Understanding politics hinges on recognizing diversity and becoming more inclusive in the classroom in how we talk about it.

Soundarya Chidambaram

"Diversity is an issue that arises almost by default when discussing politics, especially in my specialization of comparative politics," says Professor Soundarya Chidambaram, political science. "We're examining a variety of people and cultures as we compare political systems and policies."

For example, Chidambaram says, looking at the health-care systems of her home country of India and a nation like Canada means going beyond comparing countries at face value, such as their locations on a map or the ethnicites of their people. It's looking at how the two governments relate to their citizens — their basic political issues, urban politics and how they deliver government services.

"We're looking at questions like: Is a health-care policy good or bad? Will it work?" Chidambaram says. "It's hard to answer that kind of question without having a frame of reference — is it good compared to what? What kind of indicators will show us that it's working? To find those answers, we need to look at not only similar policies, but also similar political systems."

Chidambaram strongly encourages her students to embrace discussion of these issues and many others for the purposes of class discussion as well as life beyond campus.

"We live in an increasingly polarized political sphere, so I try to equip them to deal with issues of diversity and become responsible global citizens," she says. "Students don't attend college just to get good jobs. They're also here to create interpersonal relationships. And people, not just students but also professionals, travel so much these days that they need to know how to engage with people and cultures outside of their own."

Encouraging and facilitating discussion during class is a pillar of Chidambaram's approach to teaching. It's one she derived from her education in India, where the classroom dynamic was very different.

"There is a big difference in classroom culture in India. Students aren't on a first-name basis with professors, and they don't have a lot of access to them outside the classroom. There's even a feeling that a student isn't free to share their mind," she explains. "I approach instruction in the opposite way, not the least of which is being very available to my students outside of class and encouraging debate and discussion. My idea is that students shouldn't feel scared about sharing or engaging — we do it fearlessly, to create a comfortable learning environment for each other."

Posted Oct. 6, 2017

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