Sep. 7th, 2009

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Our hosts are treating us like visiting royalty. Sankalchand Patel Engineering College (SPCE) has decided Michael is a VIP, and they want us to feel comfortable here.

We initially stayed in the guest house VIP apartment--a whitewashed studio apartment, with a private bathroom with indoor plumbing.  There wasn't a separate kitchen like I'd hoped, but it had an electric teakettle and small refrigerator.  And we have air conditioning!

Professor Hiren and the college were very thoughtful and tried to anticipate our needs. They supplied the room with American comforts. In the refrigerator was Tropicana orange juice, Kelloggs corn flakes, bags of milk, and all-important bottles of safe drinking water.  Another little cart held Tetley tea bags and sugar cubes.  We also had whole, uncut apples and bananas. Hiren had gone out of his way--literally, two hour's drive away--to Ahmedabad to pick up toilet paper for our bathroom. (Indians do not use bathroom tissue.) They really went to great effort, and we appreciate it.

Nothing's perfect. In the Fulbright orientation, they tell you to expect small problems. We had our share.  The hot water heater didn't switch on; they replaced it with a new unit.  The air conditioning window unit kept the room cool, but it was old and very loud. We had trouble talking to each other over its clanging and rattling. I couldn't sleep more than about two hours the first night, it kept waking me up with its loud bangs.  They replaced the unit on the second day, and the new one was humming along quietly until this afternoon when it suddenly stopped. Maybe it  realized I was typing about it? They just took it out and will find a new one. Our internet connection also had a problem with a faulty cable, and it wasn't working until about 7PM on Friday. It was out again on Saturday afternoon too, so I was originally typing all this in a text editor then.

UPDATE: On Monday, we just moved to a new apartment.  The campus is finishing a brand-new building for the doctors in the brand-new hospital. It's several rooms, brand-new, and sunny.  Our neighbors across the hall and downstairs are medical doctors; Michael is the only Doctor of Engineering.  :-)  We'll see if they can get the shower hooked up to the hot-water heater; the rest is pretty nice so far.

And we have servants (or peons, as professor Hiren unflinchingly calls them). A guard/houseman is at the guest house night and day. He fetches us chai coffee whenever we want it. A housekeeper comes in once a day to sweep and mop the entire apartment. She also mopped up after the air conditioner water leaking on the floor (twice).  There are at least four additional people I've seen helping them, in and out of our room, but I don't know what their status is.  None of them speak any English.  They understand "thumbs up" means good.  For the rest, we smile at them and they smile back; I guess that's all we can do until we start learning some of the local language.
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The Indian collegiate system here is very different from the US. At American colleges and universities, usually a single professor writes the syllabus, projects, homework assignments, and exams for a course; and the same professor teaches the class. That professor chooses what topics to teach and adjusts as needed; there might be some key concepts the department wants, but the subject matter is really up to the instructor. That sort of academic flexibility is not common here in Indian engineering schools, except possibly at IIT.  I think that was the biggest surprise to Michael.

Grading at Sankalcand Patel College of Engineering depends heavily on standardized final exams for each subject, given at the end of each term. SPCE is part of a consortium of a half-dozen engineering colleges and universities.  Most of each student's course grade is determined by his/her performance on the final exam, and the exams are developed separately by an independent examination board. Consequently, the subjects really need to teach to the tests.  Faculty at SPCE typically team-teach, with two or more faculty teaching each course's  "theory" lectures, plus lab instructors.  All students in a given year and major take the same classes together.  In computer engineering here, there are about 120 students per class. The classes are divided into smaller sections or "batches" for the more practical lab sessions, about 30 or 40 students per batch.

Scheduling the teaching will be interesting.  As I mentioned in previous posts, their semesters don't line up with the traditional Fall/Spring semesters at US colleges.  It didn't help that Michael had to wait for 4 weeks after his visa was approved. Those dates were more convenient for us, but the main SPCE semester ends in mid-October. They are still working him into the schedule on a supplemental basis.  He is supplementing Artificial Intelligence, Operating Systems, and Parallel Processing. The current faculty will continue teaching their course material and will cover the standardized exam topics.  Michael will cover specific extra topics in each course, that he feels would be good additions to the existing material.

