An image of several books on caste and gender on a shelf

Controversial Subjects

I read this book not through the lens of a critical sociologist, but to understand the efforts and conflicts of a reflective teacher. I appreciated the tasks and projects described in each chapter which highlight a pedagogical vision and modes of practice. The Krishnamurti schools have students think beyond their isolated selves, and connect to the environment and diverse social lives outside the school. I respond to three aspects that spoke to me, which I think about and confront constantly: hierarchy, diversity and pedagogy.


Classroom with a View seeks to dismantle hierarchy in pedagogic engagement with students, to reorient the process of teaching-learning as one of dialogue and reflection. I draw on these ideas myself as a teacher but I also remain uncertain and conflicted. To me, these ideas need to be embodied in an institutional ethos. They are difficult to sustain through the individual efforts of a few critically conscious teachers.

I teach at an elite higher education institution where diversity in the classroom is often a question. My students come from schools (largely mainstream elite private schools) where competition is the dominant mode of ‘learning’. Students are pitted against one another and high marks is the goal of education. Thus, there is no incentive to engage with what is discussed in the classroom, but to find ways to game the system and parrot ‘woke’ answers that a ‘critically conscious’ teacher wants to hear.

Themes such as caste and gender often make students highly uncomfortable, and at times confrontational. In these situations, I stress the need for a certain civility in dialogue, which is not always easy to achieve as a young woman teacher (my social background is similar to most of the students in the classroom). In such situations, where students are skeptical of the teacher’s ‘knowledge’ and pedagogic modes of engagement, I cannot easily give up my authority within the space of the classroom. I use my authority to have students rethink their prejudices and concerns. I design tasks to unpack generalizations through research, data and critical reflection. Often, I remain conflicted and wonder if I am just trying to reinforce my ‘critical’ ideas on the students or if students see value in examining general statements through careful and nuanced ways of reading, research and reflection.

For the most part, I present myself as a strict teacher. It has something to do with my gender and age. I try to be as honest as I can about my teaching methods, my political position and modes of assessment. Because I reveal so much about my ‘self’, so to say, I have students, who don’t believe in my positions, saying the right things to me in the classroom. So, I bring the controversial into the classroom. I share articles that are pro-reservation and anti-reservation, for example. This is a recent phenomenon. I am trying this out with my undergraduate students. I am not in a position yet to reflect and articulate the pedagogical dimensions.

I do not let go of my performance as a strict teacher in the classroom. I want all students to take me and my subject seriously. I hold fast to my power of assessment. It is the only power I have with the students in my classroom. I never reveal this. But I don’t fail a student either. I think I am kinder with students when they engage with me one-on-one, where they may feel free to speak about issues they are facing, doubts they have, family concerns, illnesses, feeling overwhelmed and such.

Had I not shared a similar background with my students, what might have happened to hierarchy in the classroom? At a very general (acontextual) level, whether or not a student is convinced of a teacher’s position or knowledge, the student will defer to the authority of the teacher because the teacher controls assessment, and socio-culturally in India there is a deference to the teacher. There are contradictions too: adolescent boys at government high schools who ridicule their (mostly female) teachers as per research and don’t care about failing or dropping out (To extend these concerns, Paul Willis discussed the contradictions in the aims of formal schooling by following a group of working class 'lads' from school to the shop floor in Learning to Labour).

Hypothetically, if I did not come from the same social background as my students (say, I was lower caste and female), and I taught subjects such as gender, social structure etc., how would students respond to my positions? Would they find my words credible because I have lived through the system, or would I be viewed with skepticism? As I said before, the culture of the institution matters a great deal to reception here. Gender and caste interplay in ways that make students think less of a woman teacher. (Increasingly, I see women academics at the top embody a harsh and cold exterior who may not offer kindness easily.) If I were male and lower-caste, would I be taken seriously? A man tends to just 'naturally' be believed. But the caste angle is something I am curious about. What pressures do lower-caste male professors experience, aware of the expectations of certain kinds of bodily comportment and attitude?

I use Yashica Dutt's interviews in my classroom, and she speaks about the anxiety of ‘passing’ in much depth in her book, Coming Out as Dalit, “It was at Columbia University that I had recognized a parallel between hiding my caste and the phenomenon of ‘passing’—the distinctly African American practice of hiding one’s (racial) identity and assuming a different (white) one to escape systemic discrimination.”

