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Teaching Beyond the Canon: New Approaches to Jewish Studies

Andrea Dara Cooper

At this year’s AJS conference in Boston, the recently introduced division on pedagogy held a number of diverse and exciting sessions. The topic offered a chance to discuss new media and approaches, both in the classroom and beyond. The less formal discussion format was also well received by both participants and audience members.

Jodi Eichler-Levine, Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University, organized and facilitated a panel on ‘Teaching Beyond the Canon: New Approaches to the Jewish Studies Classroom,’ on which I was happy to participate. We began with framing questions: what happens when we move beyond the ‘Bible to Buber’ framework in teaching Jewish Studies? How can we expand our conceptions of content for Jewish Studies courses, and what does that indicate about our implied notions of the field?

The panelists reflected on these questions, considering how we can productively blur the lines between text and object in including varied forms of media in our teaching and research. Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, spoke about her experience with curriculum development and digital curation, suggesting that students’ choice of primary sources can be read as an expression of their cultural, social and intellectual locations. Samira Mehta, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College, addressed classroom experiences at different institutions in questioning what we include as ‘Jewish’ in Jewish Studies through the lens of material culture. I discussed gender identity and textual study in the non-binary classroom, making use of popular culture to examine issues of liminality, belonging, and representation. Elliot Ratzman, Assistant Professor of Religion at Temple University, offered resources for streaming documentary films and music in discussing the history of Jews and civil rights in courses on race and Judaism. Natan Meir, Lokey Chair in Jewish Studies at Portland State University, shared methods for employing Eastern European archival material in teaching, explaining how photography and digital archives allow us to explore the inextricably linked categories of religion and social class.

Our ensuing discussion among the panelists and the audience brought up both concrete and theoretical suggestions: using Google docs as translation resources; empowering students to investigate how Wikipedia articles (and therefore knowledge) are produced; and foregrounding intersectionality more broadly. We discussed how we can encourage students to see themselves as agents for moral change. Cultivating another’s argument can be both an act of respect and a model for hermeneutic sensitivity and generosity. We can think beyond the classroom by taking advantage of experiential learning and the resources of our cities.

The panelists agreed that our students assume we will discuss race, gender, ability, and sexuality; none of this is surprising to them – indeed, they have come to expect it – and rightly so. With that in mind, we asked, what is the next ‘beyond’? What’s revolutionary anymore? In what context can instructors use ourselves – our own experiences and identities – as pedagogical resources? Searching for answers to these central questions will likely be the focus of future sessions on pedagogy.

The session allowed for rich conversations on our roles as teacher-scholars. Through the topic of pedagogy, our panel and others extended the discussion to broader intellectual juxtapositions, interrogating and expanding the possibilities of Jewish Studies as a discipline.

Andrea Dara Cooper is assistant professor of Religious Studies and the Kaplan Fellow in Modern Jewish Thought and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.