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Teaching with Footprints: Integrating Digital Humanities Projects into Our Courses

Marjorie Lehman

The Challenge

The pressure is on. We are living through a revolution in reading practices driven by technological change. Linkages between the digital humanities and library science are transforming the way we amass knowledge and therefore the way we conduct research. But where does this leave us as we enter our classrooms faced with students wholly dependent on the internet and social media, students who never enter the library and who have lost a sense of the materiality of the very books that drew many of us to become academics in the first place? As someone charged with the role of creating a senior capstone experience for our undergraduates at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College, I felt daunted by the challenge. This is a course made up of seniors representing all majors from Bible to Modern Jewish History. The idea for the capstone seminar emerged as a way to offer students an opportunity to reflect on their experiences as undergraduates working toward two BA degrees, one at Columbia University and one at JTS. Our intention at List College was to enable our students to think deeply about how their studies have contributed to and challenged their identities as Jews.

Could the Integration of Technology Be A Solution?

While thinking about how to tackle this capstone seminar I was deeply involved in a digital humanities project with three colleagues, Michelle Chesner (Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies, Global Studies Division, Columbia University), Adam Shear (Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Pittsburgh) and Josh Teplitsky (Assistant Professor of History, Stony Brook University). We were planning a new database designed to trace the movement of individual copies of early Jewish printed books and the social and cultural dynamics at work in disseminating, reading, selling, buying, gifting, and amassing collections of them. Working from the premise that every book copy has its own personal, social, and cultural history, we created Footprints: Jewish Books through Time and Place to collate material from much-ignored fragmentary evidence present in individual books, including signatures and other ownership marks, catalogs from libraries and booksellers, estate inventories, subscription lists, and other kinds of archival documents. Such data allows historians to confront the materiality and motion of Jewish book culture and scholars of media and book history to identify and visualize networks of cultural and intellectual exchange.

When I thought about the fact that this would be one of the last classes that my students would take as seniors I thought it important for them to be looking at book copies in a similar manner to the way I was, for the purposes of the database we were building. I was aware that each book that the students had studied as majors in various fields of Jewish Studies at JTS had required them to think about its origins and the reasons for its inception, but I wanted this capstone seminar to personalize their experience with Jewish books. I wanted my students to think not only about the histories of individual book copies, but also about how they personally connect to that history. By holding class in the library and having them work with books on the shelves as well as rare books in the rare book room, I wanted them to think about books as owned by individual people, who bought, sold, gifted, inherited and collected them. How did they move from one place to another? Why and how did they wind up at JTS to form our collection?

With the incredible guidance of the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (and because of their close relationship with JTS through the senior learning designer, Kenny Hirschmann) we worked to integrate our ideas for the database with the goals of the capstone seminar. Because the course was happening while the Center was building the pilot database, each informed the other. The students gathered the data from book copies in the rare book room and made attempts to input the data. They learned how the information that they loaded in would help researchers in their study of the history of the Jewish book. They recognized both the potential contribution that such a database could make to the field, but they were also making history. As an open-source, open access database they were part of building a treasure-trove of information. Footprints brought our students into direct contact with the material object of the book, each with its own personal story. They became more attuned to the relationship between a book copy and its historical pathway and, as such, began to think more deeply about the material conditions of knowledge exchange. The experience convinced us of the importance of using the database to provide faculty with instructional material, syllabi, readings, and individual teaching reflections in order to support future classroom applications.

The Students’ Personal Experience

During one of our days in the rare book room two students discovered that 16th-17th century Hebrew rare books printed in one city, had stamps inside in Russian, as well as signatures in French, not to mention inscriptions in Italian, languages which many of our students knew. This personalized the experience of book ownership. As one student commented, "I remember when my study-partner and I spent half an hour looking at an Ein Yaakov in the rare book room, and amazingly enough, all of our time was spent examining the marginalia, cover art, and all of the inscriptions we could find. Suddenly, the book wasn’t just a book of Jewish text; it was a personal artifact, an object that belonged to individuals and was passed down across generations and across various European countries!" Indeed, my students could feel Jewish history come alive, as they considered many Jews studying the same Hebrew book-copy in different times and places. Even thinking about its survival until the present day incited them to internalize the cultural power of Jewish books. I then asked them to load the information that they had found into Footprints. It became clear to me that while drawing my students to think about the Jewish book of the past, they also were able to learn about the power of technology to preserve that past.

More significant, however, was the array of independent projects that my students designed, each intending to integrate the course theme with the ideas, texts, history, and culture represented by their majors. Each and every student chose a project that, in the end, both personalized the Jewish book for them and contributed something new to its history. Inasmuch as the students looked backward using past models including, the biblical story, the commentary, and liturgy, they also looked forward, wishing to critique and to contribute something entirely new. As a result, students used technology to enable prior narratives to speak to their experience in the contemporary Jewish world and to its present-day issues and challenges. The creation of a blog by one student, written as a commentary on the book of Esther, invited student critique of the narrative as well as direct engagement with the way it has been used in today's Jewish media. This student enabled our class to participate actively in new iterations of the Jewish book, experiencing the change from print to media, as she writes: "My experience with my own project revealed to me that I too have a stake in the Jewish book. My interpretations of biblical texts, in whatever context and from whatever perspective, hold a place in the Jewish tradition. As a Bible major, I always thought about how biblical texts could be analyzed from countless perspectives and narratives. However, I never thought about this from a broader perspective. How does my dialogue with these texts, whether in papers, conversations, or my blog, preserve my place in Jewish history, and sustain the Jewish history that I study? What does it mean to keep books like the Bible alive?"

Indeed, as we continue to build our database we are asking similar questions. How can we keep Jewish books alive for our students and for our field? Footprints makes inroads in research done on the Jewish book for the purpose of knowing more about the personal histories of books. And while we encourage our colleagues and students to continuously add footprints to this database so as to widen the knowledge we can glean about the history of the Jewish book, we also encourage professors to teach with the database so as to inspire a new generation of Jewish book culture, actively contributing to its future.

Marjorie Lehman is Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary.