I believe that a pedagogically effective undergraduate course should 1) elucidate the contents of the course so that students can easily grasp them, 2) be intellectually stimulating, and 3) teach students how to be critical, autonomous thinkers. To achieve these aims, there are various teaching techniques that I employ.
One of my teaching techniques is lecturing. When lecturing, I do a number of things to hold students’ attention. First, I keep my lectures relatively short and supplement my lectures with videos. Moreover, I occasionally ask students questions during my lectures, such as “any thoughts on what this verse from the Bhagavad Gītā might mean?” This makes the lecture more engaging for students and adds variety to the lecture so it does not become a continuous stream of talking. I try to relate the course teachings to current issues whenever possible as well. I also try to add as much humor to my lectures as I can, such as by adding the occasional meme or two to a PowerPoint presentation.
After lecturing, I also have students discuss various questions in small groups. Examples of questions for these group discussions in RELI 361: Modern Hinduism, are: (1) what does Orientalism tell us about the relationship between knowledge and power? (2) What role did religion play in the life of Gandhi? (3) Do you find the term “Hindu” helpful and why? Such questions enable students to think more critically about the course material.
Another teaching technique is that throughout the semester, I plan numerous student-led class days. Here, students sign up for a particular class day in which they lead a class as part of a small group. I ask students to lecture and break down the main points and summarize the readings for that day. I then ask students to break the class into smaller groups and facilitate discussions within these groups. These student-led class days break the monotony of ordinary lectures, enable students to engage more critically with the readings, and equip students with greater presentation skills.
A new technique I have employed is the structured dialogue. When having these dialogues, I first assign readings that are relevant for the particular discussion questions that they will discuss. Before class, I also ask them to do an assignment that involves them thinking carefully about certain issues related to these questions. Then, during class, I will ask students to form groups of 4-5 students. In a class that runs for 50 minutes, I would plan to cover 3 questions. An example of a question when discussing the topic of caste, for example, might be: how have your experiences been shaped by your social identity, and how do you think the experiences of lower caste individuals have been shaped by their social identity? After students are asked this question, they would have 2-3 minutes to think about their response to this question, and then they would go around the group giving their answer to this question (for ~2 minutes). Students would then have roughly 5 minutes to have a discussion about their responses to this question. This process would be repeated for the remaining two questions. I believe that group activities such as these are highly engaging for students and enable them to think more deeply about the course material and to see how the course material relates to their own lives.
Moreover, so that my students can become critical and autonomous thinkers, I assign independent research assignments such as reflection papers or term papers and ask them to focus on addressing questions that challenge them to creatively and thoughtfully draw connections across time and cultures. I also insist that students do not merely summarize the course’s readings so far but instead think critically about the course material and produce insights that we have not discussed in class. The result of such assignments is that my students have been able to engage critically with the course material. For instance, in my Modern Hinduism course, my students at the College of William and Mary have written insightful papers on a number of issues, ranging from the complexities that arise in a guru-student relationship (especially when abuse is concerned), the complicated nature of dharma (morality or righteousness) in the Hindu epics, social issues that might arise from certain interpretations of karma, and so on.
My teaching methodology also aims to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the classroom, I strive to promote diversity, inclusion, and belonging through the following means. First, I structure my courses so that I include readings from marginalized groups, such as women and people of color. Second, I endeavor to foreground topics such as race, gender, and caste in order to draw attention to certain pressing issues relating to social exclusion and to encourage critical thinking on such issues. For instance, when teaching RELI 308: Introduction to the Bhagavad Gītā at the College of William and Mary, I have drawn attention to some of the complex issues surrounding the motif of equality (samatva). I highlight that while on the one hand, the motif of samatva encourages individuals to view others with an equal eye, on the other hand, discriminatory practices against women and lower-caste individuals often undermine real-world attempts to truly achieve this spiritual equality on the ground. I challenge students to think about this tension between scriptural text and sociocultural context, and in doing so, my students have been able to think more critically about the interrelationship between religion and society.
