An Appraisal of the N.E.T. in English Literature

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A status message on a popular social networking website posted after the recent N.E.T. exam reads:

Joke of the day: “The wasteland” has how many lines? Will someone, please, enlighten me?

‘The Wasteland’ (1922) is an acclaimed poem by T.S.Eliot. Any post-graduate student of English Literature can expound on the poem’s structure, content, meaning etc. But is knowing the number of lines relevant? The comments on the above post go on to analyze the logic of such a question and whether the information asked is a benchmark for possessing the knowledge of English literature and if it is then to know the number of lines of enumerable poems becomes vital to pass the exam. Add to these the questions asked on plots, names of characters, settings, locations and bio specifics of authors and one wonders if the exam is for a teacher or an encyclopedia enthusiast. The above instance also underscores the fact that a wrong answer here could fail the examinee if a requisite score is not obtained resulting in multiple attempts at cracking the biannual N.E.T. exam even as excellent scholarship and academic record hang in limbo. Evidently the situation necessitates an assessment of the suitability of N.E.T as an appropriate examination for evaluating teaching aptitude and testing subject knowledge especially of English Literature. It involves a critical look at the disparity, lacunae and shortcomings in the pattern and syllabi of N.E.T. that produced a skewed result of only eleven successful candidates in English in June 2010.

The National Eligibility Test or N.E.T conducted by University Grants Commission has been a subject of hot debate in the past year. The deteriorating standards of education at all levels, low employability of majority of graduates, mushrooming private institutes and the absence of an effective monitoring body has brought even laymen to vociferously call for pulling up the education system. From letters to the editor in newspapers to comments on blog posts and news articles on the internet, there is a strongly voiced demand to improve teaching standards especially in higher education.

Introduced in 1989, N.E.T. was a filter to sift out the teaching aspirants who ‘neither had the competence nor the aptitude for teaching but had made an easy entry into the profession’, according to a U.G.C note. Although a test for Junior Research Fellowship or J.R.F was being conducted since 1984, the Mehrotra Committee constituted by the UGC recommended a test for Lectureship as well, on the basis of its observation that an M.Phil/Ph.D degree as the stipulated minimum eligibility for Lectureship had led to ‘a dilution in standards of research on account of the rush to get a research degree in the shortest possible time’ (Review of National Eligibility Test (NET) conducted by UGC and UGC-CSIR -A Brief Note). N.E.T. was then a panacea to harness teachers with necessary competence and aptitude.

However, right from the inception of N.E.T., U.G.C. provided exemptions to the exam. In 2006 U.G.C. exempted M.Phil holders from passing N.E.T. for under graduate level teaching while Ph.D holders were exempted for post graduate teaching as well. The window led to the filling up of a huge backlog of vacancies in teaching institutions across the country. That M.Phil.’s sell like hot cakes whenever UGC gives a relaxation on the requirement of N.E.T. came into huge criticism. Consequently the exemption from N.E.T for M.Phil. degree holders was lifted in 2009. This time the rule’s implementation from retrospective effect put at peril the careers of a sizeable number of scholars leading to a slew of protests in universities and petitions being filed across the country.

For the teaching community in higher education, N.E.T. is a subject of deliberation. More so as in the last two decades N.E.T. has undergone little revision. With a pass percentage of about 2% it remains one of the most formidable examinations to clear. Considering that N.E.T. is not a competitive exam, its success rate is dismal prompting one to delve deeper into the methodolology of the examination and deliberating on the reasons for students from premier centers of learning namely University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi and Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi failing to clear N.E.T. even in numerous tries.

Pattern of N.E.T.

At the outset the pattern of N.E.T needs to be understood. The examination consists of three papers. Paper 1 is ‘General paper on teaching and research aptitude’ meant to assess the teaching and research capabilities of the candidates. It comprises fifty Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ’s) from ten topics of equal weightage. Paper 2 is subject specific and objective again having fifty MCQ’s. It is mandatory to clear the first two papers with minimum 40% in each paper individually and scoring 50% combining the marks scored in the two papers for general category. If any of the two conditions are not fulfilled, the third paper is not corrected. For success at N.E.T. the candidate must score 90 out of 200 in Paper 3 whereas a score of 100 leads to the award of J.R.F. On the face of it, it doesn’t look difficult at all. So where is the problem?

