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Prof. Saleh Abdu: Appreciation to an exceptional teacher

I had intended for the publication of this column to be coterminous with “Teacher Appreciation Week” (which is celebrated in the US during the first full week of May), but since a teacher’s impact on a student is an abiding presence, there is no temporal restrictionon when a teacher can be appreciated.

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One of the teachers who nurtured my passion for the written word, who fertilized my imagination beyond his own imagination, who cultivated and tutored my creative impulses, and whose pedagogical excellence continues to be a source of inspiration for me is Professor Saleh Abdu who taught me European Poetry at Bayero University Kano’s Department of English and European Languages in the early 1990s. He is now Professor of English and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at theFederal University, Kashere,and is on sabbatical leave at the Gombe State University. I can’t thank this enormously talented but self-effacing man enough for the impact he had on my life.

I recall that the first attraction of Professor Abdu’s course for us was its subtitle: “English Romantic Poetry.”We were initially victims of what one might call a false attraction: the appearance of the word “romantic” in the course title misled us to assume that we would learn about the expressive techniques of love poems, with which people in our age bracket were obsessed. It bespoke Professor Abdu’s consummate pedagogical genius that he captured and sustained our enthusiasm throughout the semester even when we realized that the course wasn’t about love poems but about the celebration of simplicity, nature, imagination, and emotions in the poetry of William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and others.

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In my February 1, 2014 column titled, “A Comparison of Nigerian and American University  Teachers (II),” I said this about Professor Abdu:“One of the best teachers I’ve had in all my life, for instance, is a Nigerian university teacher by the name of Professor Saleh Abdu who taught me European poetry in my second year at Bayero University, Kano. He was passionate, enthusiastic, cerebral, creative, patient, and made learning fun and worthwhile for students. He made us look forward to every class with dewy-eyed eagerness. He never missed a class, never dictated notes, encouraged us to challenge him, and graded us fairly. (My friend and former classmate at Bayero University, Dr. Moses Ochonu, who now teaches at Vanderbilt University here in the US, has suggested that we write a joint article in honor of Professor Saleh Abdu, whose pedagogical excellence both of us benefited from and still cherish. I’ll take him up on the suggestion someday soon).

That day has come, and it is today. Moses Ochonu, who is now an endowed Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, shared these thoughts about Saleh Abdu, which brilliantly encapsulate and reflect my own recollections of and perspectives on the man and his pedagogy:

“Professor Saleh Abdu was my favorite lecturer in BUK and he has been instrumental to my love for the written word, my love for literary texts of many kinds, and my ability to recognize the humanizing, ennobling effect of prose and verse. This says a lot because I was a history major and only took English electives. Farooq and I took the class he taught on English Romantic Poetry. Even back then, several of us would often gather and praise the class, its content, and especially Professor Saleh Abdu’s ultra-effective lecturing style. We even memorized some of the poems and verbalized their philosophical imports to one another. 

“Professor Abdu made the verses come alive to us in ways that no teacher had done with any material. In my four years at BUK, I never saw my classmates, or any students for that matter, get as excited about a course as I saw them do about his course. With some classes, we were sometimes happy when they were cancelled or when the lecturer did not show up because it saved us the boring routine of the predictable. With his course, we eagerly looked forward to class every week because he lectured from a reservoir of unscripted knowledge. 

“He never read or dictated. Instead, he oozed insight extemporaneously and effortlessly. He was coherent and delivered with discipline, authority, order, and clarity. It was pedagogical bliss for us his students. His teaching was remarkable; he had clarity, patience, passion,and a rare ability to combine erudition and simplicity of delivery. He enthralled us with his expositions, and I remember that we never wanted the class to end because we enjoyed it so much. It was as though he was directly pouring knowledge and all-purpose poetic wisdom into our craniums.

“Over the years, Farooq and I have reminisced about our life-changing experience in that class, and about how Professor Saleh Abdu is an unsung pedagogical hero who has quietly and modestly molded the intellectual quests and trajectories of a generation of students. I want to use this opportunity to thank him for shaping, even without realizing it, my intellectual journey; and for setting a standard of teaching and knowledge impartation that I have been striving since I became an academic to emulate. 

“Saleh Abdu will always be a reference point for me in my quest for teaching excellence. That class, for me, represents the ideal classroom experience. We learned so much and it was a thrill. He made us fall in love with the distant poetic offerings of long-dead white men and the philosophical insights embedded in them. That is no mean feat when dealing with easily bored undergraduates. He was calm and not showy. His explanatory power was second to none.”

Moses and I emailed Professor Abdu and let him know how much impact he had on our intellectual growth. We were amazed that he had no self-awareness of his matchless pedagogical wizardry. I think this speaks to why student evaluations are important. They aren’t just meant to ensnare lazy, ineffective teachers; they can also encourage and recognize great teachers. The absence of student evaluations robs great teachers like Saleh Abdu of the joy of knowing what students think about their efforts.

Apart from periodic end-of-semester evaluations, many universities here in the US ask graduating students to mention the names of professors who have had the greatest impact on their academic careers, and professors whose names are mentioned in the surveys get a nice letter from the university career services informing them of this. I get this every end of semester and it gratifies me to no end. I’d encourage Nigerian universities to institutionalize this as well. It’s a great psychological boost.

Thank you so much, Professor Saleh Abdu!

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