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Past Winners of the Teacher of the Week

Vinodh Venkatesh


The Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER) recognizes Vinodh Venkatesh, assistant professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures, for his dedication to situating his students in a hybrid cultural space – neither here nor there – where critical reflection includes a personal connection to the subject matter. In order to create this hybrid cultural space, Dr. Venkatesh’s teaching approach involves the inclusion of popular culture, music, art, comics, and films in his classroom on a daily basis.

Dr. Venkatesh strives to bring his scholarship and interests in cultural studies to his undergraduate and graduate students at Virginia Tech. In third-year survey courses, such as Modern Mexican and Central American Literature and Culture, for example, he asks his students to examine the aesthetics of interrelated social, political, and economic events and processes. He encourages them to not view the literary text or film as a vacuous artifact but to contextualize it within a specific sociocultural context. In other words, students in his courses are motivated to move from within a culture and to not simply study it from the outside.

Such a connection has led Dr. Venkatesh to create and teach an online and in-person course on Spanish for the medical profession. The course emboldens students in the professional application of language skills and instructs students in the nuances of intercultural communication. It explicitly asks them to go beyond viewing Spanish as a subject to be studied and as an applied skill that invariably builds personal bonds to our communities. The course, in both its iterations, is roughly divided in two: the first half presents a series of practical tutorials, informational material, and activities that prepare the student to speak and work in Spanish in the healthcare field in the United States. The skills learned here are useful for students seeking admission to professional programs and for students wishing to work in the non-profit sector, as it prepares them to interact with the growing Spanish-speaking population in the United States.

In this section, Dr. Venkatesh includes conversations with professionals in the field who are both local (e.g., instructors from various healthcare faculties at Virginia Tech; professionals from local free clinics) and national (through Skype conversations). The second half of the course exposes students to healthcare systems and issues across the Spanish-speaking world. This exposé allows them to then critically reflect on current debates in health policy.

In his more advanced classes (i.e., 4000 and graduate level), Dr. Venkatesh is interested in having his students directly engage with his research. Students have taken courses on Human Rights in Latin America, where they were asked to critically examine the construction of human rights; in other words, the concept was not taken for granted but, rather, was interrogated in terms of its origins and applications, thus arriving at a cohesive critique of what it means to investigate rights. Other students were exposed to films in a course on Queer Hispanic Cinemas, where the filmic production of the Spanish-speaking world was analyzed through the optic of queer studies. In yet another higher/graduate-level course, students took a virtual tour of Latin American through its cities. They not only read texts that explored the many urban centers of the region, but sampled artifacts of popular culture that attempted to bring to Blacksburg the experience of living and breathing places such as Mexico City and Santiago de Chile.

Students who take Dr. Venkatesh’s courses often highlight that the materials examined and the structure of discussions make them move past the walls of the classroom. An undergraduate student enrolled in “Genocide, Terrorism, and Civil War: Human Rights in Latin America,” for example, noted “[Venkatesh] did not keep the course only focused on literature. Instead, he connected the literature with real, actual happenings in the world. We talked about culture, modern day problems, problems from years past, and just about Latin America in general. Incredible.”

Senior faculty who have observed Dr. Venkatesh’s classes as part of the tenure process have further noted that “rare is the case in which I have no suggestions to make, but I truly have no suggestions for improvement here.” Yet perhaps Dr. Venkatesh’s greatest pride in teaching comes from an email he received from a student who took his course on the Latin American city. She emailed him to let him know how much the coursework they had worked on together had impacted her life, making her reevaluate her goals and aspirations after Virginia Tech.

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