Carnegie Mellon University
December 02, 2021

Shanmugaraj Selected for Dietrich Teaching Honor

By Stacy Kish

Nisha Shanmugaraj (DC 2013, 2022) is the 2021 Dietrich College Graduate Student Teaching Award recipient.  Shanmugaraj, a Ph.D. candidate in the Rhetoric program in the Department of English, received this honor for her dedication to her students, pedagogical innovation and exemplary commitment to professional development as an educator and a scholar.  

“I am so extremely honored, and I am so glad the college recognizes and prioritizes teaching in this way,” said Shanmugaraj. “Teaching has been a huge part of my decision for pursing this degree. We exist as teachers to help our students learn and grow, as thinkers and as people.”

The Dietrich College Graduate Student Teaching Award recognizes excellence, dedication and innovation in teaching of their student teachers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Shanmugaraj earned a master’s degree in English at CMU before accepting a position at the university’s former Global Communication Center, where she helped students navigate disciplinary norms, academic conventions and institutional systems of power. Through this work, she realized the need for an equalizing space and resolved to making academic spaces more accessible and empowering. Today, she has centered her scholarship on anti-racist pedagogy.

“All of my teaching pedagogy is greatly informed by scholarship in the humanities and social sciences,” said Shanmugaraj. “I am drawing from that rich pedagogical research, as well as longer traditions of thinkers and activists doing antiracist work.”

According to Shanmugaraj, Asian Americans are commonly expected to pursue careers in STEM fields. Shanmugaraj wants to help her students understand how their work in engineering and the sciences is not mutually exclusive from critical humanities-based inquiry.

“Critical thinking is integral to transforming all fields towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Shanmugaraj. “There are so many opportunities for interdisciplinary work.”

She aims to help her students cultivate the language, ideas and power needed to critique established norms and begin to transform their disciplines, institutions and communities. Her first area to address this need begins in the writing classroom.

The writing classroom has the potential to be an alienating space for many students. To remedy this, Shanmugaraj has structured this space to create a transformative, antiracist classroom. She aims to have all of her students cultivate the self-efficacy and rhetorical proficiencies needed to critically navigate and transform their world.

“From [her] statement, body of work and [assembled] testimonials, it is clear that Nisha is a uniquely gifted and inspiring teacher,” said Joseph Devine, associate dean for Undergraduate Studies.  This statement is bolstered by her student recommendations that attest to her accessibility, professionalism and support that make her an exceptional teacher at the university.

Shanmugaraj has taught courses focused on writing about public problems to begin the process of fixing the world’s challenges, writing for professionals to improve effective communication with a diverse group of individuals, writing about data to improve arguments using quantitative and qualitative data and helping specialized fields, like engineers, improve their writing to promote publication in professional journals. Currently, she is assembling content to propose an upper-level class on Asian American racism.

Shanmugaraj’s dissertation examines intersecting racist and sexist discourses and how those discourses affect Asian American women’s lives. Using qualitative, semi-structured interviews with second generation Indian American women, her work theorizes how oppressive scripts shape an individual sense of self and belonging in this country.

“This dissertation not only has great potential to contribute to a number of studies in rhetoric and composition concerning the public sphere, citizenship and gender, but also disciplines beyond our field concerned with these topics, especially given the recent and devastating upsurge in anti-Asian hate crimes in this country,” said Stephanie Larson, assistant professor of rhetoric in the Department of English. “Nisha's level of commitment inspires those around her, including her peers and her mentors.”