Teacher, storyteller, optimist

July 27, 2020 | Arts & Culture, Campus Life

Neeraj Prakash, sessional faculty member in the Department of English, received the Distinguished Teaching Award in recognition of his commitment to teaching students in English and comparative literature courses, as well as helping vulnerable students reach their potential through the innovative University 101/102 courses.

"In its highest aspiration, the teaching of English is simply the busy work of the fostering of empathy," he says.

Neeraj has a background in classical and comparative literature, and a specialized focus on Indian Sastra texts, depictions of the postcolonial experience and South Asian diasporic literature. He is dedicated to innovative teaching practices that underscore inclusive, empathy-based learning.

Here he digs into his love for teaching and why he is awestruck by his colleagues.

MacEwan University’s Distinguished Teaching Awards recognize outstanding faculty members who have shown extraordinary commitment to teaching and have inspired their students and colleagues. Watch for the 2020 award winners' profiles throughout July and August: Tanya Heuver (assistant professor, nursing practice), Dr. Samuel Mugo (associate professor, physical sciences), Neeraj Prakash (sessional faculty member, English) and Dr. Andrea Wagner (assistant professor, political science).

Q.What inspired you to study English?

When two people meet, whether they be friends or strangers, seldom do they ask for facts and figures. They do not ask how tall you are, or what colour your eyes are, or about your BMI. No, instead they ask for stories. What happened? How did you do that? What is your favourite?

Stories are what bind people together, and they are what we use to find common ground and common destinations. Stories are the invisible adhesive of friends, families, communities and nations, and, once we finally figure it all out, they might just turn out to be the very thing that binds us and reminds us of our common humanity and destiny. I was not so much inspired to study English, but rather was compelled to try to understand why we tell stories and how these carefully formed products of our imagination might just save us all. To this day, I remain foolishly optimistic. Ask me why one day, I’ll tell you a story.

Q.What is your favourite course to teach, and why?

While I love the challenge of introducing students to the various literature that emerges out of disparate cultures in my comparative literature courses, I find that introductory courses such as English 102 and 103 always end up being my favourites. I suppose it has less to do with the material than it does with the students. Most students who enter these courses arrive straight out of high school, and they come with a curious admixture of fear, excitement, ambition and naivety.

What you soon realize as you are teaching students why a sustained argument is elegant, or why a well-placed comma is art, or how a text is as much a mirror as it is a window, is that you are introducing them to a wider culture of learning, and about the joy of discovery. What you soon realize as you are reciting Shakespeare or sailing along with Odysseus, is that you are inviting your students to participate in a much broader and inclusive world than the one they may have known.

 University 101/102 also began with the premise that everybody needs a little help every now and then, and that by supporting students who may have complex needs, we could help them find their way.
—Neeraj Prakash

Q.What does a student have to do to impress you?

One day, and quite out of the blue, a student asked me what I most hate in the world. Without missing a beat, I replied, "apathy." I find it curious not to be curious, and rather boring to be bored. However, it has never really bothered me if a student doesn't love the study of English as I do, nor does it bother me that they may not get as excited by turning the pages of a book when others do. In fact, for some students, English is just a necessary chore, a speed bump that they must overcome to get to where they are really headed. As for me, I have often joked that teaching English is a bit like selling coffins — no one really wants one, everyone eventually needs one, but by then it may be too late. I know it's a hard game.

That said, the only thing that impresses me, and continues to do so, is when a student allows themselves to be engaged, when they participate meaningfully, when they give themselves the opportunity to surprise themselves, and, no matter the skill level or outcome, when they are actively present.

Q.How do the University 101/102 courses help vulnerable students? Do you have any words of encouragement for those students?

Sometimes it is easy to forget our own formative years, but for many of us the life we were born into was hard, complex, confusing and sometimes without advantage. Perhaps it still is. For some students, the hardest thing to learn is their own capacity, and a way to find balance and confidence in school and in life.

University 101/102 began with the premise that the inability to succeed in school very often has little to do with intellect, but more to do with some unseen complexity whether it be personal, familial or social. It also began with the premise that everybody needs a little help every now and then, and that by supporting students who may have complex needs, we could help them find their way. With this in mind, University 101/102 was created to identify the skills that many of us take for granted, skills such as time management, self-care and effective study techniques, and present them to our students in the context of understanding and support. It has been my pleasure to work with many students over the past few years in this highly successful program, and a greater pleasure to watch so many of these students discover their own resilience and strength.

If I were to condense my advice down to a few words, they would be these: The first subject you should study in any program is yourself. Find out who you are, what you love and what talents are yours alone. Find your reason, and those who can help you give it a name. Then surround yourself with people who will encourage you to share it with the world.

Q.What is your teaching philosophy?

Three things, all best stated by the poet Rabindranath Tagore:

  1. "Don't limit a child to your own understanding, because [s]he was born at a different time."

  2. "The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence."

  3. "The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life."

Q.Any final thoughts?

I cannot help but think of the context in which this very wonderful honour has been given and received. I have watched with wonder as my colleagues have scrambled to change the medium of their instruction at the speed of necessity, yet never once lost sight of the students they serve. I have been awestruck how necessity is truly the mother of invention, and just how inventive my colleagues have been in creating challenging and rewarding courses in these new realities. I suppose my final thought is simply that while recognition has fallen on me this time, it’s really not that hard to be at least good when those around me consistently inspire me to be better.



2020 Distinguished Teaching Award recipients

“Teaching award winners, recognized by their colleagues after having been acknowledged by their students themselves, represent so much of that to which we all aspire as faculty members here.”


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