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Past Winners of the Teacher of the Week

Zhange (Nicole) Ni


The Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER) recognizes Zhange (Nicole) Ni, assistant professor of Religion and Culture, for her commitment to helping undergraduate and graduate students to engage with and explore an increasingly multicultural world both within and outside the classroom.

Because her agenda calls for a student-centered learning environment, Ni has made special efforts to complete the CIDER New Faculty/ Early Career Teaching Certificate program and attend several NLI training sessions on how to use technology in classroom.

Working with Professor Peter Doolittle and faculty members across the university, she designed a set of strategies to turn students’ classroom experience into a process of guided adventures into carefully selected and arranged materials. Teaching about religion and culture in Asia and the West, with particular attention to contemporary politics in general and the issues of sex, gender, and sexuality in particular, Ni never refrains from choosing provocative topics (such as the veil and foot binding) and difficult scholarly articles (mostly published in the last 10 years). But she also begins by presenting interesting stories, beautiful arts, and audio-video clips to pique student interest before orienting them to travel from the familiar to the unknown. In her classes, she always makes sure that all students participate. They are given discussion questions before class, arranged into shifting small groups in class, and expected to present group reports to conclude the class. Instead of lecturing to a passive student body, Ni pushes students to practice close reading and in-depth discussion and intervenes only to assist them to get more from the learning process. One of her undergraduate students commented, “Professor Ni always used different teaching tactics to help us understand the material in various ways. This helped solidify my understanding of the material.”

On the basis of these student-centered strategies, Ni was nominated for a Diggs Teaching Scholar Award in 2014. Although she was not selected, she continues to foster a habit of critical thinking in her students in a range of courses that expand their horizons: Religion and Culture in Asia (RLCL 1904), Religion and Literature (RLCL 3024), Religions of China and Japan (RLCL 3224), and Religion and Conflict (ASPT 6204), as well as independent studies in areas such as Asian Cinema. She uses her fluency in both Chinese and Japanese, and her personal experience of religion and culture in Asia, to the advantage of her students. One of her graduate students commented that she “gave helpful feedback, made time to discuss course assignments with students, is extremely knowledgeable about subject matter and explained complex topics clearly.”

Dr. Ni’s students have commented in course evaluations that they learned how to study more efficiently and become better readers, writers, and thinkers. Another undergraduate student stated, “This has been one of my favorite classes! I was very interested in this material and am even more so now based on what we have learned in this class. I also appreciated that we practiced different learning skills (like writing, reading, etc.) in this class, rather than simply learning material.”

Dr. Ni’s innovative approach applies to her research as well, including four peer-reviewed articles in top professional journals, a published book chapter, an invited book chapter, and her first book, The Pagan Writes Back: When World Religion Meets World Literature, in press with the University of Virginia Press.


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