International Exchange of Faculty Enriches Global Classroom Experience

Visiting professors from India bring worldly perspective of their disciplines

November 7, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — An international exchange program between The College of Wooster and a university in India has brought a pair of faculty members to campus, and their presence is enriching the learning experience for students in the classroom.

Bodh Prakash and Sucheta Mahajan joined Wooster’s faculty for the fall semester as part of an exchange with Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) that is designed to provide faculty and students with more globalized education opportunities.

Though the program usually only hosts professors for two-week periods, Wooster’s history department used a leave replacement this year in order to sponsor Mahajan for an entire semester. Meanwhile, the South Asian studies program and the English Department are hosting Prakash for the semester.

“They are both outgoing and eager to engage with Wooster students and faculty,” said Peter Pozefsky, professor of history at Wooster who was part of the faculty exchange planning committee. “They also have a lot of experience in individualized instruction and one-on-one student faculty interactions, which are at the foundation of a Wooster education.”

Mahajan, a scholar of partition politics and nationalist policy at JNU, has come to Wooster as the Gillespie Visiting Professor of History. During her one-semester stay, she is teaching “History of Modern India” and “Nationalism in the Modern World.”

Prakash is teaching “Modern Indian Cinema and Literature After 1947.” He is a member of the English faculty at Zakir Husain College of Delhi University, where he teaches partition narrative and comparative literature courses. Zakir Husain College is located in the heart of Delhi’s historic Muslim community, and has a special mission to bring together students from India’s diverse religious traditions.

The two professors are also husband and wife, and will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary next year. They met while taking a French-language course together in college. The couple has enjoyed the time in Wooster so far, citing the hospitality of students and faculty as a particular high point.

“I was impressed by the ease with which one slips into being a faculty member here,” said Mahajan. “The faculty have made it so easy to fit in, especially for somebody who would be here for a short while.”

“The experience has been extremely positive,” said Prakash. “Our colleagues have gone out of their way to make us feel comfortable.”

Students have also helped the professors feel at home, both in and out of the classroom. Mahajan described some plucky undergraduates who volunteered to help her practice driving a car in America, which is the opposite side of the road from India. “They kind of risked their lives to sit in the front seat with somebody who doesn’t know where to go,” she joked.

The couple’s journey to America technically began several years ago when the Wooster committee, led by Interim Provost (and current physics professor) Shila Garg, first visited JNU to discuss student study-abroad opportunities. The group entered into dialogue with JNU staff and faculty, including Mahajan, and eventually established the COW-JNU faculty exchange. The two institutions signed a “Memorandum of Understanding,” in which they expressed hope for “cooperation and collaboration in the future.” Next semester, Madonna Hettinger, professor of history at Wooster, will trade places with JNU professor Rajat Datta. The two will teach each other’s classes for two weeks.

“I think for me, the reason I came here was as much an interest in trying to see how different the responses of Wooster students are to the same issues [in comparison to] my work back home,” said Mahajan. “There have been some very new and original ways of looking at [these topics] which come up occasionally and are very exciting.”

Mahajan cites a specific moment during a history lecture on whether Mahatma Gandhi should have called off a particular nationalist movement. One Wooster student posed a question she’d never thought of before, asking “‘Why are we only looking at what was critical of Gandhi? Why aren’t we critical of the nationalist leaders?’ Now this is a question… that wouldn’t arise in my mind,” she said. “When you’re an insider like that, you take so much for granted, and you only question so much. Whereas when you come from an outside perspective, you can question everything.”

These kinds of moments are what Pozefsky hopes will flourish as a result of the faculty exchange program. “Some of this learning about India has come in the classroom, but the interactions that faculty and students have with Bodh and Sucheta outside the classroom are no less significant,” he said. “Learning about other cultures is an exciting, challenging, and necessary part of a College education, and when our faculty learn, it increases opportunities for students as well.”

- Written by Lee McKinstry ‘13