University of North Carolina at Wilmington English professor Dr. Cara Cilano approaches her courses as shared adventures. While she determines the class’s overall destination, her students are responsible for a good part of the navigating.

“I always have a goal in mind, but I emphasize the collective effort,” Cilano said. “We almost get to some version of the goal that I set, but on the way there, other things happen, other questions emerge. New ideas are born of the interaction between everyone in the class. I like the element of the unpredictable.”

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Cilano the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for UNCW. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a $12,500 stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, the country’s first public, residential high school for gifted students.

Cilano specializes in postcolonial South Asian literature, written in English during the spread of the British empire — which often gives rise to discussions of how people understand those who are different from them.

In most of her courses, Cilano puts each student in charge of leading class discussion for a period. Even though most of her students dread the challenge, on their evaluations at the end of the term, she said, most say it was the most important thing they ever did.

In leading discussion on the novel The Shadow Lines by Indian-born author Amitav Ghosh, one of her students, a musician ten or 15 years older than his classmates, focused on a piece of music the main character overhears in a particular scene. Sitting on the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Field in London while a Bach concert plays, the character sees a woman, an old flame, walk across the square.

The student played the music for his classmates and then dissected the song, which, it turned out, echoed the narrator’s experience and deepened the emotional resonance of the scene.

“Everyone in the room was just floored,” Cilano said. “And I thought to myself, ‘I couldn't have done that. I couldn’t have opened that up for everyone else in the way that he did.’ It was humbling to me, and it was deeply exciting. That’s why it matters that we’re all together.”

UNCW English major Sam Horstmann, who is currently pursuing his Master’s in English at the school, took Pakistani Literature, Postcolonial and Third-World Literature and his senior seminar from Cilano as an undergrad. He appreciated Cilano’s ability to create an atmosphere of inclusivity among her students.

“She has this way of always carefully considering everything you say; there is never a student’s answer that is unimportant,” Horstmann said. “She creates this amazing environment that allows for every student to contribute to the class’s collective understanding of a subject or book.”

Cilano specializes in postcolonial South Asian literature, written in English during the spread of the British empire.

License to Be Brainy

As a child in Buffalo, New York, Cilano was a voracious reader — but rather than young adult literature, she preferred books that dealt with complicated issues of gender and race, like E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View and A Passage to India.

While she loved school during her early years, her opinion changed when her parents sent her to an all-girls Catholic high school. She found the environment too restrictive.

“They exercised authority without reason, and I was an inquiring and questioning sort of mindset,” she said. “When they would say, ‘It has to be this way,’ I would say, ‘Why, sister?’ and they could never give me an answer that satisfied me.”

She also felt like the nuns missed the opportunity they had as educators of all girls to give their students a sense of empowerment.

Later, at St. Bonaventure University in New York, she reveled in what she describes as a newfound “license to be brainy.” She felt inspired by many of her professors, who fully embraced their subject matter, viewing it not as a daytime interest but as an integral part of their identities.

“I remain drawn to those kinds of people,” she said. “They are oftentimes really weird people, because there’s a certain intensity of folks who are fully all in. Finally — to be among people who were a little different and who made difference glorious to me.”

After receiving both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from St. Bonaventure, Cilano continued on for her PhD in English from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. In February 2001, she joined the English Department at UNCW. She rides her bicycle to and from campus every day.

Cilano in the classroom (left) and with Chancellor Sartarelli (right). Cilano received the Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award, which recognizes all aspects of excellence in scholarship, research, and creativity including activities that involve colleagues and students.

Beyond the Classroom 

Much of Cilano’s present-day research focuses on Pakistan, which gained its independence from the British Indian Empire in 1947.

“It’s fascinating to think that new Pakistanis were in the position of creating a new national identity,” she said. “What will the cultures be? Will they be the cultures that have lived in the area for centuries? Something new? Who are you when you’re created out of a historical event?”

Cilano has written two books about contemporary Pakistani fiction (and edited another about 9/11 and the literature of terrorism). She received the Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award, which recognizes all aspects of excellence in scholarship, research, and creativity including activities that involve colleagues and students.

A two-time Fulbright recipient, she is also currently overseeing a three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. State Department that links UNCW students and faculty to their peers at the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

The grant represents that largest State Department grant to the UNC system to date and will enable UNCW to expose its students to Pakistani scholars and professors.

“I’m very excited by the prospect of exponentially increasing my campus’ understanding of Pakistan,” Cilano said.

Dr. Tiffany Gilbert, an associate professor of English and undergraduate coordinator at UNCW, has worked with Cilano for the last decade.

“She’s always been very focused, very driven, always eager to help new academics, new scholars, make their way,” Gilbert said. “She’s continuously curious and looks at things holistically — at not just what we’re doing in the classroom, but the ramifications beyond the classroom. She’s cultivating within students an engaged, informed, conscious citizenship.”

When Horstmann and other graduate students approached Cilano for advice on establishing a graduate conference at UNCW, for example, she not only offered advice, but incorporated the conference into the State Department grant, the student said.

“What has struck me the most about her guidance during this conference planning is just how much she really does care,” Horstmann said. “Dr. Cilano’s work doesn’t begin and end in the classroom. There’s so much she does that I know I can’t adequately express the impact she has on all of us.”

By Christina Cooke, Freelance Writer
Photos by Jeff Janowski, UNCW Photographic Services Manager

Posted September 23, 2015

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