‘Best Teachers Are Those Who Excite You About Life, Push You Beyond’ – A Candid Interview with Prof. Janat Shah

Interviewer: Rajashree

Student Representative, Media and industry interaction Cell (MiiC), IIMU

Photographer: Zeeshan

Student Representative, Media and industry interaction Cell (MiiC), IIMU

This week to garner the occasion of Teachers’ Day, we bring to you some reflections and heartfelt words from our Director and one of our most loved teachers, Professor Janat Shah.

We enter the cabin after a short wait, and a little time bargain with a fellow visitor. The humble Professor greets us with a kind smile and offers us a seat. Zeeshan is ready with his camera and in one glorious opportunity, out comes my smartphone. I hit record, and our conversation begins, interspersed with his contagious laughter.

 

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MiiC : Sir, please share with us a little about your time as a student, maybe something memorable from your school or college years.

Prof. Shah : It has been so long, schooldays were so many years back ! You know what happens, when you look back on life sometimes, you tend to forget. I kept changing schools as my father moved to various places in the city. Then I did my engineering from IIT Bombay, then worked for five years and then did my Fellow Programme at IIM Ahmedabad.

MiiC : How was your stint as a fellow programme student ?

He responds with surprising candor and a frank laughter.

Prof. Shah : Initially, I didn’t know why I was doing a PhD. I just wanted to switch from Corporate and here was a programme where they were also offering a stipend and so I joined. But I decided to cross the bridge and do it more seriously than I had studied in my undergraduate years.

MiiC: Sir, you are an inspiration to so many of us. Could you tell us about a teacher who has left a lasting impression in your life?

Prof. Shah: Yes, I have had some outstanding teachers.  For instance, Professor Jahar Saha, he is also a visiting faculty with us. In IIM, I would say, we had teachers who were outstanding in terms of not just what they taught about business in class but about life as a whole. We had Professor Balakrishnan who taught Management Accounting which for lot of people can be very mechanical, but I would say I learnt business from him. I believe the best teachers are those who excite you about life, push you beyond. In engineering back then, we used punch cards for computer programming where you got the result for your codes only the next day. So a single error can ruin it completely.  We had great teachers on this subject as well. Then we had a professor who invited us to dinner at his place. Also we had an out-of-the-box warden who would never visit hostel and would blindly sign any letter or certificate, be it for extension for fees payment or anything at all. So I think people who trust you make a huge difference.  I believe therefore I had a range of teachers who not just taught me business but about a broader way of looking at life.

MiiC : Sir, you have been leading IIMU last five years. Would you tell us about some of the challenges you faced, assembling the team and so on and so forth.

Prof. Shah: I would say the challenges we faced in the first four months were immense. When I took over, I had nobody but I had some ideas. I wanted to give the students here the same facilities that our students at IIM Bangalore had. We had a few things in mind that we put down as a necessity, like great classrooms. CR-1 that you see was done in less than a month. Similarly arranging for fast Wifi, high quality IT infrastructure and then bringing in outstanding faculty were some of the things we aimed at. Being able to deliver these starting from scratch was much fun.

MiiC : Sir, as a teacher how do you deal with students having different vibes and aspirations ? Some may work well under pressure while some may underperform.

Prof. Shah:  I think this a challenge where I have sometimes, though not always, been successful. Say there were two courses I remember two courses very well from my teaching life. In one, I had systematically planned my course. I knew my entire student profile, and I had planned something for every group. So you see, you need to recognize but you shouldn’t target any one particular group. But this requires fair amount of effort but when that effort is put in, it is highly rewarding. The second course that I highly enjoyed teaching was one which I had designed very differently, deciding it would just have my own cases. We met once a week in a two hour class. Every Sunday, they were given a case and the analysis that the students did was amazing. So everywhere I find that as a teacher if you are excited about the course, then students always reciprocate.

MiiC : Sir, as a teacher who has also worked in the corporate what would you say are the challenges and rewards in migrating to the teaching profession?

Prof. Shah : I think firstly you should enjoy working with young people, secondly a lot of patience and thirdly a lot of empathy. For instance, if someone comes and says I could not submit an assignment, you could say I don’t care or you could choose to understand why. Or you could be very strict inside the classroom and once out, understand why and how certain things happen. So, if you have these qualities you would have a fun time, especially when somebody gets back after years and tells you how you made a difference to their lives. Say, just two days ago I had a one hour long conversation with a student who has graduated some fifteen years ago about his experiences then on. I would say in every batch there are always a few students with who I have developed a strong relationship which continued over years.

MiiC: Do you have a personal hero? A real or fictitious character that inspires you?

Prof Shah: I am great admirer of Gandhi’s philosophy. Other than that I enjoy literature, writings of various authors. On one side I read Harry Potter and on another I like Dostoevsky’s characters.

MiiC: Tell us your take on balancing work and life? You being a busy person, how do you manage it?

Prof Shah: I think valuing relationships is the first thing, and then recognizing you need to invest in them. Once you recognize this fact, it will happen. Several of us make this mistake of taking people close to us for granted, and believe they will always understand. You think you will spend time with them at later stage in your lives. But it does not happen. You need to invest time in them.

MiiC:  Sir, your cycling is legendary now! Any other hobby we do not know of?

Prof Shah: Cycling is more of a practical thing! As you know legends are just mythology. I used to go for trekking amid nature once in a while though have not done it much off late, not for lack of time though.  I did one major trek as part of club during engineering, then some in Maharashtra and one in Himalayas.

MiiC : Sir, a question just popped up. Is there any book you read again and again?

Prof Shah: Quite a few, like J.D.Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and Lewis Carol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Some other authors whose works I like are Franz Kafka and Lee Carr.

MiiC: If you had to give us a one line message Sir, what would it be?

Prof Shah: I would ask you to be curious. To me that is the key element. If you are curious in life, you will discover a lot in life, in the smallest of things.

We conclude the interview and talk a while more. The heartwarming encouragement remains with us as we walk out with a lot of thoughts and a treasury of pictures. Zeeshan has not been idle all this time.

The interview gave us an opportunity to bring to you some of the savored moments and invaluable advice from life of an inspirational teacher. We bid adieu to return with many such engaging conversations.

 

Signing Off!

Rajashree & Zeeshan

IIM Udaipur

Indian Institute of Management, Udaipur

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