Moreover, in discussion formats, I pay careful attention to marginalized voices and I particularly support individuals who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I bear in mind that such individuals, given their life experiences, may be reluctant to contribute to discussions, and hence, I actively strive to create a classroom environment in which they feel comfortable and also feel empowered to speak and add to the conversation. In trying to create such an environment, one aim I have is to ensure that all my students, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, would feel accepted and free to be their authentic self, without needing to modify their behavior to fit certain sociocultural norms. Another aim is to ensure that my classrooms are safe spaces in which a variety of opinions are not only tolerated, but also appreciated and respectfully engaged with, even if there happen to be disagreements in these dialogical settings. I also make special efforts to talk with marginalized individuals outside of class. In this connection, one example I can draw attention to pertains to Stacey, who is one of my students in my Modern Hinduism course. Stacey is Asian-American, and she initially felt hesitant to contribute in group discussions. I talked with Stacey numerous times outside of class to discuss the course material. I told Stacey that she had a number of valuable insights into the topics we had discussed, and this gave her more confidence to express her views. Consequently, she now participates very actively in group discussions and produces numerous insights.
Furthermore, I believe that a successful teacher excels not only in lecturing or guiding discussions in the classroom, but also in effectively instructing students in one-on-one settings, such as during office hours or for an independent study, or when a student seeks guidance on whether and how to continue their studies at the graduate level. I have prepared myself for these one-on-one interactions by availing myself of teaching opportunities that emphasize individualized attention to students. As a supervisor (in the UK system of education, a supervisor gives personalized instruction to students and has more responsibility than a TA) in Cambridge, I had one-on-one supervisions with students and gave them personalized instructions and guidance on drafts of their term papers for the course A7: Introduction to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The result of this teaching is that all my students greatly improved the argumentative quality of their drafts by a) engaging more carefully with their sources, b) sharpening their prose, and c) presenting arguments more convincingly and with greater attentiveness to potential counterresponses. In this connection, it is worth highlighting that one of my students informed me that they received a first (UK equivalent of an “A”) on the course that I supervised and that this was the highest grade that they received in their first year (another important note is that course grades at Cambridge are determined by a third party and not by myself). Moreover, as a private tutor for Sanskrit, I enabled my student to grasp the fundamentals of Sanskrit grammar more easily through my personal instruction and helped them develop a strong foundation for further Sanskritic study.
Moreover, it is worth highlighting that I am reflective of my teaching methodology and constantly strive to improve my pedagogical strategies. For instance, my early teaching philosophy placed a greater emphasis on instruction through lectures. However, through my teaching experiences, including my experiences guest lecturing at various venues, I have come to realize that students’ attention spans are getting increasingly shorter and that a pedagogy that includes interactive exercises, such as group discussions, and videos, is more effective at keeping students focused than a lecture-heavy pedagogy. Consequently, I now structure my classes so that there are enough interactive exercises and videos to keep students engaged with the course material. I also have a heightened awareness of how important it is to keep the course material interesting, and I am constantly thinking of new ways to captivate students so that they leave my courses feeling intellectually invigorated.
In sum, my pedagogical strategies are sufficiently malleable to engage with the distinctive needs of my students. At the center of these strategies is the commitment that for each student, I will provide the most effective form of education for their current intellectual capacities.
The following is one of teaching evaluations. “Akshay supervised me for a 3,000-word coursework essay on Hinduism which was worth half of my marks for my World Religions paper. His supervisions were engaging, and he gave me good advice on both the structure and argument of my essay, and academic style and writing, as well as pointing out areas for analysis I hadn’t considered. He answered my questions clearly, and was well-organized in setting up and attending our supervisions. I received a first for the paper, which was my highest first-year grade.”
Courses I Can Teach
See CV for a full list of courses that I can teach.