President's Teaching Award: Shafique Virani

History professor is one of two awarded U of T's highest teaching honour this year

It seemed inevitable that the dynamo that is Professor Shafique Virani, chair of the Department of Historical Studies, would win the University of Toronto’s President’s Teaching Award; the only question was when it would happen.

The President’s Teaching Award recognizes sustained excellence in teaching, research in teaching and the integration of teaching and research. Virani is one of two recipients of the distinction this year, along with Senior Lecturer Don Boyes of the Department of Geography and Program in Planning.(Read about Boyes.)

Virani, who holds the title of Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies and is renowned for his efforts to bridge the gap between the West and the Muslim world, is also known as a passionate teacher. Once he began teaching Introduction to Islam at U of T, enrolment in the class increased by 100 per cent within a semester.

“I want to transform people’s lives,” said Virani. “My grandmother didn’t know how to read or write, and my grandfather only had a few years of education. I know that education can transform not only individuals, but multiple generations of a family. I’m lucky that my own family had that chance.”

Virani earned an undergraduate degree in religious and Middle East studies and a master’s degree at McGill University, and completed his PhD at Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at U of T in 2006, he taught at Harvard and was head of World Humanities at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates.

Teaching at U of T is almost like merging his classes at previous posts, because “especially at U of T, you have the entire world in your classroom,” he said. “There are students from war-torn regions, students who have been volunteers, students whose parents are involved with government and those whose parents have never been to university. When you get a conversation going, everyone is riveted.”

Virani has captivated students, peers and administrators with his dedication, knowledge and enthusiasm.

“An ideal balance of the yin and the yang, Professor Virani is the epitome of the scholar-teacher,” wrote Professor Deep Saini, vice-president of U of T and principal of U of T Mississauga, in a nomination letter. “Students, colleagues and support staff write about his unbounded enthusiasm for teaching and learning, his remarkable innovation, his thorough preparation, his engaging personality, his caring demeanor, his pedagogical research, his almost magical skills with technology, his availability to his students, his sense of humour and, perhaps most of all, his ability to inspire.”

In the classroom, Virani is inventive, using varied modes of instruction.

“Lectures are very important and have their place, but attending a lecture is just one among many ways of learning,” Virani said. “Sometimes it’s the ‘sage on the stage,’ who’s needed, sometimes it’s ‘the guide by your side.’”

In fact, Virani’s passion for teaching is such that despite serving as department chair, he still carries a full teaching load. “It’s what gives me energy,” he said. “Working with students inspires you and reminds you of why we do what we do at the university.”

Virani also uses his skills as an administrator to improve teaching. He has implemented new hiring practices at the Department of Historical Studies with rigorous evaluations of excellence in research, teaching and service. Hundreds of students are involved in assessing the teaching skills of each candidate and give feedback to the hiring committee.

“Student evaluation scores of new faculty have skyrocketed since we’ve implemented this program. These novice instructors are consistently scoring in the top 20 per cent of all professors. If you get wonderful colleagues who are dedicated to teaching, you attract more students.”

While the President’s Teaching Award comes with a $10,000 stipend for five years, it is the opportunity it provides to be a member of the university’s Teaching Academy that most excites Virani.

“I’ve learned so much from my colleagues in the academy and this is an opportunity to collaborate more and work on something we all believe in,” he said. “We want U of T to be a university where we give students the tools to change the world.”

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