South Asia Center graduate student assistant Karishma Manglani recently spoke with JSIS South Asia Studies MA alum Rachel Heilman, a social studies teacher at Issaquah High School. With the support of the South Asia Center’s National Resource Center grant and guidance from Sunila Kale (Associate Professor of International Studies), Heilman designed a new high school course, India and South Asia: From Area Studies to Ethnic Studies. The course will be offered at Issaquah in 2022-23, and SAC has made the course materials publicly available as a resource for other teachers.
Read more below on Heilman’s experience working with the Center to design the course and reflections on her career path.
KM: What inspired you to design this course?
RH: I’ve had it in my head to design a course something like this one (India & South Asia: From Area Studies to Ethnic Studies) for over 20 years — I started teaching way back in 2000. Initially it was just that once I began working in education I realized that most high school teachers have expertise in American and/or Western European history, so World History courses could really vary in quality. You can’t be an expert in everything and teacher preparation programs don’t always put enough emphasis on content expertise. So, I felt that opportunities to build that expertise were important for teachers in general and me in particular. Teachers are either required to earn an MA or you simply need to in order to move up the pay scale, depending on the district. I thought that by pursuing an MA that would help me develop some specialization in content it would make me a better teacher and it would also provide an opportunity to deepen student engagement in any global studies course I taught. I also hoped to create an elective that offered more depth in an area outside of U.S. History. I was already studying Kathak and as much Indian folkloric dance as I could find, so choosing South Asia for my own area of focus made a lot of sense for me personally. For my students, I knew that South Asia was an area they should have some deeper knowledge of because of global politics and economics.
What do you hope your students get out of the course?
Twenty years later I still believe that the content knowledge students will gain in this course is essential — South Asian achievements in culture and science have shaped our world and will continue to do so, India provides an important mirror as we think about democracy, the U.S. has a significant amount of political and military engagement in the region, the impacts of climate change and human rights can’t be ignored, and the list could go on!
Where I have expanded my thinking based on a couple of decades of experience is into the construction of knowledge — how do we know what we think we know? Why do we know some things and not others? The South Asia Studies program at UW enabled me to spend a lot of time thinking about how interdisciplinary work is essential for true understanding and also how important the application of knowledge is. I’ve very deliberately constructed this course to guide students into explicitly thinking about these topics. K-12 Social Studies education is also moving in that direction, which I’ve enjoyed talking through with my colleagues. I’ve been incredibly lucky that administrators in Issaquah School District, where I work, have been fully supportive of offering this elective. The Issaquah High School Social Studies Department is made up of passionate and collaborative educators. From promoting the course to encouraging me and signing off on resources needed to offer it, they have been amazing.
South Asian achievements in culture and science have shaped our world and will continue to do so, India provides an important mirror as we think about democracy, the U.S. has a significant amount of political and military engagement in the region, the impacts of climate change and human rights can’t be ignored, and the list could go on!
How does this course differ from a “typical” high school course on South Asian History?
To start, there is no high school course on South Asian History that I’ve encountered, typical or not! A World History course may touch on the Indus River Valley Civilization and will perhaps mention Asoka or the Guptas. Even Mohandas Gandhi doesn’t get much depth most of the time and Partition my be briefly mentioned. A lot of the allocation of attention in a World History class depends on the individual teacher’s interests or how the state curriculum has placed emphasis. Depending on the state and whether or not students take AP Human Geography there may or may not be exposure to South Asian geography of some sort. Perhaps some literature will show up at some point or perhaps a world religions course will be available as an elective.
This course offers an opportunity to look at both South Asian geography and history with some depth, which is both exciting and unique in the high school experience!
What was the process like working with UW South Asia Center and Sunila Kale?
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the guidance and assistance of the South Asia Center. I wouldn’t even have known I could apply for the grant if Nick hadn’t pointed me in the right direction! Sunila has been extremely generous with her time. Her suggestions have helped me shape this course practically — from thinking through how titling the course might affect enrollment to finding resources to support lessons I was working on to giving me feedback on the lessons themselves. She also helped me shape my approach to the content and talked through some of the complex ideas like Indian nationalist movements with me to ensure I am representing things accurately and effectively. All of my communications with the South Asia Center have made me feel like a welcome part of an educational mission, not just an outreach box to be checked off. That isn’t something to be taken for granted!
How did you select materials and activities?
