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Pomona Religion Professor Honored with National Teaching Award

In November, Zayn Kassam, associate professor of religious studies at Pomona College, was honored with the American Academy of Religion’s 2005 Excellence in Teaching Award, at the organization’s annual meeting in Philadelphia.

According to the academy's Religion Award Committee, Kassam is “an impressive example of dedication to the craft of teaching, especially for her careful and unflinching consideration of issues that often carry a heavy emotional charge for the students she is teaching.”

Kassam, who began teaching at Pomona College in 1995, chairs the Religious Studies Department and teaches a variety of courses, including: The Religion of Islam, Engendering and Experience: Women in the Islamic Tradition, Islamic Thought, Muslim Literary Landscapes, The Divine Body and Interpreting Religious Worlds.

Students and colleagues alike praise Kassam’s teaching and scholarship. She is a two-time recipient of Pomona College’s highest recognition for excellence in teaching, the Wig Distinguished Teaching Award — in 1998 and 2005. Students say: “Class discussions [spill] out of the classroom, into the dining and residence halls, and even onto forums in cyberspace.” One colleague notes Kassam’s ability to address volatile subjects with students in “an environment of candor and honesty.”

Following the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, Kassam has focused her academic writing on meeting the public’s sudden demand for good information about Islam, the world’s second largest religion with 1.2 billion believers.

A practicing Muslim, she recently completed a book on Islam for the six-volume Introduction to the World’s Major Religions to be published in December 2005. The series is meant for high school libraries and a lay audience. Her upcoming projects include a “Biographical Dictionary of Notable Muslims” and a book on feminist theology which will address hot button issues in Islamic culture and what the Koran does say about the status of women and their equal share in humanity.

Kassam is most interested in studying the relationship between religious ideology and its concrete expression. “Oftentimes religious sentiments become mobilizing forces for positive social change as with the civil rights movement,” explains Kassam, “Yet sometimes they are mobilized politically for resistance, for instance against colonial regimes, and sometimes they are mobilized for repression, as during the Inquisition. Examining the production of religious ideas in conjunction with the issues of the day fascinates me, as do the myriad ways in which humans think about their relationship to what they consider sacred.”

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has more than 8,000 members who teach in some 1,500 colleges, universities, seminaries, and schools in North America and abroad. The Academy is dedicated to furthering knowledge of religion and religious institutions in all their forms and manifestations.

The AAR’s criteria for selecting the teacher of the year are: “outstanding performance as a classroom teacher, as demonstrated by student evaluations, peer observations, teaching awards, and other forms of peer recognition; development of effective teaching methods, courses, and/or teaching materials, that generate student learning, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and/or community-based research; commitment to professional identity as a teacher of religion and raising student interest in the field; and, at least three years' experience in teaching in higher education.

Pomona College, one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, offers a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.