For the love of teaching

A Full circle

For the love  of teaching

Tasneem Fathima Khaleel has had a successful career in academia. However, quite remarkably, she came back to where she started - teaching. M A Siraj reports.

Few people end their careers where they first began; Professor Tasneem Fathima Khaleel is among those few. “I am excited about the opportunity to finish my career in the classroom. And, with a little help, I will be teaching in a new state-of-the-art facility,” says Tasneem, the first-ever woman to have obtained a doctorate in the State of Mysore in 1970. Prior to returning as a professor of Botany, she served as the dean of faculty at College of Arts & Sciences for a decade at the Montana State University at Billings (MUSB).

Paving a new path

Tasneem has been teaching Botany in the United States for over 40 years and has received many awards for her teaching and research. She has headed, or has been a member on as many as 23 different academic bodies or advisory councils in the US. For her contribution to research, with nearly 50 research publications on subjects ranging from cyto-embriology to plant reproduction, she was awarded the ‘Outstanding Research Award’ in 1995 by the Montana Research Academy and has also won the Faculty Excellence Award five times.

The year 2014 was a special year for Tasneem - she had the rare honour of an award being named after her, for mentoring at the MUSB. Reno Charette, director for American-Indian Education, was adjudged the winner of the first ‘Prof Tasneem Fathima Khaleel Award for Mentoring’.

Tasneem studied in Bengaluru, before heading to the US in 1975 after marriage. An alumna of Central College, Bengaluru, she has coveted every opportunity to visit her ‘City of Gardens’ - which she ruefully admits is more a part of nostalgia rather than reality.

A passionate researcher, she recalls that very few women could be seen in higher studies in those days. Only a couple of them were pursuing PhD while she was registered in Bangalore University as well as teaching biology as an assistant professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences at Hebbal between 1968 and 1975. Her study of ‘Flora at the GKVK Campus’ and ‘Weeds in Karnataka’ are still quoted as seminal works.

Writing her own destiny

Tasneem had finished her BSc and MSc by the time she was barely 19 years old. Wanting to be a teacher, she had put in her application, but was rejected, as the dean told her, “You look like a school girl, how would the students take you
seriously?”

Instead, he directed her to register for a PhD programme, which had just been started in the Bangalore University. The Doctorate took longer than usual to complete because there was lack of guidance and direction, and the programme had several fits and starts.

Finally, at 26 when she got her her doctorate, she was being looked as ‘a confirmed spinster’ in her own cultural surroundings. Marriage was nowhere on her mental radar. It took her brother several sittings to convince her of getting married.  

Tasneem travelled a long and twisted path - one shaped by her culture and her drive to excel, to become the distinguished professor that she is today. For most Americans who had only preliminary idea of Islam, a woman with covered head and such drive for excellence and perseverance was a combination of incongruities. “Women have rights in Islam. Muslim women didn’t even have to fight for those rights. The religion has given them those rights,” she says.

Dr Stn Waitr, her successor, says, “Dean Khaleel has raised the level of rigour, excellence and success in the College of Arts & Sciences to a standard that should serve as a model for the entire institution.” Interestingly, Tasneem even built a herbarium at the MUSB, which has around 17,000 specimens and is currently engaged in digitising it. She recalls with pride that she was the most productive member on the faculty of science at the MSU, which has nearly 22,000 students today in two campuses. Tasneem’s most significant discovery was the finding of mammalian steroids in plants, which she says, are responsible for sex expression in plants.

Author of four books, 10 external and 17 internal grants at the MSUB, Tasneem is excited about beginning her teaching career once again. “It had never ended. I had maintained a room in my department building, even while I headed the faculty,” she says.  

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