An A+ Commitment to Teaching
~Student Jordan H.
Within just a few minutes of meeting Fahima Aziz, you realize that she has a seemingly endless supply of energy. And that energy is practically contagious. In pre-COVID times, she would make the trek every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from class in Willey Hall through tunnels connecting Blegen Hall and the department’s offices in Hanson Hall. Pulling her teaching supplies in a small rolling suitcase, she joked that on class days she logged so many steps she didn’t need to worry about making time for exercise. Yet most anyone trying to walk and talk with her would have a difficult time keeping up.
A U of M graduate of the Departments of Economics and Applied Economics herself (PhD, 1995), Aziz joined the faculty in 2018. Her position is unique: she is dedicated solely to teaching, with no expectations to conduct research. And this suits her perfectly.
“I love teaching and working with students,” she beams when asked about her passion for teaching. “I feel so rewarded to know that students learned in my classes.”
In a typical semester, Aziz teaches 5 courses with more than 1,000 students. Often, her courses are a student’s first exposure to economics. Some of these students pursue a major in economics, though many are simply fulfilling a course requirement. The course – and Aziz herself – hold an important role in laying a solid foundation for future economics coursework, while conveying the curiosity and enthusiasm for the field she has carried throughout her career.
Along with lectures by Aziz, students attend small-group discussion sections with graduate student instructors. Thus, mentoring, organizing, and supervising that cohort of 20 grad students is also a part of Aziz’s responsibilities. At the end of the day, she can often be found meeting with a group of students, packed into her office for an impromptu study session – although of course these gatherings don’t happen in-person right now.
Around the world, then a return home
After earning her doctorate, Aziz joined the faculty at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, where she held the Alkire Endowed Chair in International Business and Economics. At Hamline, Aziz chaired both the Department of Management and Economics and the Environmental Studies Program. She later served as vice chancellor of the Asian University of Women, an American-style liberal arts, independent university in Bangladesh founded in 2008. Aziz helped lead AUW during its critical early years. But when the opportunity came to return to her alma mater, it was one she couldn’t pass up.
Her commitment to student success has become even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since last March, she has worked tirelessly to use new technology effectively and adjust her teaching methods for a virtual learning environment. Remaining accessible to this many students without the benefit of in-person conversations has required thinking differently. For example, with students attending class from their homes across the country and around the world, Aziz made sure that graduate instructors held office hours to accommodate a wide range of time zones. During exams, with the unlikely but stressful possibility of technology problems, Aziz and her TAs are available to troubleshoot with students one-on-one. This type of dedication is evident to her students.
A review of student evaluations and thank you notes from fall semester provides plenty of examples of her impact on students:
~ Student Sara R.
“You put so much effort and care into teaching and helping students excel, so I wanted to say thank you for being such an amazing teacher.”
~ Anonymous Student
“You have truly been one of the most helpful professors in my experience so far at the University of Minnesota. You gave me a little bit of confidence that went a long way. I was able to improve my homework scores quite a bit because of it and I even started improving in other classes as well. It really stood out to me that you would take time out of your day to help me during such a stressful time. I can't thank you enough.
~ Student Rolf
Although one might think that all of this leaves little time outside of coursework, Aziz also serves on numerous university-wide committees and initiatives. She works with colleagues from across campus on topics including study abroad, career readiness, and others focused on student success. It seems like going above and beyond for her students is second nature to Aziz.
“Since joining the department, Fahima has been an invaluable part of our team, teaching and supervising the instruction of our introductory large lecture course with about 2,000 students,” says Professor Simran Sahi, Director of Undergraduate Studies. “Her dedication to student success became even more evident with the switch to online and hybrid courses. She cares about her students learning, but it is evident how much she also cares about their overall wellbeing during a pandemic.”
Although Aziz is eager to resume in-person teaching once public health concerns are behind us, she also recognizes some benefits that have come out of the past year. One of her most important take-aways is the realization that “learning can take place over Zoom!” By using features available in Zoom, she was able to replicate much of the interaction that happens during in-person classes. For example, Aziz can design short polls to ask during class to assess understanding. She can call on students who have virtually raised their hand, or use a Q&A feature to answer questions (without disrupting the entire class) while students are doing in-class work. Often, classes were divided into breakout rooms for small group discussions, creating learning communities online. As new features are available in the technology – and new ideas come to mind – Aziz continues to incorporate creative techniques to engage students in an online classroom.
In the future, Aziz looks forward to taking a group of students on a study abroad trip to London, meeting with grad students in person, and talking with students face-to-face after class. But at the end of the day – or the end of the semester – the reward is the same: knowing that you did your best to teach your students despite whatever unexpected circumstances arose.
~ Student Vivianne N.