Saturday, September 10, 2011

Paving the Way to Clear Applied Electricity Backlog (by Sisira Adikari) - Parts I and II

Part I – Introduction

Aim of this article is, as a first hand witness and victim, to outline events happened at the Peradeniya Engineering Faculty in 1986 leading to take away (or given away) Final Examination in Engineering Part I, Applied Electricity subject from Prof. J Gunawardena and subsequent revengeful incidents occurred that adversely effected to my career.

The write-up would substantiate some facts put forward by Rasika Suriyaarachchi in his recent article.

For past 20 years I dearly wanted to publish this to off the pressure out of my mind and also to unveil some incidents. Once I had a futile attempt to publish the core of this article in a Sinhala newspaper. Being not an artistic and creative writer I have no surprise as to why my attempt was not materialized.

I would like to thank the publisher for publishing this article in this blog.

Part II –Applied Electricity boycott

If you were in the faculty during 1980 -1987, I do not have to explain how tricky the second year Applied Electricity (AE) course and not to mention associated laboratory work had been before the subject was taken away from (or given away by) Prof. Gunawardena.

In my time as a student (1984 -1990) there were few standard questions that students be prepared before step into the laboratory; one has been the chemical equations of an alkaline battery cell. Students would come to AE lectures bit early not because of enthusiasm but for the mere reason not to be ended up sitting in an aisle seat (in order to avoid scrutinized by the lecturer).

In that era students were ruthlessly being chased away from AE laboratory classes. In 1986 (i.e. in my third year) bit extraordinary (meaning above and beyond “normal” chasing away from AE laboratory classes) situation was being developed among my immediate junior (i.e. then second year) batch.

By about half way through the academic year about half of second year students faced the risk of failing AE laboratory classes due to being chased away from AE laboratory classes. This obviously led to develop a tense situation among second year students.

The matter was discussed extensively in the Engineering Student Union (ESU). The second year students, as a protest, overwhelming wanted to boycott AE course and laboratory work. As an initial measure, ESU took the matter up with the subject in charge, Prof. Gunawardena. His point was to carryout laboratory work safely one got to know fundamentals. Fair enough, but unfortunately there was no plan or desire to deliver these fundamentals. Given the fact that there were not much differences between equipment used for laboratory work, how most of students who performed their first year laboratory work “safely” became lack of fundamentals to become “unsafe” in the second year is an interesting question to be raised. One may argue that first year subject in charge had ignored safety of students. On the other hand in my mind it was hard to justify how the chemical equation of alkaline battery cell is connected to safety in the laboratory. Since arguments can be made both ways, I am not going to further discuss credibility of the point made by Prof. Gunawardena.

Not to surprise the dialogue with Prof. Gunawardena did not do any better and the situation continued. Soon, one Wednesday there was highly intense ESU general body meeting to discuss the situation and to determine further actions. First year batch top of the victimized second years, Sanath Alahakoon (currently Dr.), key activist and representative for the second year students, delivered the opening speech. In his speech he explained the background and strongly recommended to boycott AE.

Majority of final year students opposed any boycott action. Although not exposed openly there were couple of key reasons (a) They wanted to complete before Moratuwa and hopefully secure lucrative jobs sooner than their Moratuwa counterparts (by that time due to some strike actions Moratuwa was behind Peradeniya) (b) Since they were in the final year they (specially electrical folks) did not want to send a wrong message to their teachers.

Here came in my view most influenced few words that I have ever spoken to change my destiny. But I did it gracefully and no regrets to what I said. It was a factual statement.

As it matters to what you probably will read afterwards I shall mention now I obtained the R.H. Gunaratne prize for the best academic performance from the Final Part I examination with straight five “A”s obviously including AE. In layman terms I became the “batch top” in my second year. In my third year I served as the secretary of the Electrical and Electronics Engineering society. In the following academic year I became the Vice President of the ESU. I personally had no problem with Prof. Gunawardena’s teaching and digesting his subject. No doubt that he is an exceptionally smart but unfortunately controversial teacher.

During my second year one day I had a chance to have a small talk with one of my friend, who was an undergraduate in an American university vacationing in Sri Lanka, at the Colombo public library. We obviously talked about our undergraduate experiences. I was very enthusiastic telling about Prof. Gunawardena and his teaching methodology. I mentioned that one time only 3 out of 33 students were able to get through one of Prof. Gunawardena’s subjects. At one time my friends’ comment was if such a thing happened in his university, especially in a year after the first year, the administration would definitely point the finger to the course instructor.

With my view that something is not right with Prof Gunawardene’s teaching, attitude and marking methodology for AE specially in terms of catering for average students together with having that chat in my mind what I simply said at the meeting was one time only 3 out of 33 students were managed to pass a particular paper by Prof. Gunawardena, given that I believe there is a serious problem in the way that AE course is being delivered. In no time Prof. Gunawardena’s loyal must have conveyed that to his and perhaps some other influential ears.

Some remarkable statements were made in that meeting. One final year student stated that “If there is any boycott I will cut my hand and hang it on some prominent place (can’t remember the place he mentioned). One second year female student loudly asked final years to pat their back to see whether they have backbones.

With heated, some instances unpleasant, arguments finally a decision was made to boycott the AE. As a strategic measure all office bearers of the ESU were resigned. Finally the boycott began with some demands which I do not remember exacts.

After about couple of weeks boycott and talks between the dean, academic staff and administration finally students’ demands were accepted at least to a degree that the student leadership could respectfully claim the victory.

- Sisira Adikari

TO BE Continued with Part III - Aftermath of the boycott

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