Often school systems don’t have enough money to cover materials for core courses, so it was important to me not to make expense a barrier to implementing an elective like this one. Happily Education About Asia gave me permission to use their articles as part of the course. Sunila guided me towards a number of resources to include as options in case at some point I am able to add in a text or readings (or so that the course can be leveled up). I also have some experience developing a South Asia course for Columbia College, so a few years earlier I had spent a good bit of time going through available texts focused on the region.
Although my MA is in South Asia Studies, I have spent a lot of time both formally and informally engaged in professional development as an educator. So I drew all of that training and experience together to create lessons that use a lot of different strategies. Hopefully that translates to an engaging course that supports important academic skill-building.
The course has a good level of rigor for high school juniors or seniors, but it does not require homework. With a heavy workload for their core classes I wanted to be sure students could take the course without workload outside of class as stopping them from signing up.
Why is it important for there to be a South Asia course at Issaquah?
Ideally all high school students would have opportunities to study topics within the realm of Social Studies in an interdisciplinary, deep-dive sort of way. I think regional area studies provide an excellent way to go about that. And of course South Asia is an influential region that all students can benefit from studying. Issaquah School District does have a relatively high population of students with South Asian heritage, though, which makes it particularly essential as an offering here. Academic study of your own heritage is part of being represented in a school system! Also, strong communities require shared understanding of the diverse cultures and histories that shape it.
Ideally all high school students would have opportunities to study topics within the realm of Social Studies in an interdisciplinary, deep-dive sort of way. I think regional area studies provide an excellent way to go about that.
You’re an alum of the South Asia Studies MA program. What were some highlights of your time here?
I can’t say it strongly enough — I am a more educated person, a more effective citizen of the world, and a much better educator for having earned my MA in the South Asia Studies program at UW. I love learning and found my studies inherently rewarding. Being on campus full time meant that I could benefit from everything UW has to offer, including talks through the School of Education (I even got to take a class with Dr. James Banks!).
My peers were amazing. They are such a diverse group with so many different areas of interest that not only was I learning formally in my classes, I was gaining a lot from all of the little conversations and major nerdy discussions we were having (and still have).
What were your areas of interest/research? Which languages did you study?
Because of the intense and sustained nature of language study I spent a lot of time with Heidi [Pauwels] Ji studying Hindi and Jameel [Ahmad] Sahib studying Urdu. I don’t have a naturally poetic soul, but Jameel Sahib’s enthusiasm led me to having (attempted to) read more Urdu poetry than I ever have in English and I still use what I learned from Heidi Ji’s Many Ramayanas course when I teach about cultural diffusion. Purnima Dhavan‘s course on Mughal history stands out in my memory because she taught about the construction of history, not just what a textbook or professor says is what happened. I think the ideas she set to cooking in my head back in 2006 are in part responsible for some of the focus in this new course I’ve developed.
My thesis was based on examining the effects of private, English-medium education on India’s education system. When I had entered the program my intent was to investigate how education creates and sustains democracies (or doesn’t). I actually read Leela Fernandes‘ book India’s New Middle Class from cover to cover as part of my research, so I’m so excited to see she is now at UW!
I was lucky to overlap with Craig Jeffrey and Jane Dyson’s time at UW. Their interests in youth culture, education, and the way different groups are created within a society intersected with mine in a way that was fantastic for my own academic growth. They are both incredible educators, too, so professionally I benefitted immensely from being in their classes.
How did you end up in the career you are in now? Has your MA helped you get to where you are?
I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. Well, my first career ambition was to travel around to hotels reading books to kids. It was fourth grade when I realized that if being a teacher maybe wasn’t exactly the road to riches, my original plan was even less likely to lead to economic success. I haven’t changed my career based on my MA, but I would definitely not be who I am in my profession if I hadn’t had the experience of studying at UW in the South Asia Center. I likely would not have developed this course, which will be personally rewarding to teach and to share with others. I’m not a researcher and producer of knowledge at heart — I think my strengths lie in synthesis of complicated ideas and then guiding others in their own academic growth. My MA in South Asia Studies from the Jackson School helped me hone a lot of skills that I use on a daily basis in my teaching.
I can’t say it strongly enough — I am a more educated person, a more effective citizen of the world, and a much better educator for having earned my MA in the South Asia Studies program at UW.
Rachel Heilman’s Course: India and South Asia: From Area Studies to Ethnic Studies