Wittke Award winner Ramez Islambouli shares strategies for success

Award-winning Islam and Arabic studies lecturer Ramez Islambouli’s advice to those who want to emulate his teaching success sounds remarkably basic: “You have to keep your students awake.”

It’s only when he begins to describe some of his strategies for staving off class-wide sleepiness that the extent of his creativity begins to emerge. One of two recipients of the 2012 Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, Islambouli came to the classroom by way of the research laboratory and local mosque. Once he got there, however, he knew he’d found his niche.

“I never read from the book or notes. I teach them something they cannot get in the books,” he said. “I also look the students in the eye to let them know I am interested in them.”

When students start to seem daunted by certain phrases or subjects, he’ll quickly offer a reprieve. Sometimes he’ll use his own personal experiences as a youth in Lebanon to help make concepts more real; other times, he’ll end class early or play a humorous video to break the tension.

“I have a long list of them [videos], and always request a room with multimedia [capabilities],” he said.

Islambouli also makes clear that those in his class can come to his office any time—whether the topic is a tough academic assignment or a simple case of homesickness.

“I know students sometimes need that brother or father figure,” he explained.

Islambouli first came to Cleveland as an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve. As a leader of the Muslim Student Association, he helped establish meal waivers for students with special diets as well as a prayer room in the Sears Building. Today he is the adviser for the student group.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in 1990, Islambouli worked as a researcher and also became engaged with the area’s Muslim community. Today he is president of Uqbah Mosque Foundation on Fairhill Road, where he preaches and serves as a counselor. He is also Muslim chaplain (imam) for University Hospitals Case Medical Center, and he sits as a community representative for the Institutional Review Board on research projects.

It was while working in biomedical research that he discovered his true career. He gave several seminars for health care providers in the local hospitals about how to deal with patients who are Muslim or from Arabic backgrounds.

“Most participants liked the way I presented the topic,” he said.

He followed the success in those addresses with studies in bioethics, where he focused on Islamic attitudes towards ethical issues in health. He earned his master’s degree in the subject from Case Western Reserve in 2004. He began teaching at the university soon afterward, where his approach has been greatly appreciated by students.

As one nominator wrote: “Professor Ramez Islambouli always has a smile to share. He always has great advice and is probably the first professor I would turn to if I was having any trouble. On countless occasions when I was feeling very stressed, Professor Islambouli was able to help put things in perspective for me with a few kind and wise words. He is a great professor and very deserving of this award.”

The Wittke Award, established in 1971, honors Carl Wittke, a former faculty member, dean and vice president of Western Reserve University. Each year, two Case Western Reserve University faculty members receive the award for their excellence in undergraduate teaching. Islambouli is sharing the honors with Heath Demaree, associate professor of psychology and a researcher on human emotions. Both will receive the honors during the undergraduate diploma ceremony immediately following commencement in Veale Convocation Center on Sunday, May 20 at 9 a.m.