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Saturday, June 4, 2011

42 - 2nd July 2008 - IIT Kanpur Suicides - Werther Effect/Copycat Suicides?- Digital Daroo

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Yet another suicide rocks IIT Kanpur. Yet another round of introspection. More statement blaming the student-faculty relationship, internet usage, grading system and academic pressure. Media bites with ridiculous statements from, both, the students and the faculty.

I'm not sure how much the situation has changed from my times - and they're not too far in the past, I'm a 2005 graduate - but, I really don't think that the academic pressure is too high at IIT Kanpur. Any lower, and it'll risk getting lost amongst the gazillions of second and third rung engineering institutes in the country.

Ditto with the grading system. It's not the best, but it's not the pits either. Every system has its pros and cons. And the cons are not that bad that they'd cause students to start committing suicides over them.

I think the suicides are because of an individual's intrinsic character and the Werther Effect. I first came across the Werther Effect while reading the chapter on social proof in Robert B. Cialdini's book, "Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion." The Werther Effect talks about how a highly publicized suicide can cause a number of follow up copy-cat suicides amongst people in the same situation. And suicides in IIT Kanpur (or any other IIT for that matter) are surely highly publicized. You have it splashed on the front pages of all local newspapers, the in-campus newsgroups would be flooded with posts, discussions in the quads & wings, special committees and reports, etc.

When I first read about the Werther Effect, I scoffed. But, now I've started believing in it. An extract from the Wikipedia article:

The well-known suicide serves as a model, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide. This is referred to as suicide contagion. They occasionally spread through a school system, through a community, or in terms of a celebrity suicide wave, nationally. This is called a suicide cluster[1]. Examples of celebrities whose suicides have inspired suicide clusters include the Japanese musician Hide and Yukiko Okada.

I think some psychology/sociology professor from the IITs should be looking at this angle as well. In my opinion, the grading system and the academic pressure is just fine. Let's not degrade the quality of IITs any further - we've got politicians to do that for us!
Posted by Saurabh Nanda on Wednesday, July 02, 2008 
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Labels: gyaan

 nareshov said...
That's an interesting point of view.
I don't remember thinking in this direction, or maybe I did and dropped it.
July 2, 2008 11:43 PM
 Lekhni said...
Very interesting, and makes more sense than many of the other reasons being bandied about.
July 2, 2008 11:56 PM
 curdriceaurora said...
I have witnessed 3 such suicides in my college within a period of 5 weeks. The first one was an academic case, but the other two were for personal reasons, but it one could pretty well see the fact that the other two got the GUTS ( if one may call it that ) to go ahead with their plans if they previously had any, since everyone of us attended the memorial service for the first guy.

Waste of one life itself is not justifiable, but starting a trend like this is unforgivable. But then again, there is none to take the blame for these situations.
July 3, 2008 9:13 AM
 Arvind Iyer said...
Hey. nice article.
I can't believe your DIRO blamed it on internet and mobile phones!

Guess they are stupid across IITs...
July 3, 2008 9:46 AM
 rahi.vidya said...
About the suicidal trends among students, I was never very comfortable with the step that they take. If they have gone to the IITs or any educational institute, they must have been well prepared for the grind. If not, it was their fault. By taking this extreme step, they are only creating problems for their college and their parents.

By the same logic, can't we ascribe the farmer suicides in many states to the Werther Effect? Do give it a Think.
July 3, 2008 10:11 AM
 zakir ahmed said...
thats exactly what i think .. coz the other iits odnt report sucide this frequently
July 3, 2008 1:50 PM
 appu said...
It seems a bit far-fetched at first, but I think you may be right. However,
I do have to argue - what's the ratio/%age of people who actually are
unhappy with their acads to those who are unhappy *enough* to take
the plunge? If you can establish that this ratio is decreasing over time,
then that's one solid pointer that this theory may be at work. Still, that's
not enough.

I agree with you though that the problem isn't the academics. I can say
that even though I made a hash of my own studies. The problem is lack
of guidance. *Most* people get into IITK nowadays riding on the strengths
of a "template" system. See this question? Attack it in this manner.
Nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach if what matters to you
is the end, and not the means.

Think about it like this - when you were preparing for the JEE, the end
result was to get in, and once you got in, high-school math/physics etc.
slowly begins to lose importance (and you start to forget some really
basic stuff which you don't use often). Extend this. You're in IITK (or
whatever other engg. college) and your end goal is to make it big in
life. What you learn (technically) at IITK may not be of much help when
you go out and do your thing (Nanda isn't building concrete bridges,
for instance :D). So - the means to your end of achieving a degree with
good grades is not important. Do what it takes to work well with the
system. Template-ize it if/where you can.

Students already apply a few heuristics to this end. "Choose this
professor" or "Choose this course", "even if you don't like it". There's
more to it than just that.

