March 01, 2009

Under the influence-Ramblings on maritime education

A couple of months have gone by since I started teaching navigation, chart work and other such stuff to a bunch of Cadets. Don’t ask me why I started; it seemed an interesting thing to do at the time, and I am at a stage of my life when I have worked too long for just money.

Anyway and as scheduled, I poured myself a Bloody Mary yesterday and ruminated about why I was teaching, why I was enjoying it and why I was taking it so seriously. God knows it is not about money; if I add the time I spend in brushing up my rusty principles of celestial navigation (thank you, D.A. Moore!) to commuting time, classroom time and administration time, I probably get paid an Indian plumber’s hourly rates. (Don’t laugh very loudly. As they say, to teach is to learn twice. They do not say anything about making a living out of it).

It is not about ‘giving back to the industry’ either. I am not that altruistic. I am also, as much of this column will testify, not particularly charmed by the collective industry or most individuals within it, many of whom I hold in contempt for their unprofessionalism and shortsightedness. Although I often say, with some pride, that no other industry could have given somebody of my generation in India so much in life without resorting to criminal or criminally corrupt behaviour, that is neither here nor there. It is beside the point.

I think one reason is that this ruminating cow (bull?) was looking for another interesting pasture. When I found it, the grass seemed greener on my side of the fence; it just was not the banknote green. And since seafarers are creatures of habit, I took the teaching as seriously as I would take to berthing a ship in a storm.

Perhaps Capt. S had something to do with it. He alone, in a bunch of other teachers, taught me with flair, passion, integrity and dignity when I was a cadet long ago. He was the only one who seemed genuinely interested in the whole bunch of us learning something substantial and well, the only one who spent more time teaching than was allotted to him, the only one who mentored many youngsters (including me, a brash and rebellious seventeen year old at the time) in his unique style.

Although he was too honest to last very long in that organisation, he is the only one I still respect, more than thirty years later. Most of the others were chaff.

Anyway, back to my classroom. I think one moment of truth was last week, when my students asked me for a copy of my presentation, saying that my explanation of the hour angles was simpler, clearer and much better than their course notes. For the first time, I could sense their excitement at having cracked a conceptually difficult part of their syllabus. (Fortunately, full details of the gyrocompass are not part of their course content).

Which reminds me of another teacher I respect, for one reason alone. Years ago, a brash and rebellious twenty something year old now, I decided not to join the LBS nautical college prior to my Master’s examinations. College had not yet been made compulsory, although there were stories doing the rounds of MMD surveyors asking for attendance certificates during the orals. All my other batch mates had joined LBS, and although I was studying on my own, I found that a full understanding of the principles of the gyrocompass was taking me far too long. I needed a book, but when I went to the LBS college library I was told that since I was not enrolled I could not borrow anything. I then requested a higher authority in the college for help; he was very curious why I had not joined, and nodded when I told him that the time I would spend in travel plus the time I would spend in attending classes (many of dubious value) meant that too much time was wasted. I told him that if I studied half as long at home I would be better off. He must have accepted my logic, because I left the college with the book in my bag.

So, Capt. Joseph, a belated toast to you. The college did teach me something, after all.

I taught a Cadet at sea, the first time I did this seriously, perhaps seven years ago. I was assigned a ship that was on a less stressful run for once: a run that actually gave me considerable time free at sea between ports. I used to give some of the other officers a break by keeping their sea watches occasionally, keeping watch along with this Cadet who showed a keen interest in learning new things.

I started spending a fair amount of time talking to him on the bridge during those watches, explaining stuff in considerable detail. I found that I enjoyed the opportunity to pass on a bit of what I had learnt (and been taught) myself. I also found it amazing how much I still did not know, and how much I learnt again in the process. I can say with some honesty that I really tried. My litmus test of my commitment used to be a question to myself: If I were teaching my own son, could I do better?

A few months later, the Cadet was signing off. He came to see me, and, just before leaving, stooped and touched my feet before I could stop him. You know, the old Indian gesture of respect towards teachers, amongst others.

Startled and embarrassed as I undoubtedly was, another thought or two did flash through my mind at the time. One was satisfaction at the confirmation that I had done a part of my job decently. Another was the realisation that teaching is not about altruism and it is not a post retirement idle pursuit. It is serious business and requires a professional and dedicated mindset. It is a business like no other, because it cannot be measured by balance sheets or profit and loss statements alone.

It is also about giving to the future a bit of what the past gave to us. It is, therefore, my own little link to eternity.

So, Avasthi, thank you, too. Next time don’t touch my feet, though. Have a Bloody Mary with me and tell me whom you have taught instead.