Indian academic life/etiquette
September 14, 2019 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I'll be in India for a month starting in about a week, as a visiting academic. I have never visited India before. I would appreciate information about academic culture and norms, and any info about how I should and shouldn't behave to be a good guest. I all coming at this from Australian academic culture but I am also familiar with European universities and North American universities so feel free to compare with those.

I'll be at a smaller relatively low ranked university for the first three weeks and then a final week at a larger highly ranked institution. The first is in Tamil Nadu and the second in West Bengal.

I will be staying in on-campus visitor accommodation. I will be teaching a few classes for their masters students while I am there. One of my postdocs is coming with me. We will also be participating in (and I believe, helping organise) a one day symposium.

We are in the humanities. We are both white women. Our hosts and project partners on the grant that is bringing us there are all Indian men.

I would appreciate all kinds of information, from general descriptions of what Indian universities are like to very concrete things like how I should address colleagues or students there (first names? Professor/Mr/Ms X,? One of the colleagues there cc'ed me on an email to another colleague who he addressed as "Surname Sir". Is this a thing?), Or how I should dress to teach, or how I should expect meals in the cafeteria to work.

I can already tell I'm going to have to say no to some requests (mostly on behalf of my post doc who is very obliging but is being asked already to do unreasonable things like prepare a 12-hour course to teach at one week's notice when the terms of the visit did not have her teaching at all.) How does one politely say that something will not be possible in Indian culture without offending?

Also general tips for visiting India are welcome.

I have read a lot of online resources but they tend to be aimed at other kinds of business visitors or tourists, and universities can be so different. I have also asked some Indian friends and neighbours here, and other people who have lived in or visited India for advice but none of them have any association with universities.
posted by lollusc to Travel & Transportation around India (3 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Mr Sixswitch (who is South Indian & has wide academic experience) sez:

- take Dukoral before you go to minimize stomach issues
- academic culture will be quite familiar
- south India is less patriarchal than north, don’t imagine it’s in your head if you notice differences in how you’re treated
- re: declining invitations, it’s better to be straight up: “that’s a wonderful opportunity but unfortunately we would need more time to prepare. It won’t be possible this time but maybe next time!”
posted by sixswitch at 7:40 PM on September 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Hi! South Indian here, and I can answer some of your questions:

- Addressing people: many South Indian cultures don’t follow the first name-last name culture of the West - in Tamil Nadu specifically, it works like this: [village name] [father’s name] [your name] [sometimes caste name, though that’s rarer and rarer these days].

So my name, Tamanna, would be V[illage]. F[ather]. Tamanna in this system, and you’d call me Tamanna or Tammy if I asked you to. You can call students by their names, no problem. As for colleagues, you can address people your age by name, but anyone significantly older, default to Mr/Ms.

Calling someone [name] sir/ma’am is a gesture of respect, and how students address teachers - I still call my college professors that out of habit, and one of them is barely five years older than me! You’ll probably be Lollusc Ma’am to everyone, especially students and administrative staff.

Re: clothes, you probably won’t be expected to wear saris, but the dress code is more modest than US academia in terms of neckline and sleeve coverage. Generally, stick to kurtas and trousers in cotton, which as a bonus are pretty cheap, either off the shelf of tailored (ask female colleagues where they get theirs done, else Fabindia and Westside both have good RTW options).

I have to leave for work, I’ll have a more detailed answer for you my evening.
posted by Tamanna at 8:12 PM on September 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, I'm back. Thoughts, in no particular order:

- Especially in a small town, and even in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, you will not have reliable access to power. Plan your classes accordingly - always have an alternative if you get to class and there’s no electricity.

- Expect to have to do much more work getting your students to participate in class discussions compared to Australia. It’ll be a combination of shyness re: English level, especially in front of a new person/foreigner, and a school culture that very much emphasises memorisation and spitting out regurgitated answers. Also, students will be late, but that’s not you, it’s called Indian Stretched Time for a reason.

- regarding meals in the cafeteria, they WILL be spicy. Plain white rice and yogurt are your friends, as is a stash of antacids/your favourite tummy meds. Generally, if eating with your hands, always use only the right, even for things like chapatis/pooris. You can take a small reusable cutlery set with you if you like, you’ll be excused since you’re foreign.

Generally, if it is anything like my university, you’ll have to show your ID and sign in a register, and go to the counter (there will be one for vegetarian food, one for non-vegetarian if the university serves it) and pick up your meal, which will usually be on a tray you’ll deposit somewhere to be washed once you’re done. There may also be a separate staff cafeteria/eating place - check with your hosts.

- Seconding Mr Sixswitch; be firm re: declining invitations/requests because otherwise you'll be flooded, but always add a ‘maybe next time/next time for sure’ to soothe any ruffled feathers and emphasise that it’s not that you don’t want to, it’s just that there’s no time this trip.

If you have any more specific questions, feel free to ask/MeMail!
posted by Tamanna at 4:02 AM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

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