“What Would The World Lose If You Die Just Now?”: Wilson College BAMMC Professor Asks Students

“What Would The World Lose If You Die Just Now?”: Wilson College BAMMC Professor Asks Students

From stoic philosophy to counting the many shapes of leaves, Wilson College’s BAAMMC professor shares what has shaped him as a teacher over the years.

Tanvi DalviUpdated: Saturday, June 01, 2024, 11:53 AM IST
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Sudhakar Solomonraj | Facebook

Sudhakar Solomonraj recently returned as a professor at the Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia and Mass Communication (BAMMC) department at Mumbai’s Chowpatty-facing Wilson College. In a freewheeling interview with The Free Press Journal (FPJ), he talks about why it's important to include humanities subjects in the BAMMC syllabus, teaching through songs, the challenges of being a media teacher, and how he communicates with students whose political views differ from his.


FPJ: You’ve spent almost 20 years in Wilson College's Political Science department before leading the Mass Media department. How do you keep your teaching contemporary and ensure that students are well-prepared to handle real-world challenges?

Solomonraj: I worry that courses like BAMMC are not emphasising the humanities enough. We used to have subjects like sociology and psychology, but these are being cut from many programmes. As a result, I find that students entering journalism lack a rigorous grounding in the humanities. Something I do to keep my students up-to-date is provide them with Harvard Business Review (HBR) handouts as part of continuous learning because I think it is more urgent now that teaching should be contemporary.

FPJ: Could you elaborate the phrase “continuous learning”?

Solomonraj: Continuous learning for me involves discussing current topics, such as AI, which we'll all have to deal with. The syllabus hasn't caught up to include AI's impact on media students. Continuous learning, to me, is about fostering critical and reflective thinking in students. A friend recently asked me, "Sudhakar, why do we need teachers if AI will give students all the answers." My answer: Teachers are needed now more than ever to urge students to think critically and provide them with context on issues; otherwise, students risk becoming ahistorical.

FPJ: Over the years, as you've introduced students to complex texts like Aristotle's, have you observed changes in how students learn? With shorter attention spans reported nowadays, could students be more inclined to engage with podcasts on Aristotle rather than reading his books?

Solomonraj: I often feel pressured to just finish the syllabus, which means I miss out on important things. How do you balance this? There are no easy solutions. I've noticed that people today have different learning preferences, especially with many having reading disabilities. I have realised that podcasts and YouTube videos may be more engaging for them. In my teaching, I try to make complex texts like Aristotle or Hegel more accessible, as students get bogged down if they are faced with a lot of jargon.

FPJ: A key part of mass media is communication. Amid growing polarisation, how can we reach and understand the other side more effectively?

Solomonraj: In mass communication, it's crucial to know your audience. Understanding them helps us communicate in a way that resonates with them. Often, we talk to people similar to us, using language and references we're familiar with. But reaching a diverse audience requires effort. We need to find sources they relate to and consider authentic. Sometimes, as teachers, we don’t fully understand where a student is coming from. This disconnect isn't just about different generations; it's also about communication. India's diverse viewpoints show that we don't all need to agree on one vision.

Since 1995, I've been telling my students that our society is becoming more intolerant. I always start my classes by asking them to examine their own biases and stereotypes. We must begin with this self-interrogation. We also need to consult multiple sources and viewpoints to avoid jumping to conclusions. A few years ago, I learned an important lesson while teaching about Machiavelli. I referred to the Spanish-Italian statesman Cesare Borgia as an illegitimate son, and a student asked, “How can you call a child illegitimate? Shouldn't he be called a child out of wedlock?” This made me realise I had been using an inappropriate phrase for decades.

FPJ: How do you use music in your lessons? 

Solomonraj: Since 1983, I've been using music to teach students and connect them with historical contexts, inspired by an experiment suggesting that children have a natural inclination to remember advertisement jingles. I include songs by artists like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, in both Hindi and English. For history lessons, I use Billy Joel’s "We Didn't Start The Fire" to explore global history from an American perspective, discussing the people and events with my students. When teaching about apartheid, I play Eddy Grant's "Gimme Hope Jo'anna." On the first day of class, I often use Bob Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind." The lyrics pose questions like "How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?", "How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?" and "How many deaths will it take 'til he knows that too many people have died?". I ask students to think about questions they have about the world and add their own lyrics to them. Sometimes, I have them rewrite lyrics to a song that reflects their current socio-political context. Songs, like poetry, make people think deeply. For teaching stoic philosophy, I frequently use Mohammed Rafi's song "Mai Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya."

FPJ: You are known for taking students on nature trails. In a digital age where students might be disconnected from nature, what does using nature as an educational tool mean to you?

Solomonraj: We need to create opportunities for people to go outside. On nature trails with my students, I encourage them to touch, see, and experience different shades of green. I worry we've stopped truly seeing things. Our eyes and ears filter out a lot if we don't practice curiosity. Good observation is crucial for media students, so I ask my students to note how many shapes of leaves they see. Sometimes, they find 40-50 different shapes. There's so much noise in our heads that we're not absorbing our surroundings.

FPJ: After decades of being a teacher, what has been your most important learning?

Solomonraj: As a student, I believed skipping classes was my birthright. Now, as a teacher, it upsets me when students do it. I've learned that our views depend on where we sit. A friend shared the "10 Commandments for Teachers" with me, and the eighth commandment says, "Take your profession seriously, but do not take yourself too seriously."

FPJ: What advice would you give media students who are searching for their place in the world?

Solomonraj: Singer Peter Seeger came to India in the mid-90s. When a journalist asked him, “Have you changed the world with your songs?”. He responded, “My point is not to change the world, my point is to prevent the world from changing me”. That’s what I always tell young people. When we are young, we tend to be idealistic, but the real world can bog us down and force us to do the bare minimum to get by. I always ask students at the beginning of each year to think about what the world would lose if they died just now. The question is, “What are we doing in our lives that is uniquely us?”.

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