Here for the Students

Ahad Nasab, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019 in the UC Foundation Apartments.

Teaching goes well beyond the classroom for Professor Ahad Nasab, a member of faculty-in-residence living on-site in a campus residence hall. 

Ahad Nasab in his UC Foundation Apartments home.

by Gina Stafford

SStudents have always been more than names on a class roster to Ahad Nasab. When offered the chance at a novel approach to get to know students on a personal level, Nasab saw it as a “game changer” and didn’t hesitate. 

The opportunity came courtesy of Housing and Residence Life at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where Nasab—head of the Department of Engineering Management and Technology—is going into his third year in fall 2021 as a member of “Faculty-in-Residence,” living on-site in a UTC residence hall. 

“When I became the chair of the department, I was moved out of the classroom and that interaction with students went away. I saw students only if they were complaining about faculty,” Nasab says. “So I thought, ‘Well, this is really the only way I can get back to seeing students and interacting with students,’ so I decided to do it. 

“At the same time, there were some specific needs. For example, they have a residential college for the College of Engineering in the same building where I live for engineering, so that’s why they located me there. They were also thinking of making a so-called innovation space, which is more like a maker space for inventing, creating, innovating, in the same building and they said, ‘You will be a good lead for that, too,’ and that’s actually a current project we are moving forward.” 

When offered the chance at a novel approach to get to know students on a personal level, Nasab saw it as a “game changer” and didn’t hesitate. 

Nasab is currently one of three members of faculty-in-residence with Campus Housing, along with Jennifer Ellis, director of the STEM Education program, and Shewanee Howard-Baptiste, associate professor of exercise science in the Department of Health and Human Performance.  

Shewanee Howard-Baptiste, Ahad Nasab and Jennifer Ellis outside Crossroads, where the three often meet.

From a teaching standpoint, Nasab says the informal interaction that comes with the setting can reveal potential obstacles or challenges to absorbing material. Such as outside-class habits that may hinder student learning or reluctance to speak up in class based on an assumption that other students are catching on easily. 

whatever it takes 

“For example, a student may say, ‘I really don’t get things in the classroom because the class goes by too quickly,’ to which I would say, ‘That’s easy. I will record the whole class so you can watch it 10 times if you want to,’ and that solves the problem,” Nasab says, “and if they say, ‘It would help if I could study with others,” I say, ‘OK, we’ll have discussion forums on-site, and you’re more than free to talk to others about the homework and all of that.’” 

In addition to a private apartment in a residence hall, the assignment came with expectations for scheduled “office hours” to be available to student residents and a modest budget for an on-site social gathering or two such as providing a meal for residents.

“In the beginning, they kind of told us, ‘You’re going to have these office hours, and we will give you a room where you can sit there and wait for students from 6 to 7, two days a week,’ or something like that, but I feel like that doesn’t do the job because that makes it official and cold,” Nasab says. “I think students should be able to contact you like they contact a friend when they need help, not because it’s an official thing. They have that already with faculty.” 

As for hosting a meal, Nasab has very definite ideas, and they don’t involve pizza delivery. After some careful thought, he decided catered food of any kind would provide only something to eat, not an opportunity for connection. The route he took has become the stuff of almost-legend. 

famous lasagna  

“If I order pizza and ice cream and it’s brought in and students show up to get some and I’m trying to tell them where it came from, I’m just an old man in a crowd of very young people trying to tell them who I am and why there are all these boxes of pizza,” he says. “Instead, what I did was I said, ‘OK, I am going to make you the food,’ and then it’s a very different dynamic. There is a natural reason for conversation, and they said to me, ‘Oh, you made this for us, wow. Why would you do that?’”  

Nasab put out word about homemade lasagna night. Making sure there was something for everyone, he prepared five different types: meat, meat and vegetables, vegetables only and cheese only. He borrowed the ovens of a couple students—further making them a part of the gathering—so all five batches could cook simultaneously. Other students helped set up makeshift table-and-chairs arrangements so diners could be seated together in larger groups.  

“Then I was there personally serving them because that was another chance for conversation,” he says. “It was nothing like students stacking pizza slices on paper plates and disappearing to their rooms, and the fact that we did it the way we did—more than a year and a half ago—has made this lasagna dinner famous all over campus.”  

He’s also involved students in repairing some furniture and game tables in a rec room, using a 3D printer to make some replacement parts and bringing tools to repair others.  

“You can’t just put a check mark on a schedule, like be there from 6 to 7 in the evening,” Nasab says. “These are just things you’ve got to do if you look at this whole place as your family. And I do.” 

Because his own children are now grown, Nasab says, and his wife is on the faculty of Belmont University in Nashville, the Monday through Friday (and sometimes beyond) commitment of serving as a faculty-in-residence also is a good fit for this stage in his life. He and his wife see each other on weekends during the academic year, and “we are both so busy during the weekdays that even when we are in the same place, we are both working away on the computer all the time.”