Faces of Colby: Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh

By Dominic Giardini, Features Reporter

While Professor Nikky-Guninder Singh’s formal title at Colby is Crawford Family Professor of Religion and Chairperson of the Religious Studies Department, she is known best by many of her students as one of the kindest and most thoughtful professors on campus. In an interview with the Echo, Singh answered questions about her upbringing as well as her extensive tenure at Colby.

Singh spent her childhood in India, growing up exposed to a culturally pluralist, westernizing environment that she doesn’t attribute to her decision to pursue a career in religious scholarship. What brought about that decision, she says, came from exposure to the United States. “When I was at Wellesley College, I was able to take four concentrated classes rather than the seven or eight I had to take prior, and that finally opened me up to discovering my passion,” she explained.

She says that she intended to pursue philosophy, but lamented that the school lacked any Eastern thinkers in the curriculum. As a result, she decided to study religion as well, double majoring in Religion and Philosophy.

Religious undergraduate studies allowed her to investigate the philosophy behind her personal faith, Sikhism, which eventually became her concentrated discipline. Singh admired the exposure to a diversity of texts that her undergraduate education provided her, noting the encouragement that one of her professors awarded her despite lacking experience with Sanskrit, an ancient language of India. “I never set out with the intention of studying religion, but I knew that [my tradition] was always somewhere in me, and it must have come out at this time,” Singh said. Singh said it also helped that her father, Professor Harbans Singh, was an eminent scholar involved in establishing the department of religion at Punjabi University in Patiala, India.

Singh reflected on the exposure to religious scholars that her father’s work provided her. Wellesley College awarded the kind of vibrant academic process that Singh claims could not be replicated in her post-graduate endeavors; as a result, she knew that her future resided at a similar institution. Singh attributes much of her love for Colby to the discussions, both inside and outside of the classroom, that she has with students at the College on a daily basis.

“I may study the same sacred texts,” she said, “but my students’ fresh perspectives are always questioning my interpretations and make teaching a very exciting process.” Singh contemplated for a while when asked about her favorite moment at Colby. Finally, she responded with an instance that happened minutes before the interview: a student had come into her office explaining his interest in the first Sikh American to be elected to Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, revealing that his interest had provoked some extra, more impassioned research.

Another memory she conjured was “when valedictorian Will Polkinghorn ’99 read a passage from Sikh scripture at baccalaureate service! That was years ago, but that lovely memory is still so alive.” Her least favorite part about her Colby experience, however, is grading. “I have such a hard time putting a letter grade to students’ work,” she admitted. She describes her daily life as having an “echoing” effect, in which her students make points that resonate with her as she writes, once class time concludes (because she is constantly writing). She can then bring what new thoughts her students have provided her back into the classroom.

Singh revealed that she doesn’t allow herself much free time outside of exercise, since the process of cycling between teaching, student discussion, and writing proves to take up much of her time.

Singh loves that her situation at Colby provides her the means to teach with a sense of autonomy. “I’m always asked why I’m not teaching at a big university, since I do so much scholarly research,” Singh said. But “Colby gives me the freedom to teach in my narrow area of speciality along with entering new areas like my Bollywood seminar. The liberal arts atmosphere and the warmth of everyone here — students, faculty, and staff — is just perfect.”

Singh’s husband is a professor at Bates, and she describes their relationship fondly: “We have so many physical differences, and such different backgrounds, but our values are so similar… he loves to read, I love to write, and our time together is often spent doing that…I miss him so dearly when I can’t be with him.” The two met in Dana Hall, brought together by their students. Singh’s daughter is an MIT graduate. When asked if having a daughter around the age of her students helps with developing better relationships, Singh explained that in fact her students did a better job of helping her understand her daughter, especially with coming to terms with her departure to college.

“I really do love my students, and I’ve now come to think of them as like grandchildren,” she said with a smile, “whereas when I first arrived they were more like children to me.” When asked about her favorite change that Colby has made in all of her years here, she revealed that the College’s increased diversity has been most welcome. Although, she commented that she would like to see a broader range of diversity in her own classes in the future. Singh has been extensively engaged in the community in the past, notably speaking at convocation this fall. Her favorite events on campus include department-wide events like the more casual pub nights, as well the speakers that are invited throughout the semester, especially in the Religious Studies department. Lately, her favorite speakers at Colby have been novelist Salman Rushdie as well as Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend it Like Beckham (2002). When asked which speaker she would choose to have next, Singh came up with a list of potential figures, including Barack Obama, Jhumpa Lahiri (writer of The Namesake), and Harvard scholar Diana Eck.

Singh further explained that she loved her extensive involvement in Colby’s celebration of Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, now taken up by students. Singh’s request of any students who have read this article and see her walking around campus is: “tell me something exciting that’s going on in your own life.”