An Inquisitive Educationist: Professor Sanjoy Datta

An Inquisitive Educationist: Professor Sanjoy Datta

Aditi Golchha Shibani Sabat | Aug 03, 2020

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A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

A learned teacher with an inquisitive mind can also be an incredible blend of empathy, enthusiasm, patience, intelligence and dedication. Being a favourite among students, he never fails to make the learning process a relish while taking students on a more in-depth exploration of the subject. He is as influential as he is amiable. This description might as well stand abstemious for Prof. Sanjoy Datta of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, who is the recipient of the Best Teacher Award for the session 2019-20. Befitting this occasion, Team Monday Morning caught up with Prof Sanjoy Datta to garner insights on his life for a candid interview.

Recounting his initial reaction to receiving the Best Teacher award, he said,

I was content but I was more surprised. The rule says that one needs to have five years of teaching experience at NIT Rourkela, and I became eligible just this year for the very first time. Honestly speaking, I didn’t expect that I’d be awarded. I was working while somebody called me up to congratulate me and that’s when I realised that I had been awarded. I was glad!

A Resourceful Teaching Approach

In such an unprecedented time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future; the learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.        

Prof. Sanjoy Datta believes that being a teacher, one should always be ready to learn. He said,

When I go to a class to deliver a lecture, I don’t go there just to share my knowledge but also to learn from the students. Being open to learning is very important.

According to him, teaching is an evolving process and every year, depending on the curriculum, the subjects and the students who are there in the classrooms- one has to inculcate some changes in the way of teaching. Being mindful about students’ reactions to his lectures and taking feedback from time to time, Prof Datta feels it is essential to cultivate a healthy teaching environment. He added,

We teach the same courses for 3-4 years. Despite the same courses being taught every year, I have observed that the reactions of students are not always similar. One should carefully observe the reaction of students to the lecture and be flexible in moulding the way of teaching if required. The feedback should also be analysed properly.

Despite being on the other side of the classroom, sharing his knowledge with the students, he always bears in mind the difficulties that he had faced as a student. This helps him to understand the psychology of his students and the problems they would be facing but might not be able to express. In order to create a comfortable space for his students, he shares experiences from his student life with them and encourages them to overcome the challenges that they might be facing. He recalled,

During my initial days in IIT Kharagpur, I faced a lot of trouble communicating in English. Even here, I see many students who find it challenging to communicate in English. I try to give them their space and allow them to communicate with me in any language that both of us can comprehend. I don’t force them, but I try to encourage them to improve their communication skills. I too faced difficulties in grasping the concepts that I teach now. I had to work very hard. I motivate my students to do the same.

Prof. Sanjoy Datta believes that no questions are ever silly; only the answers to those could be. He tries to persuade his students to ask him questions in the class without fearing that their doubts might be doltish. He gives his students the necessary freedom to ask anything at any point during his lecture. He is of the opinion that keeping your sessions open to every query that arises in students’ minds is essential for developing a positive teacher-student relationship. He feels that some students find it hard to get their curiosity satisfied during formal lectures because they are either too shy or feel that they are not very good at communicating. To resolve this, Prof. Sanjoy Datta says,

I always keep my office doors open for such students. I have kept a fixed time for it, and I allow them to come one by one to interact with me and share their difficulties. I’m glad that many students use this chance and are benefitted.

When asked about the factors that he considers for awarding TA marks and assessing his students, he said,

What matters to me the most is the fact that students are learning. This is something I give more importance to as compared to their attendance. I give them assignments and my assignments are typically difficult. I allow them to freely discuss the problems among themselves, but ultimately, they should write individually, on their own. It’s okay even if they are not able to find the correct answers; what counts is their efforts. The aspect that I see is how far has the student gone to solve the problem. But I am extremely strict when it comes to the students copying assignments from each other. I also see whether or not the student is interacting in the classroom and is trying to ask questions. The involvement of the students in the class is an important component that I give weightage to. I have to follow a different strategy for first-year students since the strength of the class is very high. I give them surprise tests. I also see how alert the students are in my class. Sometimes if surprise tests are not possible, I give questions in the mid-sem that are typically conceptual. This serves both the purposes.

He further added,

Mandatory attendance is an institute policy, and I don’t intend to go against it. Also, it has its consequences like grade backs. However,  I don’t feel that it should be a major factor to be considered for awarding TA marks especially, if the student is performing well at academics and other indicators. Then I don’t feel that missing a few classes is a big issue. However, if the student is very frequently missing the classes or exceeding his dues- that’s a separate case and action has to be taken.