Diversity and Discrimination

I offer an example based on my experience at two private institutes with different student demographic profiles.

  1. Private University with Public Funding

Social context: I taught ‘History of Modern Education’ to Masters students with diverse education backgrounds. This is a compulsory foundations-based course. None of the students was training to be historians. None had an undergraduate degree in History. The aim of the course was to get students to think of education in a historical context. The class strength was 30 students, of which at least ten students in class came from various marginalised backgrounds (caste, religion, intersections of caste and religion, adivasi and of course gender.)

Theme: Reservation in higher education. (Reservation for Economically Weaker Section was implemented at this institute.)

Method: Students in my class were hesitant to express their thoughts on reservation. This included students who did not want to be seen as anti-reservation at a socially progressive campus. They read me as a pro-reservation teacher, and felt I would deduct their marks if they expressed their real concerns. Marginalised students were also hesitant as they did not want to be revealed as 'quota students'.

In a number of classes, a few students (lower to middle class, but upper-caste) observed that reservation benefitted elite members of backward/lower castes and that the policy was being abused. They felt that 'truly deserving' members were not getting the benefit of reservation, that poor upper-caste members were being targeted even as they were struggled to get into education institutions. Therefore, the EWS quota would rectify these aspects for poor upper-castes.

I chose a set of readings around reservation that had data on education and employment (Caste by Surinder Jodhka is a great book, I also found some very good articles in the EPW and a detailed article in the Frontline magazine). I divided students into five groups. Each group had to read assigned articles and develop a set of questions/doubts based on the articles they had read. Each group could send up to five questions, within a designated period of time.

I invited Cheri, who is currently deputy editor at The India Forum magazine, as a guest speaker to talk about reservation in higher education in a historical context, drawing on policy landmarks in the colonial and post-colonial period (Kalekar committee, Mandal etc). I shared the set of readings I had assigned to the students with him so he knew what the students had read.

Cheri spoke for an hour. The next hour was spent answering students' questions. The remaining time went in addressing questions outside the readings. These questions came from personal understandings of reservation, about how it hindered an individual's life-trajectory. Students who asked these questions were privileged but mainly middle-class. Upper-middle class and upper-caste students did not ask questions that made them seem anti-reservation. There were questions on how lower-caste students spent scholarships, believing that their expenses should only be education related and nothing else, and whether recipients could be surveilled and regulated.

What was interesting here was that students from marginalised backgrounds countered such personalised observations of those who raised questions against reservation. One student stood her ground very well: a young Dalit woman with a Master’s in Science degree spoke of how all students in her previous institute were given scholarships during the course of their Masters' degrees. The scholarship was not based on caste or any marginalisation but was a stipend to support students through the course of two years. Students who received support from home also received scholarships. So how, she asked, does one compare their spending with a marginalised student who did not get any financial support from home?

Questions often became personal and targeted moral aspects of consumption. As a teacher, I observed that students developed a framework to ask, answer and counter observations. They began to read in a certain way and draw out questions. But by the end of the session, their reading was shaping the way they answered and engaged with general stereotyped questions around reservation.

Judgment is about the moral aspect of consumption - what the privileged student sees as the rightful expenditure by a lower caste student. That gaze rarely works in an introspective fashion for most privileged students. If a lower caste student goes to the movies, or cuts her hair in a fashionable manner, it is all judged with scorn and condescension: “Look at what they are wasting government scholarship money on.” But if an upper-caste student went to the theatre to watch a play, that would be seen as educational and as expanding their horizons. Now, did the upper caste student use the scholarship stipend money or parents’ money, I don’t know. But I am speaking about perceptions that deeply shape ideas about moral economies of consumption. From my engagements with marginalised students, I knew how a few of them sent money back home from their scholarships. What they earned from small part-time jobs or research positions alongside the course of their education, they spent a little of that on themselves. Most marginalised students carried the ‘burden of their responsibility’ all the time. They knew they were watched more closely. They knew that they owed their community to study and be someone. It went beyond their individual families, especially with Ambedkarite students (see Savitha Suresh Babu’s research on hostel spaces and lower caste students).

