Individuality promoted in class by professor

by Rob Kuznia

To alleviate the perils of student apathy, Varghese Mathai says it is important for students to mentally take themselves out of the structured setting of a classroom and into a larger, more powerful whole: nature.
In order to encourage deeper thinking in the classroom, Mathai, a teaching consultant at the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, orates reflections to his class before the day’s lesson.
In one story, titled “The Day After the Los Angeles Earthquake,” Mathai alludes to civilization’s vulnerability to natural disasters.
“If geology is right, our houses are clutching on to the mere surface crust of our planet, over the shifting plates which rip the crust which crumbles my house, my calendar possibly holds an unmarked day for a rude awakening,” he says in this reflection.
The stories have always been popular among his students, and as a result, Mathai has continued to produce and deliver them.
“His daily reflections got people really interested in the daily topics they corresponded to, and people spoke up more in class as a result,” said Mark Trescott, a former literature student of Mathai and current graduate student.
Trescott said Mathai’s talent for deep thinking is astounding, and that as Mathai uses his own talent in teaching, so does he encourage his students to use theirs in learning.
“On the first day of class,” said Mathai, “I make sure to take note of not only everybody’s name, but also each of their talents and majors, so their assignments on the poems, short stories and novels we read can be in sync with each individual’s own perspective.”
This approach enhances the interest levels of those who otherwise might not have a vested interest in literature, and leads to a more dialogue-based — or student-involved — classroom setting, he said.
Mathai doesn’t necessarily give everyone in the class the same assignments for the same readings. For example, he might ask a psychology major to discuss the psychological disposition of a character in a Hemingway short story, whereas he might ask a theater major to act out a scene from the story.
“This approach is more personal than dogmatic,”” Mathai pointed out, adding that asking everyone to look at each piece of writing in the same way is to forget about the individualized filters through which every person views the world and any piece of literature.
Mathai said this personalized feel is necessary for a more dialogue-based classroom setting, which, he tells his students, is desirable in any discipline.
At the center, Mathai’s students are students of teaching, he said, not literature. But his methods of teaching still apply to all subjects, ranging from literature to math. In fact, Mathai takes measures to minimize the math-literature distinctions people tend to make. For instance, sometimes prospective math teaching assistants forget that math can be taught in a discussion-based setting, he said.
The center’s staff co-director, Joyce Weinsheimer, said Mathai’s ability to teach in a manner that is both creative and pragmatically effective makes him well-suited for the center.
“The Center’s philosophy resembles his own style in how our service is based more on personalized, specific problems teachers are having,”she said. “When teachers call us, we ask them what they want us to look for, which is different than employing observers to walk into classrooms with checklists.”