Bipasha BaruahWestern Arts & Humanities

Teaching Philosophy

Conron Hall

I have always considered teaching a privilege. I have also always been cognizant that the privilege to teach comes with a high level of responsibility. I am enthusiastic about teaching at Western University because I am impressed with the institution’s explicit public mandate for inclusive and transformative education as well as its commitment to interdisciplinarity, internationalization and research intensiveness. I have taught a wide range of courses and enjoyed a variety of teaching formats over the course of my academic career - from the largely lecture-driven junior undergraduate courses to the more advanced senior undergraduate and graduate seminars and writing-intensive courses. Although I have taught a range of courses at Western and California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) in the last 10 years, the following principles remain central and consistent in all my teaching.

Globalizing the curriculum

First, regardless of whether I am teaching courses in women’s studies, geography or international studies, I always globalize my curriculum in a way that motivates students to leave the comforts and pre-conceived notions of their own experiences to engage with new paradigms of development; progress; democracy; social, environmental and gender justice. 

Promoting interdisciplinary thinking

Second, I actively promote interdisciplinary thinking in my courses, but I also emphasize that interdisciplinary scholarship does not allow one to run amok through different disciplines. Rather, it offers new and interesting domains within which to pose questions, express doubt and to produce knowledge. In order to enable students to engage with a wide range of perspectives on a topic, I include material in my courses produced by professional researchers, academic and non-academic authors, filmmakers, activists, journalists and other professionals who belong not just to different disciplines and schools of thought but who also align themselves politically and philosophically with different countries or contexts of the global North and South. Thus, my students are able to analyze Thomas Friedman’s glib pronouncements about the “flatness” of the world and Vandana Shiva’s trenchant criticisms of globalization in the same course. They watch environmental activists, Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar, describe in painstaking detail the costs inflicted upon indigenous populations by building large dams in developing countries in the documentary Dam/Age while simultaneously reading about the Bretton Woods institutions’ continued bankrolling of such projects in courses on global gender and environmental issues.

Reconciling theory with practice

Third, I always aim to link knowledge with action and to reconcile theory with practice. While teaching case studies of diverse contemporary issues such as unequal development, environmental degradation, technological advancement, rapid economic growth and HIV/AIDS in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, I always ask students to engage with and deconstruct the historical and political sub-texts that may contribute towards such contradictory trends as well as to critique the effectiveness of policy interventions proposed to address them. The gender studies, international development and environmental issues courses I teach are informed by the needs and interests of future scholars of gender, international development and environmental studies as well as practitioners who hope to engage in research, policy formulation, project design and implementation. By sharing case studies of my own work experience, as well as those of friends and colleagues, I attempt to impress upon students the complexities inherent in integrating and reconciling theory and practice. Fourth, through my teaching I attempt to cater to the needs and interests of students from a wide range of knowledge levels, abilities and interests. Because the courses I teach are interdisciplinary, they invariably attract students from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines and skill levels: the student who cannot point to Sri Lanka on a world map will almost inevitably be in the same class as the student who has already taken multiple courses on South Asian history, geography and politics; the student who is taking the Gender, Justice, Change course solely because it fits their constraints of a Wednesday afternoon school schedule is likely to be sitting right behind the student who has already been in multiple study-abroad courses and is actively planning for a career in the Canadian foreign service. The challenge in such classes is retaining the interest and enthusiasm of the latter student without overwhelming the former. I try to optimize student learning through the use of course readings, lectures, films, case studies, guest speakers, group projects, panel presentations, debates as well as written and oral participation. If class size permits, I also attempt to make assignments flexible enough to provide individual students with the opportunity to relate the content of the courses to their specific areas of interest and concentration.

Integrating my research

I actively integrate my research and publications (on gender and development, urban poverty, microfinance, etc.) into my teaching. I find that doing this not only enables students to gain an appreciation for the challenges and opportunities of conducting policy-focused research but it also enables them to sharpen their critical and analytical abilities. I encourage students to provide feedback on my research as a means to develop their abilities to constructively criticize the work of their peers as well as “experts” in gender studies and international development. My undergraduate courses attract a substantial number of students with very limited background in international development or global studies. For example, I have taught students from marketing, organizational studies, graphic design, social work, and health and nutrition on a regular basis. I discovered that my attempts to teach constructive criticism and respectful debate were working when, among other examples, a marketing major wrote an enthusiastic paper about the potential for scaling up microcredit as a means for poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa while very respectfully and methodically dissecting and disagreeing with my very contradictory findings on the topic from a peer-reviewed paper that I had assigned as a reading for that course. I’m happy to note that the student earned a well-deserved A on the assignment and the course!

Challenging my students

Finally, I believe that learning should be a space of partial unease: if students were to complete every task assigned to them with ease, they would be at a level lower than their actual competence. It has been my experience that students rise to the level of expectations placed on them. I set my expectations high because I know students are capable of meeting them.