The syllabus and sample questions on English, available on UGC website, appear to not have been revised since the early years of the examination. The fundamental flaw in the exam appears right here as the syllabus comprises of broad areas rather than detailed sections. Perhaps due to the extent of information that exists in Literature, U.P.S.C. did not offer Literature in any language as an optional in its MCQ based Civil Services Preliminary examination.

The pattern of paper 3 has undergone at least three revisions in the past decade. Yet the syllabus of English remains delineated as it was over a decade ago. The tables below give an idea of the changed structure of Paper 3.

PART

Type of questions

No. of questions

Words per answer

Total words

Marks per answer

Total marks

3-A

Short essay/ definitional questions

10

300

3000

16

160

3-B

Long essay

1

800

800

40

40

The total questions were 11 to be answered in 1100 words.

This format was revised and the following pattern was adopted from December 2005 onwards.

Section

Type of Question

No. of Questions

Words per answer

Total words

Marks per answer

Total Marks

1

Unseen passage/stanza

5

30

150

5

25

2

Short definitional answers

15

30

450

5

75

3

Analytical/ evaluative questions on electives

5

200

1000

12

60

4

Essay

1

1000

1000

40

40

The total questions are 26 to be answered in 2600 words.

This format was again revised again and a slightly changed pattern given below was adopted from June 2010 onwards.

Section

Type of Question

Test of

No. of questions

Per Answer

Total

Per Question

Total

1

Essay

Ability to dwell on a theme at an optimum level

2

500

1000

20

40

2

Three analytical/ evaluative questions

Ability to reason and hold an argument on the given topic

3

300

900

15

45

3

Nine definitional/short answer questions

Ability to understand and express the same

9

50

450

10

90

4

Text based questions

Critical thinking, ability to comprehend and formulate the concepts

5

30

150

5

25

Total

 

 

19

2500

200

From a preliminary comparison it can be deduced that an effort has been made to arrive at a suitable balance of different kinds of questions testing information level, analytical skills and expression. The balance, however, tilts in favour of information. Knowledge of a subject is essential for claiming expertise. Nevertheless, for subjects like Literature information is endless. For both Paper 2 and Paper 3 the syllabus prescribed consists of periods of literature within which hundreds of authors, their works, dates, characters, plots and a humungous lot of snippets of information could form potential questions. Knowing an answer then becomes a matter of chance and destiny. In such a case, the effectiveness of the examination that selects good and able teachers on the basis of chance is a matter of concern.

The kind of questions asked is of course reflective of the syllabus, which enables their setting in the first place. The syllabus for paper 2 has ten broad areas namely ‘Chaucer to Shakespeare’, ‘Jacobean to Restoration Periods’, ‘Augustan Age: 18th century literature’, ‘Romantic period’, ‘Victorian period’, ‘Modern period’, ‘Contemporary period’, ‘American and other British literatures’, Literary theory and criticism’ and Rhetoric and prosody’.

For Paper 3 there is a twofold division, the core group and the electives. The core group comprises ‘British Literature from Chaucer to present day’ and ‘Criticism and Theory’ and ten separate units. These are ‘Literary Comprehension’, ‘upto Renaissance’, ‘Jacobean to Restoration periods’, ‘Augustan: 18th century literature’, ‘Romantic’, ‘Victorian and Pre- Raphaelites’, ‘Modern British Literature’, ‘Contemporary British Literature’, ‘Literary theory and criticism upto Eliot’ and ‘Contemporary theory’. There are five Electives – ‘History of English language, English Language Teaching’, ‘European literature from classical age to 20th century’, ‘Indian Writing in English and Indian Literature in English translation’, ‘American and other non-British English literatures’ and ‘Literary theory and criticism’.

At a glance, the syllabus reads more like titles of papers from any undergraduate and postgraduate English literature syllabus. What’s missing is the detailing- which authors, texts, critical readings, literary movements, contemporary social, economic and politically relevant history etc, all the specifics given for not just the other subjects offered by UGC but also for a similar exam conducted by Union Public Service Commission for Civil Services.