Bringing in an external speaker like Cheri also worked very well. Though Cheri is not a historian of education, his background as a historian helped him answer a number of questions around shifts in educational policy, such as the shift from a quota-based idea of reservation in the colonial period to a social-justice oriented mode of reservation post-independence. The modalities of quota-based reservation in the colonial period were largely in the southern and western India (I am drawing my arguments from pages 219-220 in Ajantha Subramanian's The Caste of Merit). Interestingly, today with the rise of ‘dominant’ landed castes asking for reservation, there is a shift towards a quota-based model again. This is not really a return to the quota system of the colonial period but the new increase in intra-caste-class hierarchies (Suhas Palshikar notes this very astutely in his news articles on the Marathas and their demands for OBC reservations in Maharashtra). Ajantha Subramanian also engages with Satish Deshpande’s arguments on the ‘general’ category in her book.

2. Private Liberal Arts College

Social context: I teach undergraduate students an introductory course called 'Making Sense of the Modern World' in the Public Policy programme. The course draws on a range of concepts in the social sciences to foreground ideas of modernity, marginalisation and social justice. It is a small class with seven students. All students have studied in high-end private schools. They tend to be text and test oriented in their thinking. They are averse to any form of questioning and are willing to parrot whatever the teacher says is 'right'.

Theme: Caste, gender and endogamy

Method: I had students look at marriage advertisements over a one-month period in any mainstream English newspaper. I taught them content-analysis and had them read patterns in marriage advertisements. I gave them a set of questions and guided them through the process. It was an interesting exercise because it was hands-on and different from the more academic engagement I had used for Masters’ degree students.

Reliance on data for social critique

During the course of these discussions, I had them go to specific pages on data around education and employment. I explained aspects of the text and asked them questions to gauge if they were able to understand how that data was generated and what that data stated about certain population groups. Numbers-based data had more of an impact than qualitative-based interviews (such as Jodhka's research on how corporate industries discriminated against candidates who had lower-caste or Muslim names.)

When it comes to discussions around reservation, personal anecdotes and narratives are how students speak of the issue. In an institution where students from marginalised backgrounds are willing to speak up about their lives and experiences, they are often viewed with skepticism and some kind of scorn by certain privileged students who believe they do not really deserve to be there. Their narratives are ‘read’ as attempts to gain sympathy and ‘made up’. I am using the category of privileged and marginalised as binaries here but it is not that simple. Amongst the privileged students, there are a bunch who present themselves as especially progressive and ‘woke’ in front of the teacher. Do they also believe in what they espouse? I don’t know. I have not really engaged with students so closely to make an understanding of this. Then there are other privileged students, who do not support reservation, are hesitant to present themselves as ‘woke’ and also hesitant to speak up in the class.

When you build a safe environment in class for students to speak up, it often becomes very disruptive. It becomes a space to validate every ‘suffering’ and ‘experience’ as an ‘equal experience’. In such situations, I have often found it useful to cater to what these students tend to believe in the most: the power of numbers. What do the numbers say? This also speaks not just to the reservation issue but also points to the methodology with which students think. The first entry to thinking, in some ways, is quantitative. Though very positivist in approach, it is the first step towards building an understanding.

In the present climate there is also much distrust with numbers and especially government data (again, it’s complicated because students aren’t yet trained to use data sets in a discerning way; this is less about ideological trust in government data (or lack of it), but about our uncertain and insecure time in which students are growing up where multiple sites of information overwhelm, confuse and obfuscate understandings. Whatsapp University is a broad term used by most to encapsulate these epistemological issues of learning and processes of knowledge validation). My Master’s students are yet to understand data, data repositories or what data sets say and don’t say. Hence, as a teacher I merely introduce them to some aspects of this in the context of the discussion highlighting what a particular data set says and what its limitations are (I am not taking a methods course here).

What often frustrates me as a teacher is that students see ‘limitations’ of a method as a bad word, which leads them to reject the method outright. Perhaps, the desire is for a method to understand the social as a ‘whole’. These dimensions of ‘data’ are not easy to express or explain. It often makes sense when I speak of this in conversations with my fellow teachers (who come from similar frameworks and face similar struggles in teaching social sciences). They understand what I mean instantly. Especially if they have taught for a few years in an Indian higher education system.


