subjects in their undergraduate might decide not to pursue science after all. Unlike the postgraduate and doctoral programs, where there is a higher percentage who stick on to science, it is not reasonable to expect a complete class of undergraduate students to continue with science. In fact, as part of the curriculum committee in a particular IISER, I discovered that nearly 25% of the students said that they would not continue a career in science. So if we are looking at an intake of around 100 students per year, then around 25 or more students will not continue in science. We also found that these students were apprehensive about their future and were not sure how the integrated degree (BS-MS together for five years) would help them in their career. We also felt that if this was the case in a small class, it is reasonable to expect that in larger classes the percentage of students, who want to drop out of science, might be more. We were also surprised to find that in the meeting with these students some of them wanted the option of doing their final year project in one of the humanities and social science disciplines (HSS).

What can be done to maximize the benefits to students?

First of all, introduction of interdisciplinary themes are a must in such situations. Science graduates are in demand in a variety of fields which are not directly related to research in science. Examples of different career options for a student who is well trained in science include Science Journalism, Science Education, Technical Writing, Research and teaching careers in fields such as history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science, Technology studies, Science policy and Environmental studies. There are many new and interesting fields that are interested in science students. Students trained in these fields can get jobs ranging from academic institutions, schools and colleges, NGOs, Media, government sector and so on. These students can join excellent programs around the world in the disciplines mentioned above.

Specifically, such institutes can create new models for integrating HSS into the science stream. By so doing, it will establish new standards of responsibility towards the students who want to excel in fields other than science after having good training in science. And by allowing an autonomous HSS to flourish, the institute will enrich the research and teaching environment of the whole institute.

  • Firstly, the institute should consider awarding a MS with subject specialization which will include subjects like science studies, science journalism, science and society, science policy, science education.

  • The requirement for students to get these degrees are two: (1) they will do more courses in HSS compared to the general student in the science stream and (2) the final year project work will be done in the field of specialization such as science journalism, science education etc.

  • Initially, these institutes can tie up with social science and humanities institutions to send students for doing special modules in these areas as well as in collaborating on research projects.

The role of HSS courses

Humanities courses can have two functions in such science institutes. One is to introduce all the science students to the basic ideas of the history of science, the philosophy of science, the sociology of science, the relation between science and society, the ethics of science, the role of other human activities such as literature and art in the context of science, and so on. The particular institute that I was involved with did introduce history of science and philosophy of science as core subjects in the first and second year respectively. In spite of resistance from some faculty and also some students, the overall impact has been better than expected. Certain other science institutions have resisted offering these courses – when I discussed the possibility of offering a philosophy of science course for doctoral students at a physics department in one of the premier research institutes in the country, I was told that most of the faculty were not in favour of it since they were worried that the students would take it as a ‘soft’ course. There have been other scientists who have told me that if students get introduced to these subjects it will make them less serious about science. This attitude actually shows how scientists realize that to do science the student needs to have an unwavering belief in what s/he is doing. The worry that history and philosophy of science might wean students away from science is a well-entrenched one which I have seen among scientists in different institutes and reflects a mentality very similar to that present in religious institutions. Moreover, often these disciplines are mistakenly seen as ‘anti-science’. (A well-known scientist, after hearing a philosophical talk of mine on the existence of mathematical entities asked me why I was against mathematics!)

The other function is to offer good, specialised training for those students who are not going to become professional scientists so that these science students can use their training in science to become excellent professionals in fields such as those described above. In the national context, it is important to have professionals in media, science education, science and technology studies, science policy and the like to be well trained in science as well as in other HSS disciplines. Most importantly, it is the hope that this training in the humanities will make them ‘better’ and more responsible and sensitive human beings – traits which are an absolute must in contemporary times.  

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