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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.