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  October 15, 2001

Purkayastha Encourages Students to Explore Global Perspective

It's 12:30 p.m. as students hurry into the classroom. Bandana Purkayastha, standing at her desk, waits until a few latecomers settle into their seats, before asking the class if they have any questions about upcoming assignments.

Purkayastha lowers a screen in front of the classroom and uses WebCT to click on a map of India. Today's lesson is on women's rights and immigration.

An assistant professor of sociology and Asian American studies, Purkayastha is teaching Asian Indian Women: Activism and Social Change, a course she developed that focuses on women in India and in the U.S. It examines how gender, class, race, ethnicity and caste structure the everyday lives of Asian Indian women in these societies.

"Let me go back to where we were last Tuesday," Purkayastha says to the class. "Do you have any questions?" A number of hands dart up.

Throughout the class, Purkayastha keeps the discussion moving, peppering it with charts and graphs to illustrate and reinforce points. She often stops and asks, "Do you have any questions?"

Her students appreciate that.

"She takes everything - all aspects of what we're talking about - into account and makes sure we all understand the different levels of the subject," says Sarah Peters, a seventh-semester psychology major. "She has such a large knowledge base. She's well researched and well read."

Hong Chau, a seventh semester sociology major says Purkayastha has a "strong desire to have students learn. She reaches out to students. She makes sure that if you have any problems, you contact her."

It's not surprising that Purkayastha was given an AAUP award for teaching promise this year.

Purkayastha, who holds degrees from the University of Calcutta and UMass and earned her Ph.D. from UConn in 1999, says the study of Asian Indian women is a new experience for most students who "never had to think about India, what it looks like, its people or its neighbors." Understanding this, she tries to make the subject matter alive and relevant.

One of the ways is through group discussions and presentations. Last week, for example, the class watched a video and had a short lecture on middle class and elite women who are CEOs of large companies in India. The women talked about issues that affected their lives. Another day, the class examined poor women in India and their issues. Now, the class is divided into small groups and will present case studies on the material.

Purkayastha, who also teaches classes at the Greater Hartford campus, plans to use the discussion venue on WebCT to enable students to interact with scholars from India. "A very important component of this course is to get input from scholars," she says. "When we teach about gender or activism, we frequently use theories based on U.S. or western cases." Many of these models and theories don't fit what the class is discussing about women in India, she says.

She says these discussions work well: "Students are able to ask questions, go through a lot of critical analysis and examine their own assumptions."

When Purkayastha taught the course for the first time several years ago, her students used e-mail to contact scholars in India, as WebCT was still in its early stages.

What does Purkayastha hope students will take away from her class?

"I expect them to be much more aware of what else is going on in the world," she says, "so whatever they are learning, whether it's history or something else, that there is a broader framework within which they can think about the world."

She also expects that "students will have learned to become more critical thinkers: that they'll begin to consciously understand that you can't take certain things for granted - that they'll look at an issue from completely different angles."

She says understanding a society's history is an important part of critical thinking: "You can't understand societies without a sense of what their prior histories are. 'Now' is just a snapshot in time and reflects very complicated processes that existed."

Sherry Fisher