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Pedagogy and Disruption

Lori Hope Lefkovitz

Our colleagues have been taking it on the road: teaching Jewish Studies courses abroad, in Israel, Eastern Europe, Spain, elsewhere. We are integrating experiential learning into our courses through archival research, scavenger hunts to historical sites or active Jewish locations in our cities, and developing assignments that send students to museums and art galleries. Digital Humanities’ conquest of big data is taming rabbinic literature for classroom use, as faculty instruct students to move around libraries of cross-referenced texts on small and big screens. As co-chair, with David Shneer, of the AJS’s relatively new pedagogy division, I have been impressed by such pedagogic innovations as creative assignments designed to move beyond the term paper, including blogging, exhibit curating, and real-time tweeting. TV series, films, and other products of popular and visual culture have a growing presence beside written texts on Jewish Studies syllabi. Faculty are flipping classrooms, teaching online, developing hybrid and multi-media courses, and encouraging all manner of group work. Responding to competition for enrollments and perceptions of what today’s students require, the rationales for such innovations reverberate throughout the Humanities and Social Sciences, including cultivating transferable skills useable outside of the classroom and maintaining relevancy and “relatability” (a newly fashionable word).

At the same time, classic Jewish Studies courses have long exemplified the best of what is being touted with increased eloquence as the principal advantages of a liberal arts education: training in techniques of slow, deliberative reading, critical analysis through attention to detail, to multiple contexts and historical shifts, to space and place, and to language and translation. Tolerance for complexity, ambiguity, and indeterminacy, challenges to fixed identity categories, delight in multiple, competing interpretations, consciousness of theory and method and relationships between meaning and value have long been explicit educational outcomes in Jewish Studies curricula. Accomplishing these objectives is now understood as ideal preparation for marketplaces, global engagement, and thoughtful living. Moreover, the anomalousness and dynamism of Jewish racial, ethnic, class, and religious identities, the global reach of Jewish cultural production, and the length, breadth, and diversity of Jewish history have contributed to making Jewish Studies fertile testing ground for current academic preoccupations. From Diaspora Studies to Israel Studies to courses in Jewish feminism, music, and literature, the boundaries and definitions of humanity and culture are challenged in our classrooms.

Whatever our teaching strategies, the interdisciplinarity of Jewish Studies is especially worthwhile pedagogically. Education should be disruptive: disruptive of truth that we take for granted, complacency, and ignorance. As the very word suggests, “disciplines” resist disruption. The Disciplines create departments that police boundaries, define parameters of knowledge fields, and sanction theories and methods. Interdisciplinarity opens possibilities for escape as collaborations across disciplinary boundaries strike new pathways. Partnerships across fields of inquiry, where there is exchange of ideas and co-curricular program-planning, challenge convention and shake up habits of mind. Interdisciplinary programs create cross-departmental loyalties, widened perspective, and expanded sympathies. So, I have appreciated the distinctive value of AJS session proposals that offer multiple disciplinary perspectives on the teaching of a single text: approaches to Glickl of Hameln’s memoir; to the Haggadah; to the corpus of Eli Wiesel. Similarly alert to interdisciplinary concerns, colleagues ask: “What is American about American Judaism?”; “Is Jewish literature part of a multi- and transnational canon?”; and “How does the course in which we teach a text drive our interpretation?” We ask how to teach Israel and the curricular relationship between Israel Studies and Jewish Studies. And we struggle, too, with the “Introduction to Jewish Studies” syllabus: how to make choices in the vastness of this field and create an interdisciplinary, rather than more simply multi-disciplinary, learning experience for uninitiated learners.

As the Humanities and Social Sciences nuance the current emphasis on instrumental education that privileges STEM, our pedagogical strategies at once joyfully innovate with technological and experiential components, even as, perhaps paradoxically, we advocate for the benefits of the kind of traditional learning practices of the bet midrash. But it is the interdisciplinarity of fields like Jewish Studies that helps us demonstrate the interdependence and contingency of all knowledge. We necessarily draw boundaries and attend to our spot of ground, but we also explore adjacent terrain and encourage the vital lesson that whatever conclusions we draw about the past and about the meaning, value, and implications of our discoveries, our conclusions are always provisional.

Lori Hope Lefkovitz is Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University, where she directs the Humanities Center and the Jewish Studies program.