Distinguished Teaching Award
"A good professor is one who can inspire students' interest in the subject," according to Fulbright Scholar April Fehling. "A great professor is one who can inspire to move beyond the classroom." She was talking about Professor Priti Ramamurthy, who teaches about gender, race, culture, and socio-economics in the women studies department.
Moving beyond the classroom is what Ramamurthy's teaching is all about. She tries to show her students that they are part of an interconnected world. "I try to get them to see how the headlines are connected to their own lives. Then we can become global citizens. It is the job of a university to prepare students to become global citizens," she says.
Ramamurthy insists that her students "consider a global, transnational perspective on the issues they take up," says Judith Howard, department chair. "Many speak of their transformed worldviews."
A stack of nomination letters for the Distinguished Teacher Award attests to Ramamurthy's ability to open her students' eyes. Fehling, who praises other UW professors, nonetheless says, "None has had the power to inspire me and transform my perspective upon my society and my place within it as Dr. Priti Ramamurthy."
Although her students hail from different backgrounds, "Professor Ramamurthy's devotion to scholarship and openness to multiple perspectives makes the classroom mix into a real advantage," says Nancy Kenney, associate professor of psychology and women studies. "The topics covered in her courses are not inherently glitzy or entertaining. ... But Priti helps students see the relationship between their shopping at a local mall and the lives of women and children in the most remote regions of the Asian sub-continent."
Former student Danielle Hayashi says that a class of Ramamurthy's "was one of the most challenging classes I have taken at this university, not only because it was a heavy workload but, more important, because it required me to question and reflect upon my understanding of the world and my position in it."
"Learning is not a passive project in Priti's classroom," says graduate student Serena Maurer. "Students have been particularly responsive to Priti's technique of situating conflicting theoretical approaches against each other."
Ramamurthy says she tries to help students understand that the theories they are learning are common sense, and that they themselves are intelligent and can develop their own theories to explain the world. "They're part of the system," she says. "I try to make them acknowledge that being a part of it makes them both privileged and responsible."
Ramamurthy grew up in an urban, middle-class family in India. Her mother taught in the school she attended, which was very different from typical Indian schools, she says. "We were taught to be creative and to question authority. We weren't groomed just to take exams." After high school she spent six months as a volunteer working for a United Nations development project to give food and nutritional aid to women and children in poor villages. "I went from hut to hut trying to judge how well the program was working. It was the first time I'd been in the villages," she remembers. "That was an absolutely critical experience. It changed the way I thought and brought home to me how important social science work could be."
After finishing a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's in management, she worked as a manager in an Indian government agency. But a fellowship to study in the United States steered her in a different direction. She discovered she loved course work and research. Soon she was working on a Ph.D. at Syracuse University in interdisciplinary subjects. As a graduate student she taught several courses and found she also loved teaching. "I became a teacher through serendipity. I never thought I'd go into it," she laughs. "It's a terrific privilege that I can teach and do research as well."
She returns to India today to work on economic development projects for women.
Oftentimes the connections Ramamurthy is trying to show students don't sink in immediately. But weeks later, or sometimes years, something happens that makes all the pieces fall into place. "I'm always amazed and thrilled when students come back and say they finally got something. There's this excitement at them arriving at the point themselves," she says. "We can only do so much in the classroom. What I'm trying to do is give students the tools to continue this work on their own."
Ramamurthy praises the quality of students at the UW. "They're very bright and eager to learn," she says. "And if you show them how they are capable of learning and being creative and responsible intellectuals, they always respond."Beth Luce