Mentoring as Radical Practice


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Mentoring that happens in the classroom is not enough for someone who is a passionate teacher. Teaching does not begin and end at the doorstep of the classroom, though unfortunately that is how many professors complete the task.

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Teaching/Mentoring as passionately political work

Learning is a social process. Ostensibly, education is a non-political institution that facilitates this process. Far from that, education is a profoundly political field. As part of the ideological state apparatus (ISA), education system produces and circulates knowledge that in turn supports the dominant socio-political-economic order. As Louis Althusser argues, it is through the educational institutions that the dominant section legitimizes its unfair control over resources, and normalizes various forms of inequality. Nevertheless, if education is associated with reproduction of dominance, it can also play a role in challenging the same (Apple 2019: 18). For the legendary philosopher-activist Paulo Freire, education has to be about changing society. If education is a field invested with political interests, teaching has to be an intense political mission to counter hegemonic interests and foster social change. Krishna Kumar (1989) has also reflected similar sentiments when he argues that schools [or universities] have to be agents of social change and not merely reflect the existing dominant social values. What is important, therefore, is to understand who produces knowledge, whose interest the educational apparatus serves, whose voices are reflected through the curriculum and whose is absent or gets drowned. Answers to this will help to decipher what kind of political strategies are to be initiated to make education a political act to exorcise the ghost of hegemonic dominance of casteism, religious orthodoxy, patriarchy, colourism, and class-biases etc.


For a society that aspires to counter this hegemonic political landscape, the schools/universities need to play a major role in fostering values that nurture egalitarianism and democratic spirit. What we need therefore is to lay bare the relationship between the dominant ideology and the curriculum, and adopt critical pedagogy that engenders democratic values. The teacher-mentor has a tremendous responsibility to initiate and foster critical learning that makes this possible.


For this, we need teachers as mentors who are invested with a sense of justice. Unfortunately, most of the teachers take up teaching without a political sense of justice for all. We can classify two kinds of mentors. One is the by-default mentors who perform teaching or mentoring as part of their profession. They are not passionate about it. I am therefore not interested to consider these teachers as mentors. The others, mostly a minority, are passionate mentors, who love to teach and interact with the students, and actively take interest in their well-being and contribute towards shaping their lives. Such passionate teachers as critical pedagogues prepare the society towards a journey with critical consciousness. Personally, I did not have had a mentor as a student, though I am blessed with relationships with a few people who have inspired me to be in academics. Nevertheless, “not been mentored” is in fact is one of the reasons for which I wanted to be a passionate mentor. I often feel that the students must be looking for or longing for a friend and a guide (as I was doing as a student). How could I not be concerned about them!


The essay here is mostly based on my personal experience as a faculty of Sociology in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), in its Tuljapur Campus.


“Critical pedagogy” and “Engaged pedagogy”: Mentoring for democratic and participatory learning

“Critical pedagogy” as championed by Paulo Freire (1921-1997), departs from the “banking system” of learning that emphasizes on memorizing information, and learning certain skills to make a career in response to the demands of the market. Critical pedagogy, on the other hand, wants us to know the relationship between power and knowledge to explain who has control over conditions of learning within the classroom, and its impact outside. By giving agency to the learners- the students- critical pedagogy expects them to question the taken-for-grantedness of the existing system. Far from being passive learners, the students are expected to transform existing knowledge, and create newer forms through self-reflection and through critical dialogue with others.


bell hooks, however, asserts that one needs to go beyond critical pedagogy. What is important is to go one step further for the practice of “engaged pedagogy” that involves “self-actualization”- the act of transforming oneself to attain well-being.  Both the teacher and the student have the moral responsibility of taking care of their moral well-being as well. Taking cue from Vietnam Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, hooks argues that a teacher has to be a healer. As healer, the teacher should heal themselves first, ‘because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people’ (hooks 1994: 15). As the teacher has to practice what they teach, it also helps them to mentor the students holistically by not just supplying information, but by making it meaningful for them in their lives.


Teaching in the classroom is a first step towards mentoring the students. As undergraduate students, it is about initiating them into a distinct domain of knowledge. It is also about initiating them into the perspectives of social sciences that helps them to develop a critique of the social sciences in general, and discipline in particular, as well as to develop critical perspectives offered by the discipline(s) through which they can see the world differently. When I introduce the students to the world of Sociology, the students are given a critical understanding of the emergence of the discipline of sociology, and then various perspectives within Sociology that provides varied vantage points to see the society. As they try to develop a “sociological imagination” through their critical engagement with “common sense” they take their first steps towards unlearning. Unfortunately, the unlearning starts at a very late stage as they enter the university. The schooling of the students does not enable them to develop a critical mind. Most schools prescribe learning based on memorizing information.


