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The Story of Returning to the Tea Estate

Guest blog by Mahesan Niranjan

This time last year, I wrote an open letter to the Chair of our University Council (archived on the UCU blog here). I raised several points about scholarship and the need for better governance structures to support it. Nearly a hundred colleagues from across campus thanked me and agreed with my views. But, apart from a single exception, all of them ranked below the level of Head of Department. From the upper echelons, the reaction was simply one of politely raised eyebrows at my audacity in exercising my right to write.

More disappointing was my inability to trigger any open discussion within the community. Nobody expressed a view – in agreement or not – in public. I wondered why. Perhaps I was just wrong. Wrong about high salaries at the top end of our hierarchy. Wrong about annual appraisals and their demoralising effect. Wrong about the need for greater participation by the community in decision making. Wrong that scholarship is our revenue generator, hence academics should not be seen simply as costs. Wrong about the tuition fees we charge subsidising contract research. Perhaps those who agreed with me were a minority.

Or maybe we have accepted that we are mere human resources required to turn up at work and follow commands without question.

Hence this year, my reflections are inward. About myself. About my career of three decades. After all, I will be sixty soon. Grateful for what I have so far had. I can relax, have fun and reflect. Yes, reflect, for ‘tis the season of reflection.

I grew up in a tea estate in the central hills of Sri Lanka, a region of exceptional beauty. Hill after hill with rows of fresh green tea bushes. A tea estate has a special kind of beauty. Neatly pruned bushes grown to waist levels of the workers who pluck them. The workers, in bright coloured sarees with cane baskets hanging over their shoulders pluck tea with impressive skill: two leaves and a bud snipped with precision, and a palm-full of them periodically tossed over the shoulders into the basket. They continually chew mouthful of betel leaves to be spat on the deadly blood-sucking leeches that get between their bare toes.

Management of the estate is neat, efficient and hierarchical. There is the top level guy, usually the owner, referred to as the planter. Between him and the workforce is a layer of supervisors, known as kanganis. The planter sets the high level objectives for the estate. He (always it is ‘he’) defines how the workforce is partitioned into teams and which kangani supervises which team. Periodically, he shuffles the groups of workers among the hills. In days gone by, the planter was an European colonialist. The global thinker with vision and skill to spot where tea will grow and where it will be consumed, and what human resources would be needed to pluck the leaves and how precisely they shall be managed to maximise throughput. Since independence, the State and local entrepreneurs have taken over the estates, but retained the management techniques.

The kangani knows his place between the planter and the workforce. He is ambitious, dreaming of becoming a planter himself one day, though the probability of achieving that is infinitesimally small. In pursuit of that ambition, the kangani nods in the direction above to anything the planter cares to utter,  and barks orders downwards at the workforce. The objectives set by the planter are passed down as targets the workers should achieve: Pluck X kg a day, and you get N Rupees. Incentives also exist: Pluck 10% more the set target on any day, you get a reward of 1% increase in pay. If you overshoot, the target is raised by 10% the next day. Once in a while, when the kangani’s back is turned, the workforce have fun. They mimic his nods: “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir,” they tease and giggle.

During my childhood, I hated the tea estate. I hated the fact that the beauty of the estate hides intolerable inequality, poverty, hierarchy and exploitation. I wanted to leave the place as soon as possible and pursue scholarship and the discovery of knowledge, driven by curiosity. I did precisely that, leaving the tea estate and hiding myself in the bubbles of the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Southampton. Three wonderful decades.

Somewhere mid-career an interesting thing happened. I was asked to take on a university management role. My father was amused. “How could you do a management job?” he wrote. “You are an absent minded scholar. You hate wearing a neck-tie. You read the Guardian. You buy the Big Issue. You go to work in socks and sandals. Son, you do not even have a strong enough brake between thought and speech.” Despite such scepticism, I took the role.

Towards the end of my tenure in the said management job, my father asked how it went. “Alright,” I reported, immediately inventing a performance measure to justify the claim. “Yes, a small number of people didn’t like the way I did the job, but they all ranked above me in the hierarchy, and those who ranked below all seemed appreciative.” The dislikes and likes being above and below, respectively, shows I did alright, I explained.

“How did you achieve that?” he asked. “I owe it,” I said with  sincerity, “to the transferable skills you taught me, from the way the tea estate was organised: the separation of the skill of the workforce from the profit-making objectives of the planter, by the ambitious intermediary, the kangani.” “All I had to do was to recognise the importance of the workforce, and not mimic the kangani. I simply refused to nod in agreement upwards and avoided barking orders downwards.” My father was amused by the term I had just used. “What did you say, transferable… what?” he asked. He was a teacher of English and a scholar of Sanskrit. He was a good linguist, too. Our mother tongue, Tamil, comes from the Dravidian family of languages, distinct form the Indo-European family which include English and Sanskrit. He has studied the flow of words, morphological changes and grammatical structures between Sanskrit and Tamil. His particular interest was in Hinduism, a religion in which communication between man and stone is executed in Sanskrit. Despite that background, my father has never come across the phrase “transferable skill”. As a teacher, he has always insisted that the primary purpose of education is joy, the pleasure achieved by discovering knowledge. He would accept the ability to solve previously unseen problems as a secondary benefit.

I have plagiarised his practice. I try to instil the idea that there is fun in machine learning, which is the subject I teach, and insist that my success is measured by my students being able to solve problems they have not seen before. The pleasure I achieved last week, for example, when a student of eight years ago wrote to thank me when he got appointed to a lectureship, far outweighs the irritation I tolerate when the moderated appraisal score is returned informing me of my mediocre performance in the previous year. It is apparently axiomatic in present day universities that there is a sharply peaked “bell-curve” of performance into which our scholarship could be packed.

I regard quality assurance processes as necessary, but not sufficient proxies for achieving high quality. There is an anecdote I heard about someone who wrote in an Annual Module Reflection Form (AMRF): “As a result of innovative teaching this year, half the candidates achieved a grade higher than the median mark.” That AMRF has been approved by several committees and filed somewhere, as testimony to the quality of the quality assurance processes that dominate our lives.

It wasn’t my father’s ignorance of the phrase “transferable skill” that bothered me. My casual use of the phrase shamed me. Whatever next, I wondered. Have I been house-trained into the system? Will I now speak of “strategic priority”? Or will I have a “vision”? Or will I start believing in “learning outcomes”? Or will I be “moving forward”?

A month after that conversation with my father, I was nearing the end of my tenure in that management role. I was called into the office of a senior manager. “You seem to have done alright… we would like you to continue for another term.” He had consulted the foot soldiers. “They all seem to like your work,” he reported his discovery, quickly adding “me too.”  I declined the offer. “I do not wish to continue. I need to get back to the research lab, the classroom, the journal club and the coffee room of the foot soldiers.”

So, I went back to the tea estate! Spotting two leaves and a bud at a glance with amazing skill; manipulating my fingers to pluck them with speed; rhythmically shoving handful of them into the basket that hung on my back. I am promised incentives if I perform above target: 10% plucked above target gets 1% increase in pay. But the kangani moves my target whenever I overshoot it.

Yet, occasionally, when the kangani’s back is turned, I do have fun, thinking of the tea estate workers and their “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir!”, for ‘tis indeed the season of reflection.

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