A Jaunt To The Memory Lane

Recalling his childhood days, Prof. Datta said,

Frankly speaking, as a kid, I had always dreamt of becoming a footballer. I didn’t pay attention to academics even during the beginning of 10th standard. And after a few months, I suddenly decided to become more attentive and sincere towards studies. After 10th standard, I decided to choose science, and like every other student, I was exposed to Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics.

Very few people would know that he had a keen interest in football! Expressing his love for the sport, he recalls the time he had played for his district team and had also bagged a gold medal for IIT Kharagpur in the Inter IIT Sports Meet. When asked if he still played football in NIT Rourkela, he said,

During my initial days in NIT Rourkela, I used to play football with PhD students. But over time, due to academic responsibilities, it became pretty hard for me to manage time for the sport while handling teaching and research. I still want to play football, but unfortunately, I do not get any time for it now.

He pursued his Bachelor’s degree in Physics(Hons) from Burdwan Raj College and Master’s degree in Physics from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and PhD from Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata. Physics has been something that always came naturally to him. Speaking about what intrigued his interest in Physics, he said,

I remember an incident when one day my physics tutor threw a challenge before the students to solve a very tough problem. He wanted us to try it. After spending an entire day trying to find the solution, I was able to solve it just before leaving for my tuition the next day. My tutor surprisingly kept asking me whether I had copied it from somewhere, to which I responded I did it myself after putting in a lot of effort. That was the point when I realised that studying Physics is something that I really wanted to do because it felt natural to me as compared to any other subject and later, I was adamant about pursuing it, no matter what.

While pursuing his second post-doc fellowship at CNRS Grenoble, France, he realised that it was an ideal time for him to apply for academic positions. Although he had an offer to stay back and continue working in France, he wanted to return to India.

Prof Sanjoy Datta in France while pursuing his second postdoc

As soon as he found out that a position was available at NIT Rourkela, he applied for it. Looking back on the interview that he had over skype, he said,

I still remember that someone told me during the interview that the academic career and research experience that I had so far were good but would I be able to teach well since teaching was going to become an integral part of my work. To this, I replied that I didn’t have any prior formal teaching experience but I had worked as a teaching assistant in various research institutes, so I had some experience in handling classes. As soon as I got the offer, I came back to India without wasting any time.

There’s been no looking back since!

Experience At NIT Rourkela

Prof. Sanjoy Datta has worked as an Assistant Professor at NIT Rourkela for six years now. He finds the campus of NIT Rourkela to be very alluring, and the steel-city to be pretty calm and serene. He apprises his experience and his love for the students of NIT Rourkela,

I am fortunate to have made some great friends here who are my colleagues as well. My overall experience here has been very good. However, I feel that there persist certain issues like the lack of healthcare facilities etc. However, I love this place as long as the students are here. Frankly speaking, I feel very distressed these days over the fact that the students aren’t here as they are the ones who give the campus a vibrant environment. The classrooms, the corridors, every road and every corner, appear vibrant when students are here. Without the students, this place is nothing. I feel that students have become my strength, and they keep me going. I know that I would be taking online classes soon, but I really miss my students and my classroom!

The academic curriculum at NIT Rourkela has changed subsequently throughout the years. Prof. Datta expressed his views about the curriculum and spoke about the developments that he would love to see, especially in the Department of Physics and Astronomy,

Starting with the department curriculum, I think we have managed to improve it a lot by now, but I still feel that there is a further scope of improvement. We have managed to bring the department curriculum up to the level of competence. However, as a theoretical physicist, I personally believe that we should try to improve and streamline the theoretical courses. Also, I would love to see the laboratory courses being put in sync with theoretical classes.

I can't say much about other departments’ curricula, but I think that there should be a balance between the theoretical courses, the concepts and the experimental labs. It would help a lot to have the concept, mathematical approach and also experimental techniques to prove your mathematical equations as without experiments, nothing is acceptable in science. So, there should be a synergy between what you are learning in a theoretical class and what you are doing in your labs. That way, students will feel more connected to classroom teaching as well. That is an approach we should adopt.

Studying Physics at an engineering institute like NIT Rourkela is somewhat divergent from studying the same at a pure-science college. Shedding light on the significant difference that persists between studying basic sciences at a pure-science college and the same at an engineering college, he said,

The environment in a pure science college is different in various ways as compared to the environment here. It is true that the job prospect is not very bright when one pursues a basic science course. Despite this, when people choose to pursue it, this means that they’re really interested in it and then the environment becomes more academics oriented like in IISER or IISc. People are there only for academics. On the other hand, NIT Rourkela is a technological institute and people come here to become engineers. A majority of students just focus on placements and getting jobs after completion of 4 years. Many students are not open to learning things that they feel are unimportant from the perspective of their dream jobs. Despite getting the best teacher’s award, I find some negative comments in my feedback because students are not very interested in knowing the nitty-gritty of basic science. I feel that students should always try to gain knowledge whether or not it is marketable and enjoy the learning process without thinking much about the returns because no knowledge ever gets wasted.