The next task is to make the students believe in themselves and participate in a democratic process of learning. Every year, to the new batch of students, I give example of my favourite teacher in JNU who told us the story of his teacher who posed a question to the students in his first class- “I do not necessarily know more than what you know, …  then why am I standing here as a teacher?” As students would struggle for answers, after taking a pause, he would supply the answer- “… because I happen to be born earlier!” At one stroke, this dismisses the divinity of the teacher as “guru”. Within the Indian Brahmanical tradition, the guru is associated with a divine status that is not to be questioned. Sharmila Rege also points out that the critical pedagogy must reject the teacher as “god embodied” (Rege 2010: 94). I tell my students that the first step towards critical learning is “doubt” rather than have unquestioned faith in the teacher or in the (canonical) texts. Using Karl Popper’s theory of falsification, I argue that nothing in this world of knowledge need to be treated as sacred, and as true learners, they need to question everything including the ideas of their teachers.


In the first instance, many students are amazed, and some are also amused as they have been told so far that they are supposed to believe in what they read in the books or what the teacher says. Now, they are told that through their ‘disbelief’ and ‘criticism’ they contribute towards production of knowledge. And believe me, that makes the students excited about their role as active partners in the process of learning which is fluid and dynamic, not fixed forever. I encourage the students to express their opinions and values. I also tell them, however, that not all values are equally valuable. It is important to evaluate the values. How do we do that evaluation? They are explained how the dominant value/idea is a society, as Karl Marx pointed out, is the idea of the ruling class. Therefore, in a democratic society, the preferred values need not be that of the same class. Those dominant values that we generally consider as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ need to be deconstructed and reconstructed. For example, in Sociology, when they are taught functionalist and conflict perspectives, or feminist and subaltern perspectives, the students see a new world before them hitherto blocked from their vision. They find that these alternative narratives are novel, exciting, and also at times painfully disturbing as it destabilises their own experiences. The marginalized students such as the Muslims, Adivasis, Dalits, girl-students across categories go on to discover new ways of understanding domination and marginality, those from the privileged background also discover their own prejudices and privileges. Intersectional locations (of caste-gender-religion etc.) further complicate their understanding, and that is how they also learn to view the society not through simplistic categories, but as complex realities.


Diversity in classroom makes it an exciting place of learning. In TISS, fortunately we have students from across India, as well as from various socio-economic backgrounds thanks to the reservation policies. That makes the classroom an ideal place to practice critical pedagogy. Sometimes, I also face hostilities from students who are from privileged backgrounds, or who are heavily influenced by religious fundamentalism thanks to their socialization earlier. Some of them change their values and perspectives over a period of time, some do not. But, the purpose of engaged mentoring is not to ‘convert’ people. It is to instill a sense of participation in the classroom deliberation and help them evaluate their own values through the yard-sticks of democratic principle. That is the joy of education as practice of freedom, for it allows students to assume responsibility for their choices. Engaged mentoring is also to help them develop critical consciousness to engage ‘in an active, dialogical, critical and criticism-stimulating method’ (Freire 2013: 42).


Thus, the mentor, though granted extra power in this system, is not to be a dictator. Power, as bell hooks argues, is not necessarily bad. A teacher need not pretend that they do not have power, or that they do not want power. What is more important is how the power is used (hooks 1994: 187). A teacher can (mis)use power to muffle voices in the classroom, and maintain the social hegemony; or they can use it to ensure multiple voices speak and learn together democratically. This can teach us to live together as equal beings and also to work together towards breaking hegemonic and normalized ideas.


Mentoring to Transgress

Mentoring that happens in the classroom is not enough for someone who is a passionate teacher. Teaching does not begin and end at the doorstep of the classroom, though unfortunately that is how many professors complete the task. After taking a class on marriage from the perspectives of feminism, one student, turned up in the office and asked- “Could you please explain why mother did not break her relationship with my abusive father for so many years?” She was one of the many students who would come up with their own questions, often that is about their ‘personal troubles’, to use the concepts of C. Wright Mills, as they struggle to link it with the ‘social issues’ as they attempt to develop their sociological imaginations.


Gender identities and politics plays a significant role in the learning process.  While the gender issues are discussed in the classroom, there lies a wide field outside that domain that shapes the way gender is organised and shapes individual’s behaviour. For boys, it is an opportunity of unlearning and relearning to be a participant in democratic politics in everyday life as they come to terms with their privilege of birth. Of course, many male students resist, inside and/or outside classroom. What is refreshing to see is that some of them do change their ideas about gender and participate in progressive politics. For girls, these are ideas of resurrection. They are very vocal and excited in classroom as well as outside. Teaching-mentoring helps transform the learning outcomes into life out comes. The rebelliousness against patriarchal values and power-structures redefines the way they conduct themselves within the campus and at home. One day, there was a discussion on “benevolent patriarchy” and I illustrated that with the example of people affectionately calling their daughters (beti) as betā which in fact is a term to address the sons. The same day, after the class, one girl protested at home when her father called her betā and explained to him that if he could not call his son as beti with affection, then it is highly patriarchal to call the daughter as betā.


