April 9, 2013

Prof. Toorawa: Dr. T Project Teaches Students About ‘Cool Things’

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The inspiration for “Dr. T Project: A Cornell Hitchhiker’s Guide to Culture” — a weekly meeting that teaches students about pop culture — first came about when Prof. Shawkat Toorawa, near eastern studies, tried to help students grasp new concepts in class by connecting new material to pop culture.

When students were unfamiliar with the pop culture references Toorawa made, he began to tease his students, saying he needed to teach another class, “Everything Professor Toorawa Thinks You Should Know but You Don’t.”

“It is possible to be serious and to be a scholar and be interested in things that people don’t think are serious,” Toorawa said.

Three years ago, Toorawa began the Dr.T Project. Now, every Tuesday, for precisely 26 minutes, Toorawa lectures about three cultural things he thinks students should know that day. This week’s topics were Antonio Machado, a Spanish poet, Changi, an area at the eastern end of the island of Singapore and The Parallel Lines, an album by Blondie.

“Something that is fun to do now has become a satisfying and very important thing to do,” Toorawa said when speaking about conveying general cultural knowledge to students.

Exposure to different cultures is something Toorawa is familiar with. Toorawa was born in England, but raised in France and Singapore. He went to an international school, and after graduating, he chose to move to the United States instead of taking what he said was the conventional route of going back to England to pursue his career.

“In most of the world, you have to begin a specific course. … I didn’t know how to choose where to go. I thought about it and I decided I loved literature and wanted to learn a new language. One [language] that I knew was very hard and interesting was Arabic,” Toorawa said.

When Toorwa enrolled in University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate, his advisor suggested he take intensive Arabic because he would learn the language faster. By making this decision to plunge into Arabic, Toorawa paved the path toward his future career.

Toorawa said that same advisor — who he described as an Englishman who rode his bike to school — served as a role model to him. One day Toorawa asked him, “How does someone become like you?”

His advisor’s answer was, “Major in Arabic, get a Ph.D in Arabic [and] get a job in Arabic.”

Toorawa followed his advisor’s advice, but took some detours along the way.

Toorawa went to college in 1981 and left school 16 years later. While trying to complete his Ph.D, he went back and forth between the U.S. and Mauritius Island, where his family lived.

He taught in the only university in Mauritius Island until 2000, when he returned to the U.S. for his job interview with Cornell.

At Cornell, he was hired to teach Arabic literature, his dream job. Toorawa teaches courses such as NES 6723: The Arabian Nights: Then and Now and NES 4727: New York, Paris, Baghdad: Poetry of the City.

Toorawa said he encourages others to assume a teaching role in the Dr. T Project. Toorawa says students, graduate students and faculty can also share three interesting things on Tuesdays, adding that President David Skorton has been a guest in his series.

“This is not about me or things I think are important; it is about someone who says these are cool things,” Toorawa said.

Original Author: Lucy Mehrabyan