Michael will also likely give some workshops and seminars, especially starting late October. The college plans to invite faculty from other institutions, and possibly some students too. He and Hiren worked out a list of teaching and seminar topics on Friday and Saturday.

The work week here is six days, Monday through Saturday, and faculty teach a certain number of hours per week.  The engineering class times range from 10 AM to 5 PM. There is a half-hour break for lunch.  A majority of the students stay in "hostels" (dormitories) on campus.  Some additional students stay off-campus, and commute from the surrounding areas.

The engineering college has fewer female students than male students; I think it's not as bad a ratio as it is in the US, but it's still about a two-to-one ratio. The girls sit separately, too; female students cluster together at the front of one half of the classroom, and male students on the other half and behind them.  They also have separate dormitories ("hostels") and eat at a separate dorm cafeteria ("mess").
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SPCE issued a press release and held a press conference for their visiting American scholar. The local Visnagar newspapers attended.  Several people made speeches or statements, apparently including Michael (though I wasn't around to see that one). The story will be printed sometime in the next few days.  The article will be in the vernacular Gujarati, so Professor Hiren has offered to provide a translation.  The reporters called Hiren on Saturday during lunch, asking him for more information on the Fulbright-Nehru exchange program.

Today (Monday) there was a TV news crew for the Gujarat state news.  They interviewed Michael briefly on videotape, along with the SPCE principal (Dr. L.N. Patel).  They also asked to tape Michael teaching a class. He'd already delivered two lectures that day, so he pretended to teach a class--he preempted an operating systems lab, and taught the students how to remove all the files on a disk recursively.  They'll have the segments on the Gujarati news channel tomorrow morning at 11.

Indian food

Sep. 7th, 2009 10:52 pm
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The host institution is bending over backwards to accomodate us. Among their wishes is to provide food that we will enjoy eating. Professor Hiren, our key guide, has taken us for lunch and dinner to various restaurants to try to see what foods we like. Apparently, they will arrange for the local Visnagar restaurants to deliver food to campus for us. The local Gujarati cuisine is completely vegetarian (as are about ~80% of the local people). Fortunately we love cheese, and most of the vegetable dishes are served hot so we can eat them without fear of getting sick.

Chandrika, our faculty coordinator's wife, cooked us a standard Gujarati dinner when we visited them. We ate it in the traditional manner, with our right hands, as we were all seated on the floor.
A Gujarati meal, with many dishes including gulab jamin
 


We've also eaten a couple times at Shukan, the main hotel-restaurant in town. It serves Paneer (Indian cheese), in just about any way we could imagine. Much of it's Punjabi (North Indian), with cheese cooked in different spicy sauces. Michael especially likes the dry paneer tikka: a toothpick hors d'oeurve-style cheese chunk, dipped in Tandoori yogurt/spice sauce, and topped with a grilled pepper or onion or tomato slice.

I'm remembering much of my culinary Indian terms. Aloo (spelled Alu) or Batate for potato; Ananas is Pineapple. The Gujarati dal (lentil soup) is more watery here. The Lassi is normally a sweetened custard sundae. They serve "buttermilk" (chaas) which is more like the plain/salted yogurt Lassi drink I'm used to, but frothy.

Michael is living on chai coffee. That's made with hot steamed milk, sweetened, with cardamom and other spices. I still prefer tea, but the coffee is good. There's also a certain novelty in being able to push a buzzer and summon a new cup of coffee brought to you upon demand.

For drinking water, we've been able to drink bottled water (seals broken in front of us). I've also been drinking tea made from tap water after it has been boiled in the electric teakettle. The water from the sink is not safe to drink or use, due to the prevalent bacteria that cause diaharrea and worse. We brush our teeth using bottled or boiled water. It is also not safe to eat vegetables or fruits that have been washed in the tap water; we try to only eat hot food. It's that way throughout India. An article in last week's national newsmagazine was trumpeting a new project for safe drinking water in Harayana, a relatively small state near Delhi. So it can be done.

Sanitation and tradition also dictate that eating occurs with the right hand only. We've torn our <i>naan</i> and <i>roti</i> breads with our right-hand to scoop up mouthfuls of food. Forks are usually provided, though not always. Spoons are served with Lassi and desserts. Silverware is acceptable, but eating with fingers is strongly preferred.

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