Department of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Introducing the guy behind all philosophies! Read on to find out more about our conversation with Professor Burra, one of the coolest and most looked upon Professor on campus. His Hukka courses are truly to die for. We present to you, Professor Arundra Burra's views on most of things that directly affect our life on campus.
Students, now and then.
A: I don’t know if there were different kinds of students but what I do know is that the circumstances were pretty different. I studied in the US and in a university space where people were not under too much pressure. There were lots of people around who were excited about all sorts of things. Coming to students at IIT: sometimes I feel that the ones who are excited about something are essentially a minority surrounded by people who are more instrumental about what they want from their education.
Academic pressure. Has it ever been different?
A: I do not have a sense of the kind of academic pressure that you guys have, but I feel that I was lucky to be in a place which valued intellectual excitement for its own sake. Perhaps one difference is that students here are somewhat alienated from IIT itself and their creativity is somehow hampered. There are people here who are interested in things, but I get the sense that many of them feel that they are surrounded by people who cannot comprehend their interests. I somehow feel that there is a sense of loneliness; with all these interesting people not being able to meet and hang out. So that, probably, is the difference.
Career choices. Deciding on teaching as a profession.
A: I always wanted to be an academic. So that wasn’t too much of a dilemma. I went into my undergrad thinking I wanted to do Mathematics and Computer Science but got into Philosophy in the end. I was really interested in in mathematical logic and theoretical computer science, and I came to philosophy because there were some questions there which philosophers are also keen on answering. Then it was pretty accidental; I met some teachers who I really admired and they made time for me.
I feel that there is quite a lot of danger in being good at something you don’t really care about because once you get the feedback that you are good at it,you tend to forget what you actually feel about it. So, I was really lucky that in my last year of undergrad I dropped the idea of doing a PhD in Computer Science because I realized that for me it was nowhere as fun as philosophy was.
What is the key to understanding one’s true passions? Isn’t it very difficult to identify?
A: I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe you just have to try things or just be lucky or maybe it is okay to not be passionate about something!
A: I always thought that it would be good to come back and teach at a place like IITD. I knew some people who were students here when I was in school, like Amitabha Bagchi in the Computer Science Department. I always thought that it would be nice to teach bright students and teach material that was not confined by a prescribed syllabus. So basically, the academic independence and bright students made me come here!
Indian Education System versus Foreign Education Systems.
A: I cannot comment on the Indian Education System outside IIT, although I was here in St. Stephen’s where I did maths for a year. The biggest difference that I see is the possibility of finding choices. In most foreign universities, you join an institute and take classes that interest you and then at some point you have to decide what you care about most. Apart from the lack of such choices, the existing gradation between different courses of study means that it is harder to do some things rather than others, no matter what interests you.. One thing that I really miss at IITD is the feeling of being surrounded by people who are really excited about stuff in general; but here, you see people walking like they’re bored or sleepy or maybe grumpy. I think that has to do with the mismatch between what you care about and what you are actually doing.
Hobbies, other than teaching and well, philosophy :P
A: I like reading, long walks, cooking, listening to music. In fact, talking about reading, I tend to not read philosophy for leisure. I like non-fiction, poetry, self-help/management books and a fair amount of history and some fiction.
A: I was happy when I finished my PhD. I don’t know whether it was my proudest moment, but it was fun. One thing which feels really gratifying is when students who have taken your classes stay in touch with you afterwards.
In our Debating Society, we have a team which goes by the name ‘Burra Boys’.
A: Oh, I didn’t know that! So now I can be more proud! I do tell all my students that debating and philosophy are these polar opposite things. Philosophy is about getting at the truth and debating is about making a point, or winning an argument. So, if these people are good debaters they may have learned the wrong things from my courses.
For all you guys out there:
A: To be very honest, I feel that students here are somewhat dis-empowered. What I would wish for you all is to have large chunks of your life that are non-instrumental, and which involve an element of play, something that does not have a specific outcome and that is not competitive. Also, that you discover the pleasure of working hard for something for its own sake.
I am a big believer in the idea that behavior is driven by the structures you are in more than by your personality. So maybe you guys are stuck because you are in this system surrounded with lots of other competitive people. But I feel that multiple equilibrium are possible and this is just one of them. There is a phrase called ‘pluralistic ignorance’; you assume that everyone is different from you and you are the only one with these struggles, but frankly, everyone is like that. If only you all knew that you could all be a lot more relaxed.