This might be a case where the girl stood her ground, but there are many other cases where the girls are snubbed for being too radical and spoiled due to their education in TISS. They face harassment at home, or are denied further education, or forced to compromise. Parents find it difficult to adjust to the children who now talk feminism, equality, rights and justice etc.; write term papers on communal violence or on experience of (benevolent) sexism in personal life; or write a dissertation of homophobia in their Church. Girls face this kind of discord at home more than the boys. Sometimes girls break up their relationship with their boyfriends as they exercise their agency to counter patriarchy. All these are sad, even though it is a vindication of the outcome of mentoring the students about rights and justice.


It is politically enriching to mentor the students coming from underprivileged background especially the Adivasis of ‘dominant-land’ India, indigenous students from the North-East, the Dalits, the Muslims and the Other Backward Castes. For these students, it is not just their poor material condition, but more than that their social identity poses a serious challenge for them to experience equality. In an institution like TISS, liberatory struggle is well rooted within the student community, but that often needs overt and covert support and guidance of some faculty members. In our campus in Tuljapur, there are only a few who are associated with the resistance politics of the subaltern students. Many other professors would not like themselves to be associated with the resistance politics else they might be “branded” as supporters of the ‘quota-students’. Nevertheless, for me, it is crucial that the students are also mentored for leaning a few steps in developing self-esteem, and fight for diversity and their right within that framework. It is a great pleasure for me to work with young minds to organize Ambedkar Memorial Lectures, celebration of Indigenous day or Savitribai Phule’s birthday as teachers Day (and rejecting Radhakrishnan’s birthday as Teacher’s Day). This helps foster respectable identities for the students and a legitimate sense of place within the space of academia. It also engenders a sense of justice to heal the psychic turmoil that students from the margins experience.


Care, love and support:

“Sir, are you there in November in the Campus? … I am coming for a week or two”- was the message from a (ex-)student who wanted to come to the Campus and spend a week’s time with us as she was too tired of the city (Delhi) life. I was pleasantly surprised that she didn’t even bother to ask me if I would agree to that idea. Of course, not every student that I have mentored may approach like this, but this is what comes as surprise gifts to a teacher who loves students deeply. When the students live with you in the campus, you meet them every day, go for a discussion during morning walks, invite them for a cup of tea/coffee, share lunch/dinner, ask them to come over for cooking during certain special occasions, or store their birthday cakes till midnight- are all part of the relationship that makes them comfortable and share a bond that further helps a teacher to understand them. Then they freely share their problems- separated parents, abusive father, financial stress, career anxieties, or harassments by their hostel mates and other tragedies of life. As young undergraduate students, living away from home, these are the relationships that are very crucial in shaping their lives.


“Come, let us live with our children”this often-quoted motto of Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) has been part of my consciousness since my early childhood. My father, who was a very popular school teacher, had inscribed this over the door of his office. Subconsciously, I have imbibed his abilities to love and sacrifice for his students. Yet, despite of receiving the students’ hugs and heart-felt appreciations in return, I do feel at times that I could have done better; that I might have left some students behind that could have carried along; that sometimes I have let my students down, that I should have further done away with my biases and prejudices. As a mentor it has been a journey of mixed feelings, unlearning old ideas, and learning a few new things.


The regret is that there are not many professors in the universities who are sensitive to the students’ needs including the learning needs, and that too at the undergraduate level. Most of them are busy with their own research and publication and of course networking with the higher ups for generating more social capital for themselves. In most of the big universities the faculty members concentrate only on the research scholars, and then may be on the MA students to much lesser extent. Developing relations with undergraduate students hardly pays any dividend. University Grants Commission (UGC) also emphasizes on Academic Performance Index (API) scores that has no place for passionate teaching and mentoring of any kind. Then, who would bother to mentor the undergraduate students even as rituals?



Apple, Michael. 2019. Can education change society? New York: Routledge.

Freire, Paulo. 2013 (1974). Education for critical consciousness. London: Bloomsbury.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Oxon: Routledge.

Kumar, Krishna. 1989. Social character of learning. New Delhi: SAGE.

Rege, Sharmila. 2010. Education as Trutiya Ratna: Towards Phule-Ambedkarite Feminist Practice. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.45(44): 88-98.


Byasa Moharana is Assistant Professor at the School of Rural Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.


This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

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