Upon hearing he had been named a recipient of the 2007 Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, Deepak Sarma first shared the exciting news at home with his wife. Then he immediately picked up the phone and called his father.
"I learned a lot about teaching from my father, who was also a college professor," said Sarma, an assistant professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University. "I learned from watching him and listening in as he taught classes of nearly 800 students and watched how he interacted with them and motivated them. I use a lot of his ideas and methods in my teaching."
Sarma has blended those ideas and methods with his own style and personal experiences to create an engaging learning environment in his classes, which focus on south Asian religions like Hinduism.
His ability to engage the students and the intellectual excitement he creates in the classroom were two assets that impressed his students and the Wittke Award selection committee.
"I was unsure how "Hinduism" would be an engaging class, but thanks to the constant energy, good humor and pure rigorous intellectualism of Professor Sarma, it became one of my favorites," said his nominator.
One of the methods Sarma's father used while teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was to tell a joke every 10 minutes. Sarma has incorporated it into his regular teaching routine and says it is a great way to keep the class focused.
"Jokes help make people relaxed and keep the flow going," he added.
The flow in Sarma's classrooms is usually constant, as he challenges students to think as deeply as they can. He does this by acting as the devil's advocate, or as he says, "planting the seed of doubt and nurturing it."
An example of his seed planting occurred in his Indian Philosophy class, with a discussion on the Yogacara school of Buddhism's argument against the theory of atoms.
"The students looked very carefully at the argument, looking at all the ins and outs," said Sarma. "They came to find that atomic theory was flawed. Students left class not entirely sure if atoms really existed, or for that matter, if anything existed outside of their minds!"
To continue challenging his students, Sarma uses a language class technique in his Indian Philosophy course that replicates the style of monastery teaching.
"We'll go around the room, with each student doing an individual reading. Then, they'll comment on the reading, or I'll ask a question about the reading, and we'll have a discussion," he said. "This puts them on the spot, but opens dialogue and gets each student to participate and involved in the discussion."
Sarma sets high expectations for his students and tries to foster clear, creative thinking and writing about controversial topics. He wants the students to think about what they believe and who they are, not just engage in an exercise where they simply look up answers in a textbook.
"Our written assignments were interesting, which is something that I find rarely happens; they required actual thought instead of mere research," said his nominator.
The Wittke award was established in 1971 in honor of Carl Wittke, a former faculty member, dean and vice president of Western Reserve University. Each year it is presented to two Case faculty members who have demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching.
"It's an honor that Case students and the members of the selection committee think that I meet the criteria they have for a good teacher," Sarma said about receiving the honor. "I try to teach and do what I believe is right and try to get students to think as deeply as they can."
Sarma earned his M.A. in religious studies and his Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from the University of Chicago. He has a B.A. in religious studies from Reed College in Portland, Ore.
He recently completed a reader in Hinduism that will go to press in September and is working on one in Indian philosophy. He is also working on a fictional novel based on his work as expert counsel for a legal case concerning insurance fraud and has the working title of The Final Sacrifice: A dead Hindu, a missing body and a $10 million insurance policy.
The Wittke Award was established in 1971 in honor of Carl Wittke, a former faculty member, dean and vice president of Western Reserve University. Each year it is presented to two Case faculty members who have demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching.
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