Professor wins prestigious teaching award

Professor Shafique Virani
Monday, November 17, 2014 - 8:25am
News @ UTM

Professor Shafique N. Virani has been awarded the 2014 Excellence in Teaching Award from the American Academy of Religion. Virani is a Distinguished Professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Virani is director of the Centre for South Asian Civilizations, and past chair of the Department of Historical Studies. Virani’s research focuses on Islamic history, philosophy, Sufism, Shi‘ism (Twelver and Ismaili), and Islamic literatures in Arabic, Persian and South Asian languages.

When did you know you were gifted/called to the vocation of teaching? How would you describe your “teaching life”?

Shafique Virani: I’ve loved teaching for as long as I’ve loved learning. After all, the first person you ever teach is yourself. To me, a love of teaching and a love of learning go hand-in-hand. There’s a proverb in Latin that says, “Discendo docebis, docendo disces,” (By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn). Teaching and learning are all consuming. I’m currently translating a book called the Ethics of Muhtashim by the great medieval Muslim scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi, who writes, “There is nothing more elusive than knowledge, for knowledge does not give you aught of itself unless you give it all of yourself.” Teaching and learning are not just vocations, they are a way of life. I do not teach because it is what I do. I teach because it is who I am. I simply love teaching. My students become part of my life, and after close to two decades as a professional educator, I remain in regular contact with literally hundreds of my former students. I’m convinced that we don’t merely teach subjects and topics. We teach human beings—in all their complexity.

You mentioned in your teaching statement that you believe constant change is imperative to becoming a better teacher. What change are you currently undergoing/undertaking/exploring in your teaching?

SV: A world of possibilities has opened up with the new interactive online tools now available to us. We can reach far more students than we ever could before, and equally importantly, we can facilitate conversations among our students after they’ve left the classroom. I’m currently learning a great deal designing new classes that try to marry the best of the intimate classroom experience with the immense potential of reaching broader publics through multimedia and the internet.

What, do you believe, has been your most effective tool in reaching students?

SV: The vast majority of students in our classes are there because of their deep curiosity and interest in the area that we teach. Religion is inherently a fascinating subject. It was a sense of wonder that drew me to the study of religion in the first place, a feeling of overwhelming curiosity, particularly about questions posed by the great religions since the dawn of time—questions about justice, ethics, truth, history, and the purpose of human existence. The same search motivates our students today. The fact that students are there for the sake of learning, and not simply to fulfill some sort of academic requirement, is a huge asset. We can have no greater tool in reaching students than the fact that they are longing to learn.

What do you believe is your major contribution to the profession of teaching?

SV: It’s perhaps easier to speak of what the profession has given to me, rather than the reverse. For those who love learning, it’s a privilege and an honor to teach, because we are blessed with the opportunity, with every new class and every new student, of learning and gaining a fresh and deeper understanding of our subject.

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