Distinguished teacher Amrita Pande’s classroom is her theatre

17 August 2020 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photos Je’nine May. Read time >10 min.
Educator-performer Assoc Prof Amrita Pande is one of four recipients of the 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award.
Educator-performer Assoc Prof Amrita Pande is one of four recipients of the 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award.

A sought-after supervisor, an active researcher and a highly skilled teacher; a leader on administrative matters in the Faculty of Humanities and the co-head of the Department of Sociology; a mother of two, juggling remote teaching while homeschooling her children during lockdown – these are just some of the many roles of Associate Professor Amrita Pande.

Pande has been recognised for her outstanding teaching and contribution to the promotion of teaching-and-learning excellence at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She is one of four recipients of the 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), alongside Professor Andrew Argent, Dr Tessa Dowling and Associate Professor Romy Parker.

When Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng announced the 2019 recipients of the DTAs to the university, she included a list of the DTA Committee’s many reasons for awarding Pande:

  • her demonstrating “excellence in both undergraduate, postgraduate and large-class teaching, often exceeding teaching load requirements”
  • an “unyielding pursuit to provide access and resources to all students”
  • her “practices of inclusivity and the importance and value with which she treats all students”
  • “going above and beyond to support students to meet their academic goals and even mentoring them beyond graduation”
  • her “humanity and openness”
  • being “renowned for imparting complex material in accessible ways”
  • the “range of pedagogical strategies that she uses to make content come alive, including theatre of the oppressed and participatory workshops in large classes to foster critical thinking and analytical skills”.

UCT News caught up with Pande to find out more about her teaching style, her relationship with her students, her research, how she’s feeling about the DTA and how this educator-performer turns her classroom into a theatre where the audience is always engaged and included.

 Amrita Pande
Assoc Prof Amrita Pande said the years since 2015 have been formative for all South African academics.

Carla Bernardo (CB): Please provide a brief history of yourself and your role at UCT.

Amrita Pande (AP): I grew up in India with all the privileges of being raised in an academic family, surrounded by books and debates. My master’s degree in economics was from one of the most celebrated economics universities in the country, but the pedagogy and curriculum in this highly efficient, yet eerily apolitical setting, killed my love for the discipline of economics and I sought refuge in sociology. My PhD on transnational surrogacy (paid pregnancy), made possible by a generous fellowship to a public university in the United States, was a life-changing experience. The move from a highly inflexible university in India to one of the most creative public universities in the “valley” exposed me to the mentorship of some of the most radical minds. I moved from this academic cocoon to a diametrically opposite space and conducted my postdoctoral research with African migrant domestic workers in Tripoli, Lebanon. In 2010 I started as a lecturer at UCT.

CB: What do you teach and to whom?

AP: I have taught several undergraduate and postgraduate courses, but the courses I am attached to are the ones that I have convened and altered significantly. Culture and society in the 21st century is a course I enjoyed teaching tremendously. In this course, we ask one key question: Does ‘new’ always mean change, challenge and subversions? Do new technologies challenge or reaffirm existing structures of power? Another one of my favourites is a second-year Sociology of race, class and gender course, where we grapple with the tool of intersectionality and its criticisms. At the postgraduate level, I have taught and convened several courses, but once again I am partial to one: Sociology of gender and globalisation where I invite students to completely overturn mainstream theories around globalisation and focus not so much on global processes and transnational flows, but how they have always intersected with the most intimate of relations – those around gender and sexuality.

CB: How large are your classes?

AP: My undergraduate classes are usually over 200 and my postgraduate classes are anywhere between 20 and 30.

 

“What I enjoy most about teaching is the drama, the unexpected and the joy of everyday classroom interactions.”

CB: What are the best parts of teaching? And is there anything you don’t enjoy?

AP: The pandemic and the move to remote teaching has made me appreciate the classroom setting and my students even more. What I enjoy most about teaching is the drama, the unexpected and the joy of everyday classroom interactions.

CB: What, in your view, makes a good teacher?

AP: Passion for your subject. If you are not enthusiastic about what you are reading and teaching, I doubt you can make 200 students in the classroom look up from their smartphones. Empathy, humility, and the desire to listen, be challenged and engage in dialogue. And given our expanding class sizes, an ability to perform and have a sense of humour!

