Kavita Datla

Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

Kavita Datla is a stellar and accomplished candidate for either the award in teaching or in research. A historian whose work focuses on modern South Asia and the history of the British Empire, she has published numerous articles in journals such as Modern Asian Studies and Law and History Review, and her book, The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India, was described by one reviewer as “brilliantly researched” and as “without a doubt … a tremendous historiographical effort.” But for Kavita, brilliant research is inextricable from brilliant teaching. She carries the rigor and commitment of her scholarship into the classroom, and that is what we are here to acknowledge this afternoon, her transformative work with the students she teaches.

Her students describe her with a series of adjectives that are overwhelming and reflect not only high praise and admiration but a kind of wonder at her teaching: “wonderful,” “incredible,” “passionate,” “perfect,” “excellent.” Her lectures are “enrapturing” and the way she leads class discussion is “fantastic.” And sometimes when the adjectives are not enough, they must resort to punctuation to make their point: “Professor Datla rules!!! [three exclamation points] I totally mean that!!! [three more exclamation points]” Students, whether majors or those who take only a single history course, find her brilliant and demanding in the best possible way. Kavita asks them to think about history in ways that they have not before and in ways that make them love her and also the disciplinary form to which they have committed for the course.  She does so first and foremost by being so very smart, something the students in her classes recognize almost without exception. Students brag about her to their friends, and sometimes they are even a little intimidated: “ she scares me just because she's so smart.” Kavita uses this impressive intelligence to transform the ways in which her students understand the practice of historiography and also the events and forces of history itself. If students enter her classes on “British Empire and Commonwealth,” “The Indian Ocean World,” and “Women and Gender in Modern South Asia,” expecting a familiar or simple narrative, they leave with something entirely different: a more “nuanced,” “complex,” sophisticated, and stimulating understanding of history, one that is no longer untroubled but is far more satisfying. Kavita challenges their ideas about the British Empire and about South Asian history, so that they no longer can rest comfortably in the reductive or the simple. As one student explains, after studying with her, “I can't stick to easy connections and expect them to represent the entire situation. History is not easy.” And so students work hard and see her as demanding, but do so recognizing that the rigor and the reading and serious engagement that she expects pays off in myriad ways. Whether it is that they go from disliking history to loving it or that they feel confident about themselves, whether she transforms the way that they conceptualize the space of the Indian Ocean or they no longer see imperial power as monolithic, they don’t leave her class understanding the world or themselves the same way that they entered.  

Like most gifted teachers, Kavita accomplishes all of this in many ways, but I want to mention a few that you might not know if you haven’t had the pleasure of taking one of her classes. In her classes, she cultivates a community built on respect, incorporating a variety of ideas and viewpoints into discussions deftly and therefore making the space of any given course profoundly inclusive. Students feel like important interlocutors and recognize each other as such even when they don’t agree. The creation of this kind of remarkable classroom culture makes hard work possible. And at the same time, her expectations are high. One student explains, “I feel she is a professor that I will never forget because she expects so much of us, but it makes me feel so empowered and believe in my potential.” It is rare for students to love and to appreciate being pushed so much, and perhaps it is because while demanding, she is also kind and deeply dedicated. You also may not know that Kavita is a gifted teacher of writing, so much so that students actually spend time imagining all the work and the hours that it takes to comment on their papers with such skill. They describe themselves as writers who are transformed by her commitment and her expertise at showing them how to communicate their ideas effectively. Perhaps when you read an excellent essay in one of your classes, Kavita has had a hand in producing that confident and impressive writer.

Today we acknowledge and celebrate all the ways that students see themselves transformed by their work with her, and we echo their gratitude for what a remarkable educator Kavita Datla is.