No eyebrow is raised when faculty members from the HSS are seen to be participating enthusiastically in the interdisciplinary postgraduate programme in Design (MDes) or faculty members in Fine Arts or Economics or Psychology are seen to attract as much project work as in some engineering departments. Humanities and Social Sciences is not a peripheral department in this technological institute, thanks to the vision of the founding director of IIT Kanpur Professor P K Kelkar.
In 1960, Professor Kelkar was instrumental in setting up a separate full-fledged Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), just like other departments of Science & Engineering. He realized that it would help the students to sharpen their creative talents, to become better leaders of men and decision makers. It was this outlook that motivated the institute to allocate more than fifteen percent of the total course time to HSS courses in its five year undergraduate B. Tech. programmes. The students of IIT Kanpur do not consider HSS courses as necessary evils required to go through for obtaining a degree in Engineering. This was corroboratedwhen sometime in the 90s, a President's Gold Medalist from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering said that for him the best and most enjoyable course was the Sociology course, which had opened new avenues for his thought process.
HSS Department started with English (Literature and Linguistics), Economics, Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology as the constituent disciplines. Teachers from local colleges were initially deployed to take care of the teaching. The first set of permanent faculty members in HSS were appointed in early 1962, one each in Sociology, Psychology and English literature. The first Head of the department, Dr. Rajendra Prasad was Associate Professor of Philosophy at Patna University before joining IIT Kanpur. The Department had complete freedom to design and teach the courses, and was also given liberal funds to develop the library.
The HSS department was perceived to be the intellectual soul of the Institute. It was fervently believed that it would broaden the student's perspective and contribute to the moulding of a
rounded personality with an unprejudiced mind and critical thinking skills. Science and Engineering were visualized as major components, but not the whole of the undergraduate curriculum at IIT Kanpur.
Once new faculty started joining the Department, more questions of policy and practice started emerging regarding the appropriateness of courses to be taught. The question was whether appropriateness should be based on a 'liberal arts' viewpoint, ignoring the fact that the students were primarily specializing in science and engineering. There were also discussions about the number of disciplines there should be in the Department and the number of faculty in each discipline. Everybody believed that HSS courses should be taught, not as a 'service' component, but as these would normally be taught in a traditional university. Some, in the belief that HSS was a valuable and integral component of IIT Kanpur, thought that HSS faculty members like their counterparts in other departments should be engaged in research and consultancy. Consequently, HSS faculty members emphasized the need for a vibrant PhD programme, going beyond the considerations of only undergraduate teaching.
Given the needs of the five independent disciplines, it was decided that there would be 30 members in the Department: six in each discipline, namely, Economics, English, Philosophy, Psychology, and Sociology. Moreover, the Institute was of the view that if a good scholar was available in any branch of HSS (not necessarily belonging to the five approved disciplines), up to 5 more positions could be released, raising the sanctioned strength of the Department to a total of 35. In fact, efforts were made to recruit a faculty member to teach 'History of Ideas' (as distinguished from History of Events), but a suitable person could not be identified. After a few years Fine Arts was added to the original five disciplines. Sanskrit was also introduced for a brief period when it was taught by a visiting faculty. However this programme was not carried forward.
The Department started a PhD programme in Philosophy as early as 1965. By the late 70's, the faculty strength rose to 32 and gradually PhD programme was initiated in the disciplines of Sociology, Psychology and Economics. The last discipline to join the PhD programme was English Literature and Linguistics. A curious situation arose when a PhD student of Indian Philosophy wrote his thesis in Hindi and submitted it. Initially the Institute maintained that since the medium of instruction was English, all theses must be written in the same language. However, the student went to the court which asked the Institute to reconsider its decision. Finally the student was asked to provide an authentic English translation of the thesis and the matter was resolved. The Department also started an MPhil programme in 1980 which was discontinued after one year.
A major development in the academic history of the Department was the starting of a Five Year Integrated MSc Programme in Economics in 2005. This programme was planned on the same lines as the Five Year Integrated MSc Programmes in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. The Programme is thriving and incorporates the basic vision of the HSS Department: the weaving of Humanities and Social Sciences into Engineering and Science education to provide a deeper understanding of the issues. And the Institute is open to the idea of having viable undergraduate programmes from other disciplines of HSS as well. In 2011 all such integrated programmes at IIT Kanpur have been replaced by Four Year BS Programmes.
The growth of the Department was not without hurdles. One major difficulty was the availability of research funds. Unlike the engineering and science departments which have always had constant sources of funding from public and private sector organizations, the HSS disciplines have had very few sponsors for their academic research. In the 90s, the Department faced an acute shortage of faculty. Some older faculty members retired, but replacements were hard to come by. The faculty strength dwindled from 32 in the late 70s to 22 in the mid-90s. Fortunately, this trend changed around the turn of the century, and the faculty on roll has since then registered a steady increase. Currently, there are 13 faculty members in Economics, 8 in English (and Linguistics), 4 in Fine Arts, 4 in Philosophy, 4 in Psychology and 5 in Sociology, totaling 38 faculty members in HSS. This number is expected to increase in the months to come.