As a research student, I chose to focus on education not just as a field-site but also as a larger question of learning and its myriad complexities. I read across sociological and philosophical works on education, though primarily from critical Marxist and social justice frameworks. I can cite a few: Paulo Friere, Henry Giroux, Lisa Delpit, Sharmila Rege. I cannot say that I developed a frame specifically based on one or two of these scholars but their ideas are deeply embedded in my mind and constantly shape how I think about teaching and learning.

I read a lot of literature around childhood (translated fiction from Indian languages), histories of childhood and memoirs as well. I think of Catriona Ellis and Sarada Balagopalan. These scholars employ a historical and anthropological lens to see and understand marginalised children which has influenced me. Even though I engage with adults largely in a higher education classroom, seeing childhood and education through a historical lens helps me revisit and understand nuances and complexities of what it must be to be in a classroom and feel like you don’t belong here. I think of this constantly because I come from a caste and class background where education is revered (culturally, socially and, in neoliberal terms, economically).

Most ‘social justice scholarship’ only presents you with ideas. It rarely suggests methods or detailed pedagogical processes of how teachers should go about teaching subjects/themes in their classrooms. This is, indeed, as you have noted hardly spoken about, or discussed. It is discussed largely in Educational studies, or teacher education spaces where pedagogy often gets unpacked across disciplinary perspectives (English, maths, science, social studies). Besides, there is very little on higher education pedagogies. Most critical scholarship on pedagogy in the Indian context is focused on school education, for example Eklavya’s work in this area.

It is complicated because, historically, Education and Psychology are deeply interlinked. The first attempts at standardising pedagogy come from behavioural psychological perspectives (1950s-1960s USA, human capital theory etc.). Even today, in most education spaces (especially teacher education spaces in India) pedagogy is most often unpacked within psychological frames that break up pedagogy into bits and pieces of monitoring, controlling and measuring. In the 1970s-1980s, there was a turn towards more critical sociological frames that questioned these ways of teaching-learning. These ideas influenced teacher-education in South Asia as well. You may wonder why I have digressed into this larger context. As an education studies scholar I am aware of these trajectories, have engaged with some amount of scholarship on these areas and their critique.

But when I began to teach in the higher education classroom, I realised I don’t take from one school of pedagogical thought, and I don’t just stick to a social justice framework. My core focus may draw on social justice frameworks but the modalities of how I implement it in the classroom often draw on traditional psychology-based pedagogical frameworks as well, such as reinforcement, discipline and breaking down ideas at different levels for different students. Pedagogy is a very complex space in action.

Two scholars who articulate some aspects of pedagogical processes in action, whom I've read, are Sharmila Rege and Lisa Delpit. Sharmila Rege, in the context of her work in Pune at a public higher education institution, introduces a range of regional language resources, films, and methods to disrupt a traditional academic space that is very text-centred. There is less detail about how she and her colleagues at the School/Centre went about implementing and institutionalising these pedagogical methods in a higher education space. If you have ever engaged with narratives of teachers talking about their teaching, know this --- a lot of it is bickering and frustrations about what is not working. Conflict and frustration, to me, is the hallmark of a teacher who really wants to get through to her students. (Conflict is entirely missing in Ashwin Prabhu’s book.)

The second scholar whose work speaks to me is Lisa Delpit (The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children). A Black scholar, her work is a little more detailed about pedagogical processes in action. She counters progressive pedagogies (specifically in the context of teaching writing to students) often discussed by elite White teachers to note how these pedagogies hide the privileges of language, speaking and writing that elite White students have imbibed at their homes (breaking down codes of cultural capital with respect to language – speaking, listening, reading and writing.) Her work calls attention to how Black children need to be taught these codes in the classroom (though she does not detail the process), that the teacher’s instruction must be very detailed to get them to imbibe and understand these codes. The level of detail that she points to is actually very similar to the models espoused by education scholars from a behavioural psychology framework. It is a social justice perspective delivered with an attention to psychology.


Vidya Subramanian teaches courses in introductory sociology, gender, education policy and development at the Jindal School of Government & Public Policy at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.

Primarily a sociologist of education, her present research examines the trajectories of young, elite corporate professionals who are keen to reform the broader landscape of governance in education through the introduction of technology-driven and entrepreneurial ventures. She engages with members of a diverse corporate-led NGO sector to explore the networks through which new public management discourses via corporate philanthropy are entering and directing larger objectives of education policy reforms in urban India. 

10 May 2022

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