The group discussion, or GD, sessions I conduct at the Common Admission Test (CAT) coaching centre are a delight. I am preparing students for the Common Entrance Test (CET) for admissions to B-schools in Maharashtra. When asked to speak on “The Child is the Father of the Man,” kids – for they are kids, in spite of their moustaches and the hint of biceps – come up with such droll lines as: “Indeed the child is the father of the man. Look at Facebook. It can be considered the child of Orkut. But it is so much better. It improved on the user interface significantly, so in a way, it is the father of Orkut too. It pinched from the father and made itself better.”
I am not disappointed. Abstract topics are tough nuts to crack. When they are done, I tell them that they got it wrong. The topic means “the child is the father of the man he will become” and the GD ought to be about nature versus nurture. I tell them to cite examples of how reform programmes in prisons transform hardened inmates, and how a man can forego years of abuse to become a fully functioning human being.
The amazement in their eyes is heartbreaking. I am a sucker for kindness, and it is hard for me to be tough on these kids who are too young to indulge in philosophical nuances. But they clearly seem to take to it, even if they are frequently wrong. The other day, I asked them to speak on “Golden Shackles are Better than Iron Ones,” and had to stop them midway because they were using shackles to mean something positive. It’s not that they are ignorant. It’s just that they are a certain category of smart. See them on any Bombay street and you’d marvel at their self-assurance. But when it comes to argument, let’s just say they are not up there yet.
At times, though, they do get on my nerves, especially if the topic is something general like “China’s internal contradictions will stymie its growth”. No sooner are they asked to speak than a barrage of opinion is let loose on everything from the country’s propensity to keep its currency undervalued to the abysmal conditions of work at its manufacturing facilities. It’s a lot of sound and fury, signifying bits and pieces that have been read online without a narrative to bind them together. When they stop, I take a deep breath and ask: “What the hell was that?” The smiles vanish from their faces, the studious ones shocked to learn that the moderator thinks nothing of their superlative performance, the cocky ones giving me the what-do-you-know look.
“If you perform this way at the CET GD, you will be massacred,” I holler. I pick on individuals and ask them why they said a particular thing and whether that connects to the topic. I admonish the group for not dovetailing their points with the central idea on any debate on China: the lack of democracy. I am breathless at the absence of names such as Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng in the debate. I wrap it up by asking all 11 of them to write a 1,000-word essay on the topic and submit it the next day. Handwritten, no prints.
They nod their heads vigorously, the smug smile of achievement vanishing in the face of the burden of knowledge that lies before them — vast, menacing, inevitable. To be fair, they are open to learning. They ask vigorous questions, forcing me to stay prepared at all times. I am fully aware that I am making them work extra hard. It needn’t be so. The CET has a reputation for moderators that are abominably uninformed. But if my students prepare like it’s a GD for admission to Harvard, they are a 100 per cent sure to crack it.
My behaviour may come across as excessive but I am no monster. I am effusive in praising them when they perform well, as they invariably do when the topic is about infidelity, relationships, matrimony, gay rights... Youngsters are highly opinionated, mind you. It’s just that one gets the feeling that the opinion precedes fact and not the other way round.
GDs are also cauldrons of warring body language. Some kids are shy and too accommodating of others. They nod their heads too much and are more than willing to shut up if someone else starts speaking at the same time as they. The brash ones sit with their legs apart, their fingers fiddling with imaginary objects. They look at everyone like they rule the world and their word is the gospel truth.
To the silent types, I say: “Silence in a GD is a cardinal sin. Let go of your inhibitions and jump in unhindered. What’s the worst that can happen? You will say something stupid. We all do. Don’t worry. Just speak.” To the other kind, I say: “Empathise. Nobody likes a person who has all the ideas but is unwilling to listen. When you start working, you will be judged on your ability to arrive at a consensus. Demonstrate compassion. After making your point, give a chance to others.”
It works. The group adapts so that everyone’s voice begins to be heard and there is a lot more cooperation. Ideas fly around and as the words rise in the air and settle on our ears, there is that sense of being in the midst of something ineffable. It’s all very theatrical at one level, very academic at another. I love it — and so do the students, I hope.
The author has switched too many jobs in the past and hopes he can hold down this one