Creativity, Conformity, and the Underbelly of PORs
On a walk back from one of those redundant club meetings, I realised that most of the competitions, fests, and posters I had helped make led to a sum total of zero creative addition. Zilch, Nada, Nothing. I felt so uninspired that it felt shameful associating myself to an 'artform' when in the longest time I hadn't even produced any 'art' per se.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, or perhaps frustrated and overworked with no outlet to cool off. What happens when the mechanisms of this outlet are revered so much, that they turn into work themselves?
This segue does not exist to badmouth anyone specific. I too, am a part of a larger categorical dismantling of a structure. A structure that theoretically exists to provide campus residents the space to express themselves, to wind down, to learn, to recreate, to be creative. A structure that now stands for the celebration of bloated middle management and uninterest.
Structures for supporting common interests arise inherently from a group of highly talented, ambitious, and diverse individuals. Something IIT Delhi is arguably THE place for. They’re meant to cater to 3 broad necessities:
The first thing a student seeks after 'making it' here is community, a home, friends, someone to tolerate the rigour with. What better way to do this than bonding over a common love for culture? Over your time at IIT Delhi, as one’s sources of worry fluctuate between academics, relationships, interns, and placements, a community is that anchor which holds you in the waters of sanity.
A club is supposed to provide the space for both new entrants, and old timers, to rest, learn and share their insights. The only way such a culture sustains is through interaction. What's the killer of free interaction? Judgement.
Most of us have allowed our competitive tendencies to seep into a space meant for recreation. With competition comes insecurity and envy, and this idea of 'If I produce something and it's not the best out there, I'll have lost the race.' Slowly, we omit sharing our unflattering work, leading to a dearth of learnable moments.
A library was demolished and in its place arose a gallery - reserved for the best. With a moat around it, filled with alligators.
Status et al
We are all products of ambition, and it's no surprise that this fixation follows us in the next stage of life. In a group full of smart, intelligent, and talented people, the best way to get constant validation is to be the best at what the crowd wants. And the crowd often wants a marketable, fast-hitting, and popular display of mediocrity. The crowd doesn't want risks. Often, in an attempt to get into the inner circle of these clubs, we start to lose our particular quirks of the craft and adopt a more homogenous approach, leading to an undifferentiated mass of mimics.
Politics Of Responsibility
A POR is virtually meant to indicate that you've taken on the responsibility of being a facilitator. Someone has to take on the load to get the permissions, move the chairs, and treat juniors with money that will never be reimbursed. A fair reward is an acknowledgment of your work.
Ideally, someone with a POR is supposed to manage the logistics and crowds at events, act as a mediator between the admin and the community for resources and recognition, help those who want to start out in a club, etc.
When these PORs started being used as a proxy for 'talent', a black market emerged. We now have ECA's and POR's for quite literally moving chairs. The poltu that follows such a market needs no description to (But I will attempt to do it anyways).
Most companies would prefer someone with a good personality, someone who’s interesting and talented. It is hard to look at every individual in a large cohort like ours and quantify talent. And that is one of the reasons why institutionally recognised ECAs and PORs are used as proxies or ‘spikes’ in a profile by companies, institutions, etc.
For fans of HUL211 - traditionally, the supply of PORs has been inelastic, whereas the demand is steadily rising. For those who wanted an easy 10 Hukka - supply is limited, demand is increasing.
And thus, we broke the supply chain and turned this structure into a hyper transactional nightmare - diluting the experience for those whose primary motive was to learn.
When this wasn’t enough to meet the demands, we introduced worthless PORs and ECAs which meant nothing. While this action isn’t harmful in itself, it mocked the efforts of those who actually put in the time and commitment expected of someone in a Position Of Responsibility.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, we're hopeless, we get it. But we need PORs for our jobs. Don't hate the player, hate the game.
And you're not wrong.
The prevailing tension in this situation is that the original intent of most clubs was to help bonding and build a personality, not necessarily get you a job. However, there are fair reasons to justify the partial switch from a recreational to transactional nature. Core jobs are harder and harder to come by, and not lucrative to most. Plans to pursue higher studies are extremely hard with visa issues and high costs of living. Non technical jobs, to a certain extent, view PORs as essential.
An apparent inflation in PORs has come about - executives, coordinators, advisors, cO-aDvIsOrS. What?
But it's also worth mentioning that IIT Delhi has much lesser variety than many other institutes (for context IITB has a standup club, BITS has a famous Wall Street club and Manipal has boxing, aerospace and pretty much everything under the sun). Could this be because our admin is much more stringent about recognising clubs or a general lack of interest?
How can we, as a community, help to expand these microfactions in a responsible manner? How do we officialise rewards without compromising on their quality?
The elephant in the room remains. Much has been said publicly about the lack of innovation by our students. Sure, it is easier to ideate than implement in Indian market conditions, but there must be some novelty we can come up with, right?
New ideas do not come up in a vacuum. They need a surrogate culture that can provide inspiration, nurturing and support. Could it be possible that we do not know how to innovate in our professional careers because our personal careers lack uniqueness?
How many people have you come across on campus who tried building something new just for the sake of it? Without a fear of failure or judgment? And what is the worst that can happen if one fails? Why do we have to be limited to comparing which POR holds more value when in reality, the very idea of PORs is artificial? How many people have the interest, let alone the knowledge to truly disrupt the world?
TL;DR: Why is this a crisis?
Community and ‘Network’ is THE go to reason for many of us who enrolled in IIT Delhi. Pray tell me, how exactly does this differ from a purely professional network of people who went to the same school? IITs fortunately had a well spread, well connected, functional alumni network partly because of the hours seniors and juniors spent together co-creating things. This network has not only helped numerous people in terms of economic crises - 2008 crash, etc, but also acts as a robust support in personal life.
The dying out of a culture of sharing runs the risk of breaking this network. Even otherwise, a community helps you develop in a holistic manner. It is extremely hard for lots of people to shed their fear of failure, and try out new things. A non-judgemental platform provides exactly that space.
Innovation is central to growth. Granted, not every application requires a reinvention of the wheel, but there’s only so much we can develop without Intellectual Property. A stagnant pool leads to mosquitoes. A stagnant culture leads to banality. There are concerns that a lack of novelty in our personal lives leaves us uninspired to disrupt the world.
All said and done, we all certainly have the potential to identify gaps in our systems. What is different now is that the rate of people falling through them is higher. Covid has induced one of the loneliest times in recent history. We desperately need these structures in better shape to help us out. We need all the support we can get. It is only informed communication and dialogue that will mitigate this crisis. For better or worse, the mechanisms we use to course correct will define our institute for years to come.
Written by Rohil Jain
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this opinion article solely belongs to the author and does not constitute the views of BSP.