All of you who know Bill, and all of you who read this blog do not need to be told about the amount of time the man spends staring at the ceiling. The claim is that he is thinking so that he can prove some theorem or the other. In reality, he ofcourse is sleeping during most of this ceiling-staring time. (Yes, he can sleep with his eyes open, trust me on this.) But there's a small % of time that he doesn't sleep. I have always wondered what he thinks about in these few moments and now I know - he is thinking about the JEE. You see, I think he's never really gotten over him not really cracking the JEE and in the interests of blaming someone else, he holds the JEE and all his Kota friends who were ahead of him responsible. So he spends his ceiling-staring figuring out ways to somehow get back at them. Sounds implausible? Well, then please explain to me why someone who cannot be bothered to write one line of proof an entire week sends me this long post out of the blue asking me to put it up on my blog. It's either that or he has gone crazy. Or turned over a new leaf like his brother. I seriously don't know which is worse.
So anyway, I give you (all footnotes are mine) Bill's rant on the JEE, the universe and everything:
There has recently been much discussion and criticism of the IIT Joint Entrance Exam, or JEE. This started me thinking about JEE, what it means to people, what it is meant to do, and what really happens.
JEE. An exam taken by perhaps a quarter million teenagers, of whom some 4000 will "pass" the test and make it to IIT. The ranking given out by JEE is a number that has an outsize significance. Sometime during my stint at CMU, I served on the admissions committee. We ploughed through hundreds of application packages, with their inevitably upbeat profiles and resumes. During one such, up popped a folder from someone at an IIT. Among his notable achievements, he listed his All India Rank at the IIT JEE. Obviously, getting that rank is one thing that he is really proud of, something that he is going to talk about 5, 10, maybe 50 years after the fact. This attitude is not uncommon either. I remember being slightly saddened, because it reminded me of a documentary I saw of Nadia Comaneci 15 years after Montreal. There was the same sense of reminiscencing of the pinnacle of a career, an extraordinary achievement, something whose emotional impact may never be matched again.
Is it right that an entrance exam becomes in itself an achievement? What has led to this state of affairs? One obvious reason is that of the sheer numbers involved. Given the extreme number of contestants for a painfully limited number of seats, the pride in "having made it" is understandable. But that should not blind us to the many negative aspects of JEE, and maybe it is not doing a good job at all.
Many, including particularly professors at IIT, have noticed and complained about the increasingly crucial role of intensive coaching for the JEE. It does become noticeable when the candidates come from all over India but the bulk of the successful ones are from Hyderabad and Kota. It is not that coaching in itself is a problem. Any system, particularly in the hypercompetitive scenario, will attract coaches and training. Witness the 30,000 dollar fees for advisors to buff up resumes for Harvard. The problem is rather that JEE creates an atmosphere where coaching is essential, and it is inconceivable for a successful attempt without intensive training, usually professional.
JEE has been designed to be brutally tough. Nothing wrong in that in principle. However, in practice this has meant that problems are well outside the scope of anything taught in schools. In fact, in my first year at IIT, we pretty much redid the syllabus for JEE. The questions in our semester exams would have been right at home in the JEE. Why is it that students in high school are being tested on undergraduate level stuff?
More to the point, is this really getting those with a passion for technology, or more generally, science, into IIT? A really small minority of students go on to apply anything learnt in IIT in their professional careers. Are they losing interest during their four to five years within IIT (which would be a dreadful indictment of the professors, if so), or were they never really interested in the first place? Yes, one aspect of the problem is that students are forced to make a choice at entry, when they know nothing of the subject. This is more a problem with the IIT system than JEE of course, since we need much more flexibility in changing branches/courses. In many US universities, even say a Stanford where for example computer science is a much-in-demand option, a lot of people drop out sometime in their undergraduate years and take another branch. For this to be feasible, we would need to move to Abi's Real Universities(TM).
The way the entrance exam stands now, IIT takes in students who are good at "cracking" exams. That is certainly correlated with ability, but the correlation does not seem to be very good. Abi points out the statistic that less than half the intake is that of first-time aspirants. In other words, to get into IIT, after spending time, money, and effort, single-mindedly devoting most of your waking hours to preparing for IIT for 2 years, maybe more, you should realistically be thinking of doing it for another year, or maybe more. Are we then surprised if students are burnt out?
A more pernicious effect of the supremacy of coaching classes is that they are unfair. Abi has talked about women, and compared it to the proportion of women in CBSE toppers. Vivek asked about women in science or math classes. But indeed, what is the proportion of women in the bigger coaching classes? I am sure that is indeed more correlated to the number of women in IIT.
It is not jut about women of course. Those who cannot afford the steep fees, or cannot or do not want to go halfway across the country to stay in the feeder towns for two years are getting shut out of the system. We are losing out many bright students in smaller places. Is it not the idea that we should want the interested, brilliant, and motivated students from across the country? With the JEE set as it currently is, people like a good friend from Alleppey studying on his own have to overcome almost insurmountable barriers.
Yes, we live in a deeply traditional society, with large inequalities. As last year's reservation ruckus made clear, caste is a deeply divisive issue. So is class, and income, and gender, and millions of other things. We understand that, and I am sure the designers of the JEE understand those realities. The question is, isn't there something wrong with a system that does not even attempt to redress those problems, and indeed skews in the direction of the more privileged?
Maybe we can argue that it is not IIT's place to try to solve these hard problems. I don't agree with that viewpoint (otherwise what is the point of calling them institutes of national importance?). But this brings to mind the question, what does IIT aim for? What kind of students do they want, and is JEE getting the students they want? After all, what kind of guidelines they set will not affect the competition (if IIT sets a paper on Ulysees, Joyce coaching classes will mushroom up), but does affect the kind of students they will get.
We have heard much about merit through the JEE. Does merit, whatever it is, play a large role in clearing the exam? If so, certainly merit can be taught in coaching classes in Hyderabad. Or unsuccessful candidates can acquire merit by trying again in another year.
What does clearing JEE mean about the candidate, beyond the fact that they are good at taking exams? Is it intelligence, motivation, perseverance, ability to work hard, passion for science, engineering bent of mind? All of these? None of these? If these, or others, are qualities IIT wants, is JEE filtering the right kind of candidate? Should we not be asking these questions? Or are the good professors satisfied with doing things the way they have been done in the past?
 Err..are you trying to tell us that someone not from an IIT actually applies to the CS doctoral program at CMU? Since when? Or more importantly, WHY?
 See, he doesn't like Hyderabad or Kota. Obvious reasons.
 Okay. My one serious footnote. If one agrees that a) intensive coaching of the Kota variety is necessary for getting into the IITs, the vast majority of the people who get into IITs get this coaching and b) the percentage of women in these intensive coaching institutes is extremely small, then I don't see why it is difficult to see that the JEE is biased against women exactly in the same way it is biased against anyone (or group) who does not (or cannot) attend the coaching class. [Yes, I know that the question we should be asking is why is that the classmates of these men who attend these coaching classes cannot attend the same classes given that anyway there are going to write all engineering exams in the country. I see that but then, I also sort of see the point in parents being reluctant about sending girls at 5 AM / late at night or packaging them off to Kota for 2 years]
 Alleppey? Did you say Alleppey? You bloody Bong, next time you get the district wrong, I will get you to pay twice your share of the rent. And write down all districts of Kerala 100 times, ok? This good friend (who in reality is my friend who you have adopted as your friend) lived in Alappuzha. Get it? Alappuzha.
 Falsie, there is hope for you. You can start an IIT coaching center that teaches Ulysses and make zillions. I can so imagine this: kids comparing Falstaff Tutorials and Prufrock classes.