2008 Distinguished Teacher/Scholars announced
The Teaching Advancement Board recently selected Annie Abbott, a professor and director of the Spanish & Illinois program in the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, and Rajeshwari Pandharipande, a professor of linquistics, of Sanskrit and of comparative literature, as its Distinguished Teacher/Scholars for the 2008-2009 academic year. The program recognizes outstanding faculty members who actively enhance teaching and learning on campus and supports innovative projects that recipients develop as part of the selection process. Award recipients serve as consultants and mentors to other faculty members and departments seeking to explore new instructional methods and revitalize their teaching programs. An event launching this year’s teaching initiatives and honoring Abbott and Pandharipande will be 3-5 p.m. Sept. 24 in the Heritage Room of the ACES Library, Information and Alumni Center.
Since Annie Abbott, a professor and director of the Spanish & Illinois program, co-founded the Spanish community-based learning program in the fall semester 2005 with professor Darcy Lear, the program has blossomed. It has grown from 12 students working in one community organization to 80 students working at 10 community agencies this semester.
Through the program and her own volunteerism as a board member of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, Abbott has become aware of the challenges facing Spanish-speaking immigrants, and the gaps in students’ skill sets that become apparent when they’re immersed in real-world situations. Tasks as simple as taking accurate phone messages can become daunting for some students when they volunteer at local organizations serving the Spanish-speaking community.
Based upon feedback from the community partners and problems that students encountered, Abbott realized the practical skills that students were lacking and wove them into the curriculum. Abbott also noticed a lack of curricular materials for Spanish service learning and is finishing a textbook, “Communidades,” soon to be published by Prentice Hall, to assist teachers in implementing service-learning programs for Spanish students.
“I see in my own courses that students’ learning and just their perspective on the world is totally changed when they take their learning to the community and then bring that learning back to the classroom,” Abbott said. “They’re more engaged. They see the theory applied and so it makes more sense to them. They see impact. They get instantaneous feedback.”
To further explore the intersection of community needs and pedagogy, Abbott is bringing community leaders to campus for a series of interdisciplinary summit meetings this year as her project for the Distinguished Teacher/Scholar program. The summits, which will be open to the entire campus community, will explore the themes of leadership and entrepreneurship.
Prominent people from the business community, civic organizations and social service agencies in Champaign-Urbana will be recruited to serve on a panel of experts at the summit meetings and provide their insights about community issues, student learning outcomes and students’ capabilities. Experts from communities beyond Champaign and Urbana, such as Chicago, will be invited to participate in the summit meetings as well to provide their perspectives.
During follow-up sessions, faculty members will discuss the information gleaned from the summit meetings and its implications for teaching.
“We want community leaders’ perspectives about what it takes to be successful in the community, what it means to be entrepreneurial,” Abbott said. “The ultimate goal is for more faculty members to incorporate that perspective into their teaching.
“You don’t have to do a whole course of sending students out into the community to really have some of their learning be connected to the community.” For example, faculty members could have students do research projects or honors projects that fulfill community needs, such as conducting the research to supplement a grant proposal or writing an honors thesis with practical applications in the community, Abbott said.
“I think this would be a successful program if a professor does something as small as take the lecture notes that he or she always uses and changes one example to something that has to do with our local community,” Abbott said. “That will be a success because it’s tying our students’ learning to the place where they live, those things that they see and can observe.”
In 2005, Abbott was awarded the Social Entrepreneurship Award by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and the Champaign County Economic Development Council. The award recognizes individuals who have served as change agents in the community by incorporating innovative approaches, improving systems and processes and creating sustainable solutions to reshape society and benefit humanity.
While Abbott was a teaching assistant at the Urbana campus, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences awarded her the Harriet and Charles Luckman Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award.
Abbott earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and psychology, a master’s degree in Hispanic literature and a doctorate in Spanish, all at the UI. She has been on the faculty since 2000.
During the 25 years that Rajeshwari Pandharipande has been teaching Asian mythology – a course that enrolls 550 undergraduates each year – she has been troubled that large lecture classes diminish opportunities for students to conduct scholarly research.
From time to time, Pandharipande added an honors section to the course, which enabled 30 or so honors students and James Scholars to actively engage in research activities, but still she felt that a new pedagogical model was needed that would provide research experience for all students in the course, not just a select few.
“I have a lot of experience teaching large classes, so I thought, ‘Why can’t we change this so we actually teach them how to do research?’ ” Pandharipande said. “Students and parents have these assumptions about large classes – that they are impersonal, that students are lost and have no contact with each other or the instructor. Something has to change.”
As one of the campus’s Distinguished Teacher/Scholars for 2008-2009, and with help from a working group of faculty members and students from diverse disciplines and the Center for Teaching Excellence, Pandharipande will create a template to assist faculty members in making scholarly research a component of large-enrollment courses. During the fall and spring semesters, the project will bring together faculty members from various disciplines for discussions on their experiences teaching large classes and to develop a research model that will promote inquiry.
“Students should be trained about what research means and how to do it, even in an elementary-level class,” Pandharipande said. “I have launched this project with a conviction that large classes are a valuable resource to promote excellent research, rather than an impediment in teaching/learning.
“Failure to create such (a) mechanism/model equals a colossal waste of the powerful resource of the scores of young minds waiting to be trained to think critically through research,” Pandharipande wrote in her project proposal.
This semester, Pandharipande is working with a group of 18 honors students, a special course section that is exploring the roles myths play in modern life, which will serve as the control group. She also is working with a group of 30 students who are taking a section of the course at Allen Hall.
“The students are quite excited about it,” Pandharipande said. “There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, and that’s the whole point.”
With their course section divided into teams, the honors students were given the option of having all team members work on the same research paper or of allowing each team member to research and write their own paper while meeting with team members to discuss their ideas.
The idea for the second option came from the students, most of whom felt more comfortable writing individual papers.
“We have this idea that a team must be five people all working on the same project, but this is a new way of doing it, and it allows me to see which one works out better,” Pandharipande said. Using the team approach, students will be encouraged to take a leadership role, and develop their leadership, debate and creative thinking skills.
The honors section of the course is exploring myth-making in everyday life, examining myths related to sports, the media, political speeches, love and other areas.
“I want them to feel that this is part of their lives,” Pandharipande said. “Myths are not frozen in time or just the creation of bygone cultures and ages; they are continuously being made or formulated by people. I want students to feel that the content is close to them. Each subject that we study has relevance in our lives if we see it properly.”
In the spring, Pandharipande and the working group – in conjunction with the Academy for Teaching Excellence – will conduct a workshop to deliver the template to campus faculty members. The template also may be presented at the annual meeting of the Council on Undergraduate Research, an organization that supports and promotes collaborative research and scholarship among undergraduate students and faculty members.
Pandharipande, who served as director of the Program for the Study of Religion (2002-2005), was selected as an associate by the Center for Advanced Study in 1987, 1993 and 2007. She joined the UI faculty in 1982 and in 1996 received both the Harriet and Charles Luckman All Campus Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award and the William Prokasy Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Pandharipande also was named a University Scholar (1992-1993).
Pandharipande earned a doctorate in Sanskrit, philosophy and religion from Nagpur University, India, and a doctorate in linguistics at the UI. She teaches courses on Hinduism, Hinduism in the U.S., and Hindi literature. She has written published books, including a collection of her original Hindi poems, and more than 60 research articles and chapters.
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