In today’s world, where most students focus on jobs, there’s a need to improve the aptitude for core research while also augmenting relevant industry skills used in bleeding-edge labs. Taking this into consideration, Prof Sanjoy further added,

There are various aspects of research. One cannot do everything. Somebody might be interested in just pure science while somebody might be interested in just doing application-oriented research and developing new technologies. We have a pretty well-established system for that in NIT Rourkela. But in my opinion, people cannot significantly contribute to new technologies if they are completely detached from fundamental sciences. I would like to cite an example which I often tell my first-year students that one of the finest books related to mesoscopic physics is written by an electrical engineer. The entire book is written for students who are interested in doing research. It shows that there are no boundaries. I regulary come across research articles in my field, that too purely theoritical, written by students and researchers from engineering departments. This is actually very common in leading technological institutes around the world.

He feels the need for an academia based cross-departmental club because the exchange of ideas is vital. He recommends starting a journal club which would enable the students to keep abreast of the current research and ongoing in different fields. He used to have a similar club in his research institute, where he pursued his PhD. He recalled his experience,

We were not supposed to discuss our respective fields there. We used to read papers from different fields every week and then used to share our opinions. We used to discuss things related to even subjects like economics and evolutionary biology, and it made us learn a lot of new things. I insist that even professors should come forward to discuss openly their fields which might interest students. Last year, a student from the Department of Mechanical Engineering approached me because he wanted to understand the theory behind his project. After discussing it for a few days, we realised that the backbone of the theory was coming from my field. Students need to realise that there are no boundaries. We need to have a culture where inter-departmental activities are given place.

An amalgamation of Teaching and Technology

We are living in the era of technology and various forms of technology, when integrated with teaching, have proved to make learning very effective. Sharing his opinion about this, Prof. Datta said,

I have received many wonderful feedbacks from my students, but from my perspective, there is still scope for improvement. One of the ways in which I feel I can improve is by incorporating more visuals, animations and video demonstrations in my lectures to make the students understand concepts in a better way. To be honest, I have not done it so far because I did not know how to do it, but now, I am trying to learn these skills in my spare time. Despite many of my courses being mathematically heavier, I feel that I need to evolve in a direction where I can use visuals more effectively to help my students grasp concepts easily.

He recalled an experience while recording a lecture in ANKCTEL (AN Khosla Centre for Technology Enabled Learning),

I was once suggested to write on a digital notepad that would be visible on a bigger screen, sitting on a chair. I tried it once, but honestly, I was very discomfited by it. I always like to have freedom of movement and my body language while teaching.

Prof. Sanjoy believes that online teaching might be a useful measure for emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, but it cannot be a permanent replacement for traditional teaching. He feels that if the traditional classroom teaching is tried to be replaced, that’d be absolutely disastrous. When asked about his take on the profusion of e-learning platforms that have emerged these days, he said,

We can integrate some aspects of digital learning processes in teaching like video recording our lectures because these definitely help students, but I prefer it more to have my students in front of me because I feel that eye contact and one-to-one interaction with the students is crucial. I can easily figure out by observing the body language of the students if my lecture is getting boring or if I need to make some changes in my way of teaching. This is not possible in complete online mode where I don’t have my students in front of me.

Reflecting on another aspect of online classes, he added,

Some of the students experience poor internet connectivity which creates a sense of divide, and I extremely dislike the idea of my classrooms being divided in terms of accessibility. When we say that we’re teaching, we’re teaching every student. We also need to care about the ones who are going through difficulties like connectivity issues. I am the faculty advisor of a batch, and I know a student from my batch, who is genuinely going to face this problem.

Changing Scenarios

In his academic and professional career, Prof. Sanjoy has interacted with different generations of students and has seen different curriculums. When asked about his perception of how the quality of students changed over the years, he said,

This is a pretty difficult question for me. (laughs amusingly). Every year I see that there is a large section of students who are extremely sincere and hardworking, and they want to learn. At the same time, there is also an equally large section of students whom I always fail to motivate to learn, no matter how hard I try. (smiles) I don’t know why.

The above question led him to a discussion on our education system. Expressing his opinion on the students who initially take up engineering fields and then shift to something else, he said,

Many students choose their fields either due to parental pressure or societal pressure. I don’t want to generalise things, but in my opinion, when you do something that you don’t love, you won’t feel very interested in it because of mental blockage which can be quite challenging to overcome sometimes.

