Release Date: August 7, 2012
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- At a time when "entrepreneurship" often refers to developing a new medical device, engineering method or software application, a successful new pursuit founded by two University at Buffalo graduates sells James Joyce, bioethics and "Notions of the American West."
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Sometimes questioned for being too young for the job, Buffalo sisters Preethi and Deepa Govindaraj are the founding directors of Minerva, a program of complex (and intriguing) humanities courses that help teachers upgrade the "deep content knowledge" now required of them by the New York State Core Education Curriculum.
Specifically, Minerva engages teachers in such areas of study as American literature, the cultural narratives of bioethics, the influence of mathematical theories, rhetorical devices in contemporary fiction or world civilizations from Korea to ancient Rome.
Area districts that offer the programs -- Depew, West Seneca, Niagara Falls, Cheektowaga/Sloan, Lancaster, Royalton-Hartland, Oakfield-Alabama and other districts in Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, Genesee and Duchess counties -- continue to receive reviews from their teachers.
Several New York State Regents and State Education officials are so impressed they asked the Govindarajs to model the courses for educators throughout the state in March. Interest has been growing ever since, with inquiries from districts as far away as Rockland County and Long Island.
"Because of prevailing patterns in teacher education, many teachers do not have degrees in the content areas like history, English, cultural studies, math" and so on, says Deepa Govindaraj.
She says, "College education programs show teachers how to teach the humanities without actually engaging them very much in the content. Most professional development programs for educators -- like those sold by the educational conglomerate Pearson -- package curriculums and train teachers to teach them. But such products, streamlined for efficiency and high output, also do not immerse teachers in the content they teach, but encourages them to regurgitate a prepackaged blueprint for each lesson. The result is that company profits grow right with the frustrations of educators."
The Govindarajs say teachers in Williamsville expressed their concerns about this discrepancy six years ago when they offered their first course in the district. The teachers (most of whom do not have time to go back to college) were very much interested in the courses, not only for their own edification, but because they are required to engage their classes with a variety of texts that they themselves may never have studied.
"They are being asked to 'model common core education standards,'" Deepa says, "and to bring students to a level of proficiency in reading and writing that requires them to interact with the content, style and context of increasingly complex materials."
It's a difficult demand to fulfill and it means teachers have to understand material in many contexts and make it exciting enough to sustain students' intellectual inquiry.
"Our courses are specifically designed to address this need," says Preethi Govindaraj. "They immerse teachers in the content they teach. Each course we develop is based on teacher requests."
Minerva's catalog of 57 courses is growing with dozens more in development. They include "The Harlem Renaissance," children's literature, "Native Revolutions of America" and "Endangered Species." In all courses, participants are required to closely examine subject matter in its cultural context using literature, literary nonfiction, art, music and a range of multimedia resources.
It's a tall order for the Govindaraj sisters, who teach all the courses, but both are extraordinarily well-read and can teach up a storm.
Preethi Govindaraj graduated from UB in 2002 with an undergraduate degree in marketing with a humanities concentration. She studied the humanities in Singapore as a Fulbright Scholar in 2003, and in 2005 earned an MBA in consulting with a second concentration in the humanities. Deepa graduated summa cum laude from UB in 2006 with a BA in Honors Liberal Arts: Film and Media Analysis, and in 2008 with an EdM from UB in Sociology of Education with a concentration in English literature.
Minerva courses are not shallow, short or simple. Ranging from 18 to 36 total hours, courses are taught in blocks of three-hour classes or full day sessions.
The Govindarajs think Minerva has the potential for provoking growth in the Western New York economy around education and to provide jobs for humanities graduates.
"Most do not think of this region as a center of educational reform," says Preethi, "but we could bring teachers and humanities specialists to Western New York from throughout the state to learn the courses and deliver them in their districts."
She adds that, because Core Education Curricula are being established in many states that may not be able to retool the humanities skills of their teacher population, Buffalo could establish learning centers that would attract thousands of educator and administrators to the area.