"Brilliant and inspirational." "An incredible woman." "Amazing": just a few of the things former students have written about the tiny, quiet, and very pregnant woman sitting at a Lake City bakery table. Dr. Anu Taranath is the highest-rated member of the University of Washington English faculty on ratemyprofessors.com—despite having one of the lower "easiness" ratings. She blushes hearing the rave reviews read back to her. "I see young people being so much more thoughtful than when I was a teen," she says of her students, gushing almost as much about them as they do about her. (Her profile also includes a little chile pepper, meaning students think she's hot—which brings on another blush.)
In teaching classes on topics like South Asian literature and post-colonial black British writers, Taranath uses sources from around the world, hoping Seattle students will see the connections between themselves and people half a world and generations away. Life is "not just happening in this piece of work from Pakistan, from a 1930s woman writer from Islamabad," she says. "It's happening in 2008 to some UW student."
Taranath was raised in the United States, but has made frequent visits to relatives in India—which is now as much a home for her as Seattle, she says. In the summer of 2004, she took her first group of students to meet activists, academics, and others in the country of the literature and art they had been studying. "I think the thing we talked about most was 'How do we travel with integrity,'" she says. She's been taking a group of students each summer since (with a time-out this year for pregnancy).
Taranath suspects the students' reaction comes from her taking them seriously. "Maybe some of it is about feeling validated as a scholar and a thinker," she says. And her enthusiasm can't hurt. "I love my job."—Laura Onstot