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A Talk with Leena Ma'am

Leena Chaterjee ma’am graduated from Lady Shri Ram college in Delhi, with a degree in psychology. On finishing school, she wanted to pursue journalism or English honours. But reading about other fields, she got interested in psychology. Inspired by her parents, social workers from the first batch of TISS, she worked for an NGO after her masters. To be able to lead her own projects, she decided to pursue PHD with IIT Kanpur. She started teaching with her profs encouragement, which made her realise that this was what she wanted to do. She has been teaching at Joka for the past 36 years, and sadly, is due to retire at the end of this year.

Q- How did you get into teaching? What made you pursue this field?

My profs encouraged me to start teaching. So in my 3rd year, I started teaching, and it realised that this was what I wanted to do. Let me tell you, my first class, I actually ran out of a class of 4th-year Btech, because the horrible final years were so creepy. They were ignoring me playing with paper aeroplanes and such and not paying attention, so I left. But my prof forced me back in. My exp was wonderful, I got wonderful feedback too, and I decided that I wanted to teach.

Q- How is your experience with online teaching and how are you trying to adapt to the medium?

All the professors will prefer offline teaching mode. But we all have done online teaching earlier for multiple programs. We try to put more effort for PGP students.I have a rich online teaching experience. I actually attended an online teaching webinar from Harvard Business School. Also, I teach an online course in ISB, the course on leadership. I had undergone rigorous training with the talent-sprint team on different techniques, breakout room and group activities. Lost@C is one of the ideas which was the outcome of all this..

One of the issues with online platform is engagement. In an offline setting it is easier as you get instant feedback looking at the faces of the students. To overcome this I insist students to keep their video on for better engagement. I have tried making structure for my classes now, which was not the case earlier. I have prepared a list of do’s and don’ts for the classes as well. Polls have become the norm for me; they usually happen in the beginning of the class.

Overall, I can say for myself that experience is not bad, it might not be the case for others. For me I have been able to do whatever I want to do. It's my last year of teaching and engagement is important for me. In case of technology failures, I do keep backups, mobile hotspots, and broadband. I like to have alternatives in case of a problem.

Q -Based on your prior experience at ISB, how does the platform experience differ here at IIM Calcutta?

ISB had dedicated studios for conducting the lecture, but I used to do it from home. People who were visiting the studio, their experience was horrible, they had to look at the camera positioned at a strange angle. In the current scenario, Talentsprint has managed a lot of issues for professors. Based on what I have heard, IIM A professors have to manage their zoom classes and polls themselves. Meeting students in the lounge is also pretty smooth that way.

Q- What changes have been made in the way classes are conducted to make it more online friendly?

The reading material has been reduced, we are trying to cover less because of online teaching. We have changed the evaluation, to have fewer exams. I am not much fixated on people not being on time. I am letting that go because of connectivity issues. But I ask everyone to keep their video on and if they can’t, text me and tell me the reason just as a courtesy. Trust is very important. We are trying to be more empathetic to student issues online.

I am running behind the schedule, but Nimruji isn’t, as she has a philosophy that there are some questions that you take up in the class and rest in the lounge. For me, I believe that if one student is asking a question then others might be having the similar question, so I try to answer all the questions in the class. I have also informed the students that I will be available in the lounge for 2 hours during certain days. Sending physical textbooks to students is a good step. Eyestrain is a really big issue.

Q- Do you think the PGP 1s have opened up, or are they reserved with their issues?

The current batch is like a normal pgp class. I sometimes do the cold calls during case studies. I have informed students that If you want to ask questions, raise hands and use chat. TTA will call different people at different times accordingly. Communication is the key for solving problems and learning from them. I don’t want my students to suffer in silence.

Q- What about those who ask questions at the end of class in a physical environment because they might be shy?

They can always write emails and use lounge service. I immediately respond to all emails. In face setting you can build trust by talking face to face. In an online setting, quick response is the way.

Q- What is the most important thing you think PGP1s are missing?

Indeed, campus life. In classes, they are missing all the funny faces I make while I am teaching. For a lot of us teachers, the classroom is like a stage where we act; we are part actors. I think they are missing out on the drama. But we are still connecting, cracking jokes.

Q- Speaking of changing evaluation patterns, do you think students will be graded effectively in the online mode? What do you think can be done to reflect learning into grades?

We are trying to have more projects and lesser exams. Obviously, there is the problem of cheating, so profs are thinking of giving very tough questions which can’t be simply answered with an open book. (devilish smile). I have given a movie presentation; some profs are asking small groups to answer as assignments. Research and write a small piece on it. What will be there to cheat? I think we can overcome a lot of these problems by being a bit thoughtful and creative.

Q- You have been teaching for 36 years on the campus, what made you stay back in Calcutta for so long?

After my PhD, I joined LSR, then IIT Kanpur and then IIMC in 1984. I really wanted to be at IIT or IIMs because they give a lot of freedom in designing our courses and the pedagogy. I fell in love with Joka; it’s a beautiful place. The most important value I imbibed from Joka was the value of autonomy. Unlike IIMA, where the philosophy was surprise quizzes and stressing out students, the philosophy at IIMC was to make learning fun. We treated people like adults and didn’t have any attendance, and it was a matter of pride for us to have a full class.

I lived on campus, it was beautiful, walking down the Howrah bridge, looking at the fish in the lake. I met my husband on the campus; ours was a campus romance. He used to teach operations. We got married on campus. My daughter was born here. So my whole journey has been connected with IIMC. Even now I live very close to campus, and from my window, I can see the campus.

Sometimes we think we are lesser than others, but we are not. You know the grass always looks greener on the other side. I have my own and my husband’s students teaching across campuses, they too are facing problems. We should be proud of our campus and our institute, because, if we are not going to be proud of it, then who will be?

We are the only institute which has a technical partner; we are paying them more; it makes managing classes much easier. Yes, things can be better, and we are trying to make them better. Let’s take the good and celebrate it and let’s take the bad and learn from it. I wouldn’t have joined any other institute over IIM Calcutta. Even our buildings are autonomous; each one is doing its own thing, being weird in its own way.

Closing Thoughts:

I love all my students and want the best for them. I want you to be happy, grow, learn and become a better version of yourself. Attitude in life toward different situations matters a lot. Don’t be blindly positive, and try to be resilient and positive. Covid itself is giving us a lot of learning opportunities. Someday we might look back and say we went through that, what a weary experience!

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