One of the *easiest* ways to get good grades - even on the relative
grading scale - in IITK is to simply go attend classes. The average
student in a batch/class is smart enough to get a B if he/she simply
attends every class (and by attend I mean being attentive and absorbing
what is taught). The A-graders/batch-maxers/abs-ers are those who
can take this understanding and apply it just a little bit better than
the B-graders. However, sitting in on classes is enough to get you
good (around 7.5-8/10) grades.

This fact is lost on most students - even on those who attend
regularly. All the counselling service (and parents) need to do is to
encourage people to attend classes, and be up-to-date on class
notes and stuff.

That's enough.

And they're missing this point. Every semester, every year, every
batch, every suicide is just another indication that they're missing
this point.
July 3, 2008 3:09 PM
 ramesh said...
duh man .. "The Werther Effect blah blah copy-cat suicides amongst people in the same situation" .. Now same situation is the key here .. most colleges face suicides, and our iit in kharagpur has had a relatively low rate of suicide about one in two years (last 5 years) .. those didn't lead to more suicides .. so what i mean is that the something is really wrong with the 'situation' in kanpur, and not just people wanting to copy each other!!
July 3, 2008 6:15 PM
 Curiousmoron said...
Spot on! I completely agree with your view on the issue.

However, I have a few points.

1. Grading and teaching in IITs(atleast IITKGP) is awful. It's more like Jadavpur or Calcutta University where 65 is considered a good percentage and a very high score. It's that way in IITKGP. 65 translates to a 7/10 which is C which is average or maybe less than average. But certainly not to the extent that you go and commit suicide.

2. Most of the people I know who do well and get bad grades are certainly not happy with the evaluation system and teaching there. I am one among them. I am 1000% sure that people in my place who have many backlogs are not contemplating to commit suicide. After all IIT is just a mode of killing 4 or 5 years of your precious time when you could have learnt a lot of science.

I feel those people who commit suicide are losers and would even dare to say that they are just not fit to live.
July 3, 2008 6:52 PM
 Shashi Mittal said...
Hi Nanda,

Your argument of the chain-effect of one suicide leading to another in IITK seems to be pretty valid. However, the fact that such a thing did start at all in the campus points to the fact that there is indeed something wrong with the system.

Academically, I was in a pretty good position all the time I was in IITK, and presumably I have benefited a lot from the system. But there are other aspects of this system about which I strongly feel need some reform. As Apurva rightly pointed out, a large majority of the students are simply not happy with the present state of affairs. Why? Who is to blame for this situation? The students? The administration? As always, the blame lies with both the sides. Apurva has already stated what the problem is with the students, and I agree fully with him on this account. I will dwell on the other side of the problem.

It is right that we need a rigorous academic system at IITK, because after all that is what has made our alma mater such a famed place to study. But I personally believe that it will be better, for all of us, if the academic pressure is eased slightly. I know of instances where instructors in courses have been quite unreasonable in their attitude towards students, especially those who are not-so-good in terms of students. There is a kind of discrimination, even if it is not quite direct, against the students with lower academic standing, which makes their life even tougher. I am not saying that the academics should be made less rigorous - i all for it. Just that it should be more reasonable, and more accommodating for all the students who enter the institute.
July 7, 2008 1:02 AM
 Shefaly said...
Good post although as you can see from following this link below, the internet and other random concepts that are not so well-understood are often touted as 'explanations' of such trends.

Hopefully, IITK will not see the Welsh phenomenon. Read on:
July 9, 2008 7:23 PM
 Mayanand Jha said...
I graduated from IITK in 2005 and now pursuing my masters from University of Calgary in Canada. The academic pressure here on undergrads is more or less same as we had in IITK, but grading is really cool here. Undergrads here too have a very hectic life as I see many undergrads doing part time job also for supporting their education. I feel less senior-junior interaction can also be one of the reason for these rampant suicides. I witnessed a significant drop in senior-junior interaction at IITK. Ragging aka informal introduction was good means to have great interaction with seniors. I think ragging in IITK was pretty much within the limits but it was totally crushed by dosa(dean). The seniors I befriended during ragging period had been very supportive.
July 10, 2008 7:11 AM
 ramu said...
david deangelo style !! how did you come across that book huh ..?? :D
October 13, 2008 9:29 AM
 Nandz said...
Ramu: Picked it off Joel Spolsky's reading list. I pick up most of my non-fiction stuff from there.
October 13, 2008 12:07 PM
 Anonymous said...
Dear sir whatever,
You know what!!!!!!!!!

sucide is really big matter and you are just compelling it.
Respect to you for being an IIT alumni, but a sucide for publicity is not a deal.

You don't know what the students are going through here."Everyone have different life and ofcourse different way of dealing with situations.So you don't have the right to call it some blah blah blah blah.
there is always a very big reason behind such a great step, which you would not even understand or even you don't give a damn to it.

And by this cheap blog you are just abusing those soul who faced the horrible aftermath........

a lot have changed since you graduated.