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 technique is lecturing, although I keep my lectures relatively short so that the main focus of my classes can be on discussions and other group activities. When lecturing, I keep students engaged by asking them questions such as “what does this teaching from the Bhagavad Gītā say about the complex nature of morality?” 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.
After lecturing, I plan group activities to help students think more critically about the course material. These activities include (1) having students brainstorm questions in response to this material and (2) group discussions in which students discuss questions. Examples of such questions include “how do Hindu epics challenge your views on morality?”, “do you think one can study other cultures objectively?”, and “how are knowledge and power interrelated?”
Another teaching technique is to have 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 to 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 3-4 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 discuss their responses to this question. This process would be repeated for the remaining two questions. I have received extremely positive feedback on these dialogues. For instance, my students have told me that they find these activities highly engaging and that such activities enable them to think more deeply about the course material and to see how the course material relates to their own lives.
Another new teaching technique I use is what I term a constructive conversation. In one such conversation, we discussed an issue found in both Hindu and American contexts, affirmative action, and we examined the different arguments for and against each of the positions in the debates on affirmative action. We then worked together to arrive at a nuanced view that combines the strengths of each view while avoiding their weaknesses. For instance, one view we discussed is that affirmative action should take both race and wealth into consideration, while also aiming to provide various opportunities for historically marginalized groups well before the college admissions process. I have received very positive feedback on this exercise, and students have reported that they appreciate how this activity enables them to better understand various positions and to have civic conversations about difficult issues even when there are dissenting opinions by the various parties involved.
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.
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 RELG 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. I also aim 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 a student in one of my Modern Hinduism courses. This student is Asian-American, and she initially felt hesitant to contribute to group discussions. I talked with her numerous times outside of class to discuss the course material. I told her that she had several valuable insights into the topics we had discussed, and this gave her more confidence to express her views. Consequently, she participated very actively in group discussions and produced numerous insights.
Finally, 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, 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 strive to keep my course material interesting, and I am constantly thinking of new ways to captivate students so that they leave my courses feeling intellectually invigorated.
Examples of Student Comments
University of Cambridge (Supervisor):
“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.”
College of William and Mary (Visiting Assistant Professor):
“Love this class! Very good professor and great at making the material approachable! Very flexible and kind to his students. Would recommend to anyone!”
“Great class and great professor who is always available for help outside of class and is very fair in all aspects of his class.”
“Prof. Gupta's class has been a fun and rewarding time this semester, and I would be happy to take another of his classes in the future.”
“Professor Gupta is an incredibly kind, hardworking, and dedicated professor to his area of study! He is clearly super knowledgeable, and presents information on Hinduism in a manner that is accessible and engaging. He gives good feedback on assignments and lets us pursue areas that we are interested in talking about instead of having a very staunch topic/rubric for essays. I would definitely recommend taking a class with him to others!”
“Really liked this course, lot of material he covered, professor did a great job in all aspects of lecturing and teaching. Made people engaged via discussions almost every class, it was great.”