CB: How would you describe your teaching style?

AP: In all my classes, I attempt to bring in my transdisciplinary research and training, as well as interactive theatre and laughter into the classroom. My research specialisation is in globalisation and the intimate, wherein I connect insights from medical anthropology, science and technology in society and bioethics to feminist philosophy. My research method, and as an extension my teaching practices, are multimodal. For instance, my first academic monograph (Wombs in Labor: Transnational commercial surrogacy in India) is an ethnography of paid pregnancy in India. But apart from the usual lecture and conference settings, I also perform the research as an interactive multimedia show (Made in India: Notes from a babyfarm). This unique opportunity to embody and present my academic research has allowed me to reconceptualise pedagogies and publics. In my attempts to make a class of 200 a participatory space, I combine a few strategies, use of media and technology, allowing space for humour and discussions, and using social media to connect our everyday to the readings.

 

“I will not feign expertise on decoloniality; I am still trying to grasp the enormity of this social and political project we have embarked upon as a collective.”

CB: What are the main challenges of teaching your subject at a university level?

AP: Sociology supports a substantial proportion of the entire Humanities undergraduate student body. It is also popular with students outside the faculty, semester-abroad students and as a ‘filler’ for many. I suppose the draw, as well as the peril of learning and teaching sociology, is that it is often assumed to be common sense, yet the concepts and tools that we unpack together in a sociology classroom are indispensable, regardless of your specialisation. Our numbers are huge, routinely [more than] 750 in the first year. At an empirical level, this brings out the dilemma of attempting participatory and experiential pedagogies. How does one effectively decolonise such a classroom? How do we ensure that no one feels alienated by the classroom, the curriculum and the pedagogy, when it’s hard to even make eye contact with all students?

CB: How has your relationship with your students, teaching style or subject matter changed over time?

AP: The years since 2015 have been formative for all South African academics. I will not feign expertise on decoloniality; I am still trying to grasp the enormity of this social and political project we have embarked upon as a collective. It is both exhilarating and daunting and has urged us all to think outside our comfort zones. The transdisciplinary and transcontinental spaces I have inhabited have informed not just my teaching style [and] subject matter, but my personal, my political and my being. I am grateful for these opportunities, but I also want to learn from the urgency of the current moment to use the toolkit I have accumulated to grapple with the historically specific challenges of South Africa, the place I currently call home.

CB: How have you and your students been coping with teaching and learning in lockdown and how has this shaped you as a teacher?

AP: It is impossible to respond to this question in a few sentences. But yes, the pandemic and the push to remote teaching has shaken to the core any assumptions we ever made about a student body. The term ‘digital divide’ cannot even start capturing the magnitude of this divide. What the pandemic makes clear is that even in ‘normal’ times what students need is a supportive and flexible learning process and formative assessments that constantly keep these different realities at the core.

 

“It is such a pleasure and privilege to be nominated by students and then recognised for teaching contributions.”

CB: In terms of research and publications, what are you currently working on and what is the importance of this work?

AP: I am currently working on two related projects: a monograph on global fertility flows of eggs, sperms, embryos and wombs connecting the world in unexpected ways, and an edited volume that analyses the world of selective reproduction – the politics of who gets to legitimately reproduce the future – through a comparative analysis of three modes of controlling birth, namely contraception, reproductive violence, and assisted reproductive technologies. The third project is another edited volume (with colleagues Dr Ruchi Chaturvedi and Dr Shari Daya) where we grapple with the messy project of decolonising knowledge by locating UCT in the postcolonial higher education landscape.

CB: Finally, what is the importance of this kind of recognition (DTA) to teaching staff?

AP: We are all fine tuned to celebrate the ‘publish or perish’ norm. It is such a pleasure and privilege to be nominated by students and then recognised for teaching contributions. The call from Deputy Vice-Chancellor [Associate Professor] Lis Lange was definitely the best thing that happened to me this (otherwise rather dismal) year!


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Distinguished Teacher Award

 

The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.

Read more about the award.

 

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