Over the past couple of years, we have observed that there are some students from different departments who want to do Physics. You would be surprised to know that there are many well-known scientists who have come from Engineering backgrounds. Even my PhD supervisor was initially a Chemical Engineer who graduated from IIT Kanpur and later went to the University of Purdue to pursue a PhD because he loved Physics. There are many such examples that I know of. My first post-doc supervisor, Dr Pinaki Majumdar, who is also an SSB (Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar) awardee, did Mtech in Electrical Engineering. The truth is that in higher education, there are no boundaries.

The Sphere of Activity

Statistical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics have significantly developed after advancement in the field of computation. When asked about his future expectations regarding these fields with increment in computational resources available, he said,

Over the last decade, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence techniques have emerged as the most powerful computational tools. It is quite interesting to see that people are using these techniques to solve problems related to Physics. Some scientists predicted the existence of a particular material with desired properties using a Machine Learning algorithm, which was later discovered experimentally. There is a vast scope of solving various problems in Statistical Mechanics as well as in Quantum Mechanics using the latest computational technology.

Elucidating on his research, he added,

The broad area of focus of my project is Condensed Matter Physics. Condensed matter means everything that is under the sky. It can be anything like a gas, a liquid, a solid, or a polymer. The particular interest of my research is crystalline systems. In crystalline systems, atoms are arranged in a regular pattern. Most of our technologies are built on that. My research interest is to know about the material properties using the fundamental principle. These properties could be magnetic properties or electronic properties. Recently I have started working on Spintronics. Electrons have a quantum property called the spin of an electron. Spintronics is a vast field where instead of manipulating the charge of an electron, we try to manage or control its spin. We are trying to understand how it can be implemented in a given material.

Work-Life Blend

Creating a harmonious work-life balance is critical. While this may seem ideal, this is not always possible. Prof. Sanjoy gets so involved with his work that he occasionally stays in his office till late in the evening. He says,

Frankly speaking, my work-life balance is sometimes pretty messed up (smiles). I love the 5:15 PM timeslot. If I start a class at 5:15 PM, it will typically end by 6:15 PM, and then if anyone wants to stay back and discuss something, we do it because it is my responsibility. Most of the time, many students stay back till even 7:30 PM. We cannot have a perfect balance all the time, and it’s fine. I try hard to keep that balance by taking holidays sometimes and going out with my family.

Having a hobby is a great way to relieve stress and have a creative outlet. Prof. Sanjoy Datta spoke about his favourite pastimes,

I have a hobby of reading things which are not related to physics and doing things which are not directly related to my research. For example, just out of curiosity, I learned to do microcontroller programming. I bought an Arduino kit, and then I took a free online course. I don't know whether it will be useful to me in any way, but I loved it, so I did it.

He also spends his time trying to learn skills to incorporate more visual aspects to his classroom teaching in the near future. He said:

In my spare time, I try to learn how to do animation. I have picked up a few skills in that. I am also in the process of learning to create animated educational videos using a programming language. But it will take some time because it takes a lot of effort.

He further added,

Apart from that, sometimes when I feel like not doing anything, I read books. Those books could be from various genres like economics, biology, fiction, or some other fields of physics in which I am not an expert. I listen to music daily. I can't think of any day when I have not listened to music. I watch movies too when I have free time and when I am in a good state of mind.

Final Words

On the concluding note, he expressed his gratitude towards the students of NIT Rourkela,

I want to thank all my students. It is only because of them that I try to put in so much hard work and do my best. I feel very honoured that the students recognised the efforts that I put in. That is the biggest thing a teacher could ask for. My students have given me a bigger purpose to be here so that I can continue doing what I love to do.

To encourage the students to enjoy learning and follow their hearts he conveyed,

All the students who come to NIT Rourkela, have to go through a grinding process of qualifying a tough exam that it probably just sucks out all their energy. Many people are not left with much energy to do or learn new things. Try to explore more and be more open. Have a more comprehensive view and be very receptive to learn from friends and faculties who are from other departments. I request the students to try to find joy in learning because if you find that joy, then I believe that you can do anything that you choose to do. Don't try to see every learning process in the view of whether it is marketable or going to help you secure a job. Those things are definitely important but never forget that there is nothing worse than getting stuck in the wrong field or wrong job for the rest of your life. I can tell you that I was not a super smart guy (chuckles). However, I found joy in solving simple problems. And that joy kept me going!

Team Monday Morning congratulates Professor Sanjoy Datta on his achievement and wishes him the best for his future endeavours.

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