News | Religious Studies class was without a professor until yesterday

TA shows movies while prof remains ill in India after conference

The students of RELG 353 – Ghandi: His Life and Thought – have been without their professor all semester, and some in the class of around 80 students are concerned that the material presented in their professor’s absence has not prepared them for the upcoming midterm.

Professor Arvind Sharma, an authority on Hinduism and the life and beliefs of Mahatma Ghandi in, was scheduled to miss the first few weeks of the semester in order to attend a conference in India, but fell ill and has, up to this point, been unable to secure a flight back to Montreal.

Ellen Aitken, Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies, wanted to assure students that despite Sharma’s prolonged absence, the course plan was being followed.

“Professor Sharma was in India for a conference the Faculty [of Religious Studies] was co-sponsoring,” said Aitken. “Suitable arrangements were made for covering the first few weeks of class.”

Lecture time, for the past five weeks, has been filled with film screenings on Hinduism and Jainism – including the feature-film Ghandi – and multiple lectures given by teaching assistant (TA) Tom Pokinko.

“We’ve had class discussions, and I asked the students to write a personal response on two aspects of the film [Ghandi],” said Pokinko, as examples of different lecture activities.

Yet some students questioned the relevancy of the material they were watching to the course as a whole.

“What are we paying for if there’s no prof? We could watch the movies on our own,” said a student in the class, who asked to remain anonymous. “The class cost $600, and $200 [a third of the semester] of that wasn’t going to anything.”

As of yesterday, Professor Katherine Young has assumed Professor Sharma’s role, a replacement Aitken said the Faculty was fortunate to secure.

“Most universities don’t have multiple professors in single subjects,” said Aitken. “We were lucky that someone like Professor Young, who is familiar with the information, was available during class time.”

Aitken also supported the instruction given by Pokinko, a PhD student in Hindu and Jain ethics, who ran the class for the first third of the semester, providing several lectures, organizing movies, and distributing assignments, all under the instruction of Sharma.

“Often grad students and TAs know the course material best, and are in the best position to follow the course plan,” Aitken said.

Pokinko added that the material presented in class was approved by the absent professor.

“I’ve been in email contact with [Professor Sharma],” said Pokinko. “He advised me to lecture on Ghandi’s life and the course outline, interspersed with various concepts relevant to the course.”

Some students said that the quality of their learning had not been affected.

“Everything was really fine,” said Emily Blake, U2 International Development Studies. “We understand why the prof has been away, and the TA has been great.”

Still, with the midterm approaching students expressed concern over the content of examinations due to the relative lack of time spent on lecture. Because RELG 353 is a high level course, students committed to majoring or minoring in Religious Studies feel particularly worried.

“A decent amount of the [students in the] class are specialized,” said the student. “For most people, it’s not just an elective.”

The midterm has since been changed to a take-home examination. Aitken believed that there has been good instruction in the course, given the circumstances, and that the course has been running as planned.

“Generally, courses gel at various points [and] many students don’t understand how various concepts fit together until a few weeks into the semester,” said Aitken. “When the professor returns, he will be able to tie the first few weeks of the course together.”


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