5 questions with… retiring UCITE director Mano Singham

Mano SinghamMuch of Mano Singham’s time at Case Western Reserve University has been spent teaching teachers. That, combined with his work as a physics instructor, means he’s had an impact—either directly or indirectly—on the lives of countless students over the years.

Now, after more than a quarter-century on the faculty and more than a decade as director of University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE), Singham will retire at the end of this month.

Becoming a teacher of teachers was never really a conscious decision for Singham. It started as a way to pursue his love for physics.

Over the years, Singham enjoyed teaching and spending time with his students, but, as a researcher, he felt teaching could be much more effective if research-based methods were adopted.

So his leadership of UCITE—which holds semester-long programs, seminars and workshops and provides grants, fellowships and online resources to help faculty develop their teaching and administrative skills—made perfect sense.

At UCITE, teachers became Singham’s students. The center works with faculty to determine the best teaching approaches and to enhance the learning environment at CWRU.

Since taking over as director of UCITE in 2004 from its founder James Zull, professor emeritus of biology, Singham has strengthened and consolidated the center’s philosophy and mission. He created the Mentor Fellows program, which brings together faculty to reflect on and improve their mentoring practices in a semester-long seminar. And he’s taught other faculty to improve their teaching methods—while also working to improve his own craft.

One point Singham has held onto—and passed along to other faculty—is what Zull taught him years ago about how knowledge is created and stored in the brain: What a person knows is represented in physical structures in the brain. To truly alter that knowledge, instructors must do more than merely provide information information—they must employ different teaching tools to engage students.

“When we are teaching people, you have to take into account that you’re creating or modifying neural networks. That can be a sobering thought,” Singham said. “If you take that seriously, then you realize that you can’t just eliminate erroneous knowledge because it can’t be wiped away from the brain.”

That realization convinced Singham that learning is a voluntary act, and that deep learning only occurs when a student wants to learn. How to create those conditions becomes the challenge—and what UCITE aims to teach faculty.

For Singham, the best part of working at UCITE over the years has been the personal connections he’s made.

“I have made friends with faculty and staff across the university and learned a lot about all different kinds of areas of knowledge,” he said. “That has been absolutely, hands down, the best thing.”

In retirement, Singham’s teaching will take on a new form: Instead of standing at the front of classrooms and leading sessions at UCITE, he will use the written word to inform.

Singham has written three books—Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000), The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine (2005), and God vs. Darwin: The War Between Creationism and Evolution in the Classroom (2009)—and hopes to become a full-time writer in retirement. Plans for a book on science and philosophy are in the works.

In honor of Singham’s many contributions to the university, a retirement party will be held for him today (Dec. 11) from noon to 2 p.m. in the Tinkham Veale University Center ballroom.

Make sure to stop by to bid Singham farewell—but first, read on to learn more about him.

1. What’s the one place in Cleveland that’s your must-visit for out-of-towners?

Actually, I bring them to the university and I drive them around the university and University Circle because people are really surprised by how nice of a campus this is and the setting.

2. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a teacher?

In my case, it would be speaking slowly. In Sri Lanka, where I’m from, we speak very fast, and when I came to the U.S. and I was teaching here, the combination of rapid-fire speech with my accent would have left a lot of students behind. I had to figure out how to speak more slowly.

3. What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I’m very much an introvert, even though my job requires me to interact with a lot of people. It’s not that I dislike interacting with a lot people—I do enjoy interacting with people—but I have to have a lot of time just to think. If my whole day was just interacting with people, I think I would go crazy. I enjoyed teaching students and being in the classroom and interacting with them, but after that I wanted to go to my office and just be alone for a little while. I need to reflect.

4. What famous person—past or present—would you most like to have dinner with and where would you go?

This is a question that an introvert finds hard to answer because I don’t want to go out to dinner with anybody. I guess I would like to with Charles Darwin. He also seems like he was a really big introvert, so we would probably both want to go back to our respective solitude as quickly as possible. Also, I’ve read a lot by him and about him. He’s an amazing figure intellectually—as a scientist and as a person—but from what I’ve read by and about him, apart from the fact that he seems like a really nice man, it’s hard to get the feeling for his general worldview. He is quite an enigma. I think it would be interesting because clearly he’s such a deep thinker. I would like to go to a Chinese or Mexican restaurant, but that would be a problem for Darwin because for almost all his life he had enormous problems with his digestion. He’d probably want to go somewhere where they served bland soup.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

I think I really like the strong sense of collegiality that I’ve experienced here, among the staff, the faculty and the students. It’s remarkable how friendly and helpful they are.