In India, English Literature was one of the first courses to be introduced in the present college and University systems established by the British during colonial rule. The courses designed for most of these institutions remain unchanged for over sixty years resulting in few centers where courses have been revised and new authors included reflecting the changing literary trends. As a result a huge disparity exists in what comprises English Literature and how it is taught and studied at different locations in the same country. Linked to this is the gap in the fluency level of students of English literature. One may have the knowledge of literature written in a particular language, but not the proficiency in speaking and writing it. Consequently, the standards of writing in a pan-Indian exam like N.E.T. will have to be basic to accommodate all kinds of students and also to focus more on memorization of facts rather than flair for writing, argument, analysis, illustrations and creative inputs. It is no surprise then that the students refer to an array of guides, keys available in the market and basic information sources on the internet like Wikipedia and Spark Notes for the preparation of N.E.T. The present pattern of N.E.T. may definitely be testing information but the profession for which it tests is concerned more with how much this knowledge and information reflects in teaching and trickles down to the beneficiary of the exercise- the student.

The present and revised Paper 3 of the N.E.T does address a few concerns raised earlier but does not fully rectify them. Introducing two essays of 20 marks each rather than one for 40 marks gives more leverage to the candidate. Similarly raising the word limit of definitional questions from 30 to 50 allows a better explanation to a question. Reducing the number of these questions from 15 to 9 and increasing their individual weightage from 5 marks to 10 marks and collective weightage from 75 to 90 marks is to raise the ‘chance’ quotient in the paper. Sample these questions from the December 2010 N.E.T. Paper 3- ‘Discuss the significance of Ursula’s encounter with the horses at the end of The Rainbow.’ and ‘Explain the significance of the Railways in Dombey and Sons’ from Paper3 of June 2010 N.E.T. Clearly these are the simplest questions asked. Yet, in the absence of a clearly defined course, if for some unforeseen reason one has read all of D.H.Lawrence’s and Charles Dickens’ novels except those in question then it results in a straight loss of 20 marks. A corollary to a plot-character question is whether this is the knowledge UGC is looking for in the teachers and researchers of this country.

Another alteration in Paper 3 has been the reduction of questions from 5 to 3 in the Elective section. Perhaps this was with the general idea to shorten the paper, but to reduce the marks allotted to this section from 60 to 45 is regressive. The elective section focuses on specialized knowledge based on individual interests that is well in place by the time post graduation concludes.

Evaluation

Consistently N.E.T. has come under critique for not being transparent about evaluation. Prior to 2007, neither the passing marks nor the marks obtained by candidates were revealed. Even the question papers were not made available. After a court direction, UGC began displaying marks obtained by both the successful and non- successful candidates on its website. Since then a number of students see themselves as coming very close to the passing marks but not reaching it. For example score between 85 to 89 in three attempts but not 90 creates frustration. So clearly a subject like English literature needs a criterion not based on marks of a singular paper. Another vital question is who corrects the answer scripts? Is correction centralized or decentralized? Is the standard of evaluation uniform throughout the country? Clearly answers to all these questions may not be disclosed in the public domain, but the requisite stake-holders can intervene and ensure redressing of grievances at the appropriate levels.

In December 2009 UGC had introduced negative marking in Paper 1 and 2 with the view to further make evaluation stringent but subsequently withdrew it. UGC is evidently laboring to reform the N.E.T and create a better examination suited for the purpose it seeks to achieve. The need for the reformation of N.E.T. for English Literature and its course is crucial. Unless some of the core problems are addressed N.E.T will continue to be a roadblock in the careers of many. Just so that the next N.E.T. does not feature questions like the number of lines in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, or worse still Homer’s Odyssey. For can the magnitude of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ be gauged by how many feet and inches the painting measures?

Works Cited

  1. U.G.C. Review of National Eligibility Test (NET) conducted by UGC and UGC-CSIR – .26 June 2011 <http://www.ugc.ac.in/inside/net_review%20_mungekar.pdf>


* Manjari Chaturvedi, presently teaching at Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi, is a Ph.D scholar at Center for English Studies, Jawahar Lal Nehru University, Delhi. manjari.c.1@gmail.com

* Article first published in FORTELL, September 2011

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