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Saturday, Aug 24, 2002

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When women don't talk ...

Jaya Indiresan

Students with poor English language skills tend to clam up in company. The challenge before teachers is to make them talk.

According to popular belief, women speak too much. However, when actual measurements were made of the proceedings of a faculty meeting in a university, to the surprise of the male members, it was found that men spoke for more than 80 per cent of the time.

Women students do well in studies. Often, they take away all top positions. Yet, they fare badly in job interviews. Apparently, women talk a lot among themselves, but when men are present, they become shy and do not communicate effectively.

Actually, there are two distinct types of women students. A vocal minority comes from the urban, upper class, liberated and educated families. They would have studied in English medium schools right from the kindergarten level. In contrast, there is a silent majority of first generation students who come from rural, lower class, disadvantaged families. They would have been educated in the regional language medium right through. Mostly, they have a traditional, conservative family background where the upbringing demands that in the interest of modesty they remain silent in company. When they enter the portals of higher education, such girls are totally unprepared to face the challenges of communicating effectively with strangers, particularly men, that too in an unfamiliar language. Those are the girls, who constitute a large majority, that need special training in communication skills. Without such special support, they will not be able to compete in this male dominated world where negative gender stereotypes, bias and discrimination prevail.

Given this context, several questions arise. Are our educational institutions, especially exclusive women's colleges, doing enough to improve the communication skills of their students? How sensitive are the teachers to this handicap? Even if they are sensitive, how effective are their own communication skills? Further, do they have the ability to impart such skills? Then, it is not enough to appreciate students' lack of communication skills; we have to consider also the teachers' capacity to train students, and the institutions' responsibility towards both students and teachers.

There are over 1,000 exclusive women's colleges in India. Some of them have initiated `gender positive initiatives' to help women students. A national study was conducted to identify best practices among them. Data were obtained from 136 colleges covering government, private, autonomous, Hindu, Muslim and Christian missionary institutions spread all over the country. Out of this widely representative sample, 20 `pace-setting' colleges were identified on the basis of their success in gender positive initiatives. Invariably, their efforts had gone beyond mere academics; they earned their reputation by emphasising not merely academic but all round development of their students. As a matter of interest, in all of them, skills in communication were a major thrust area.

At the institutional level, pace-setting colleges regularly conducted workshops on communication skills outside class hours, including weekends and vacations. They were found useful and students saw much advantage in attending them that they willingly sacrificed their free time and paid substantial fees too. That is significant because students are reputed to cut classes at the slightest pretext, and also strongly resist paying for their education. A few of these pace-setting colleges went further: They conducted trainers' programmes for faculty. That way they generated a multiplier effect in communication skills. In that manner, they helped, indirectly, even those students who cannot afford to attend and pay for special courses. That is significant because the real problem lies in reaching those who are normally beyond reach.

The teaching community has now realised that that poor communication skill is not a question of language deficiency alone but a matter of low self-confidence too. That leads to a vicious circle: poor language skill leads to low self-confidence, which in turn discourages these students from speaking in company, and thereby forego opportunities to upgrade their skills. Unless and until concerted efforts are made to break this vicious circle, most women students are likely to remain tongue-tied in public even when they are otherwise knowledgeable and have something useful to communicate.

Sometimes, highly innovative practices emerged entirely from personal initiatives of dedicated teachers acting in their individual capacity. To cite an example, one teacher picked two students randomly, and asked them to carry a conversation for as long as five minutes in front of the whole class as though one of them is from Mars and the other from Earth. In such unusual, even bizarre, artificially created situation, exact precision is not important. Even an unintentional gaffe could be ascribed to fertile imagination rather than absence of logic. In any case, the scene was amusing and made students forget their shyness and to talk freely. This is an example of good training techniques; the kind that stimulates students to be creative, to get rid of their normal nervousness and gain gradually self-confidence in the secure environment of their peers.

Often shy students are shy because the only books they read are textbooks, often not even those but only the notes dictated by their teachers. Their general knowledge is often no more than the antics of Bollywood actors. Hence, they cannot participate in most issues, let alone offer new perspectives, or initiate new topics. One teacher succeeded in overcoming this barrier by starting a book-review club. As in the previous case, participation was voluntary, not compulsory. The students were given books that they would never have read otherwise. They were asked to review these books, and thereby talk of issues and topics they would not have done otherwise. The enlargement of the students' horizon generated by such wider reading became both the means and the opportunity to enhance communication skills.

One student confided that she was initially very shy and tongue-tied. However, participation in the Book Review improved her self-confidence to such an extent that she was able to gain entry into an IIM. In her view, she would never have had that success but for the opportunity given to her by her teacher to participate in the Book Review, particularly because group discussion is a critical part of the entrance test for IIMs.

Debates, elocution contests, stage plays are the kind of activities that improve best communication skills. Primarily they are useful as a practice. Their value is amplified when the topics are so chosen that the girls get sensitised to issues of concern to women and to society at large. It would be useful if both positive issues such as women's role in family, society, politics, development, and negative ones like dowry, sexual harassment and discrimination are discussed and debated. This may sound stereotyped but the fact is few colleges bother to do so.

Most colleges do organise a few social events. Unfortunately, none of them take care to encourage all students to participate. Not everybody needs to be good enough to sing in public or run a race in a competition but everyone should be able to talk in public, to discuss and to argue. Hence, colleges have the responsibility to institute formal processes to provide opportunity, support and guidance to all students without exception to develop their communication skills. Otherwise, vocal students will hijack all available opportunities leaving none for those who really need them most.

Some pace setting colleges have tried to combine practice in communication with value clarification. In one instance, the class was divided into two groups and a situation of dilemma was presented to the students. For example, the parents of the girl may be willing to meet the demands for dowry but the girl has taken a vow that she will not marry anyone who demands dowry. What should the girl do? Obey her parents or defy them? This kind of exercise not only hones the communication skill but also clarifies the value dilemmas, and also helps them to think critically and take decisions.

Pace setting colleges are the ones that are conscious that the needs of women students go beyond academics. Two, they are concerned about taking positive steps to remedy the problem. Three, they are committed enough to devise suitable remedies. Four, they have the competence to implement what they have taken trouble to devise. These four Cs are the distinguishing feature of both successful institutions and successful teachers.

The essence of good teaching practice — whether for institutions or teachers — requires an MBA — Moving Beyond Academics.

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