Spirituality, Technology, and Visual Information — Things That Our Students Might In Fact Want From the Jewish Studies Program at Syracuse


I’m still in shock. Last week thanks to a syllabus screw up, I found myself with time to kill in the Judaic Studies Seminar I’m running this semester. So I asked them what they wanted from the Judaic Studies Program. Mostly I was asking about classes. They hemmed and hawed and didn’t really say. And then it slipped out, in three groups in this precise order: [1] God, Apocalypse, Afterlife, [2] Technology and Bioethics [3] Holocaust, and Holocaust and film, [4] Folklore.  They also want [5] more information: more information on the website, including student testimonials and course syllabi, and they [6] want visual information at registration time at mid-semester in the form of flyers advertising upcoming courses for the following semester.

So is that want students want in a market-driven, technological age? Religion? There was NO, absolutely NO mention of Jewish history or “Jewish peoplehood” or Israel. It’s not what they want, or at least it’s not what they said. The student interest expressed in Religion, Technology, and Holocaust is, in fact, astoundingly “presentist.” I think we need to conceptualize, design, and pitch the study of Judaism and the Jews in new and different ways, assuming of course that as scholars, we are actually interested in what other people, in this case, our students, actually think.

Maybe it’s different at other universities and undergraduates are banging down the doors to study Jewish history. Just not at Syracuse. To be sure, Judaic Studies at Syracuse is weighted heavily towards Religion and Literature. This has to do with technical reasons relating to the fact that the study of history at Syracuse is considered a “social science” whereas Judaic Studies is a “humanities.” For screwy reasons that has everything to do with how the social studies are studied at the Maxwell School of Public Policy, which split off years ago from the College of Arts and Sciences. If I understand them correctly, the reasons had a lot to do with…money. Be that as it may, if you think the program at SU needs Jewish history, which it does, well, it’s not my dean you need to talk to.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that our students are not dumb. They know what they want better than we do, and they are much much more comfortable in the moment. Granted the students with whom I spoke represented a select group of students.  Let’s assume that most Jewish students, much less non-Jewish students have no, absolutely no, interest in academic Jewish Studies. But let’s assume this interested group represents 5%, 10%, 20% of the Jewish student body. At Syracuse, the total undergraduate student body comes out to about 6000, of whom some 20% to 25% are Jewish. To get even 5% of that number plus non-Jewish students interested maybe in religion, well that would not be bad market share.

All this assumes, of course, that one can teach religious “things” like God, apocalypse, and ideas about the afterlife historically and critically. I think one can. It also assumes that there is faculty interest in teaching this kind of “stuff.” To teach Jewish theology, I think I’d start with Job, the Zohar, and Kafka.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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12 Responses to Spirituality, Technology, and Visual Information — Things That Our Students Might In Fact Want From the Jewish Studies Program at Syracuse

  1. dmfant says:

    one thing to know what one wants, another thing to know what one needs…

    • zjb says:

      in terms of pedagogy, it’s not always a bad idea to slip what “they” need into what “they” want.

    • zjb says:

      p.s. i’m trying to figure out what your Benjamin link is. it looks very cool, but not easy to navigate. let me know a little bit about it and i’ll post the link here at jpp. you can retain your anonymity if you wish.

      • dmfant says:

        it’s a documentary on his work, UBUWEB is a great archive of sound and film:
        “One way street explores the life and work of German Jewish critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who died escaping the Gestapo in 1940. Although Benjamin’s work is little known in this country, he is regarded in Europe as one of the most influential figures in 20th Century thought.One way street provides clear and accessible introductions to some of the central ideas in Benjamin’s writings. Expert commentary from a range of English scholars situate Benjamin’s work in the context of their time and evoke a sense of the excitement that his work has generated. A heightened visual style, montage structure and strong musical treatments correspond in evocative and powerful ways with the concerns and the strategies of Benjamin himself. “

  2. efmooney says:

    The students were silent at first — they don’t have that much conviction, and they ‘pick up’ academic presentism: secular, post-secular, after-the-postsecular, deaths of self, deaths of books, death of authors, death of history, death of philosophy — all a parade where you ‘win’ by being out in front, more left, more chic, more non-passe that the rest. Not enough to be critical of some forms of liberalism (well, I DO want public education and social security, I think, and DO want the end of Kings and Popes ruling the world). I have to be against ‘neo-liberals’ or be post-hiumanist or write after-post-humanisim — with a dash of pre-nostalgic non-revolutionary-resistence. Where’s the STUFF! Of course you teach Kafka and Job! Kids love to learn those texts, but they don’t ask for them because they’re never heard of them (or think that liking them is ideologically incorrect) But they HAVE heard of (we’ teach them about) 4th wave feminism and technology and post-neo-colonialism — or Shoah — or neo-post-Zionism [or think they have] — and if they ask for such parade banners they know they’re being hip and current and at the front of the parade.

    • zjb says:

      yes, yes, Ed. but these are Syracuse undergraduates. i don’t think they were trying to be intellectually hip. that doesn’t tend to happen here. no, i daresay, they were being genuine.

  3. efmooney says:

    Yea, I think they are being genuine, but there’s very little ‘in the air’ to give them a sense of why history or texts are important, or what kind of history or texts. I just got an email from a star Syracuse philosophy major who now is entering an MA program in Ankara (sp?) in Ottoman History! So it takes a while. But shouldn’t have to ! So I think we just have to lead on our own intuitions. If it were an old ‘classics’ or ‘comp lit’ program we wouldn’t ask of students ‘what are you interested in?’ — and in the Philosophy department, no one asks that; nor would they ask that in the Geography department. Why think it’s impossible to teach the ligaments and flesh of religion? You know what they are, and students want to know!

    • zjb says:

      yes, yes, but we can’t direct students without first listening, and without being in synch. i don’t know if this is a problem in Religious Studies. i know it’s a problem in Jewish Studies, which is very much a niche academic phenomenon, unlike Phil. or Comp. Lit, which are already always responsive to their environments.

  4. efmooney says:

    Let’s say Jewish Studies emerges as a number of PhD’s decide they want to collaborate — no longer be historians in isolation, or biblical scholars in isolation, or experts in linguistics, or ethnicity but want to pool their efforts in something to be called Jewish Studies. They make the niche out of common need and desire, not put of awareness of student desire. And student desire morphs in response to instructor desire, which can be contagious. Sometimes its good to listen first, and sometimes its good, when you have something special to share, to speak first.

  5. mchaness says:

    While I have ‘lurked’ this blog for quite some time this most recent string of threads has encroached on my mind so much for the past few weeks that i feel compelled to make my first post. Zak, i have long admired your teaching style and to this day attempt to emulate how you interact with students as much as possible – and i am eternally grateful for my opportunities to act as you teaching assistant. Since then I have privately, in a tongue and cheek way, described you the ‘anti-rabbi’ when describing you to my friends, family or colleagues. not as a slight against your academic qualifications nor to say that you are indeed ‘anti-rabbi’ BUT (at SU, in the classroom and beyond) you are an authority figure concerning jewish studies, jewish peoples and judaism. to the vast majority of jewish students at SU their rabbi is the only judeo-authority figure that they have ever known (or at least the one they most associate with knowledge) and when they sit down in your class for the first time the experience can be quite jarring, unnerving and/or unsettling – which to me is a good thing. this is why i began to refer to you as the ‘anti-rabbi’…because of your abilities to discuss jewish people, jewish culture, jewish theology and jewish history outside of the faith-based, synagogue setting.

    while i cannot accurately gauge precisely what was going through your students minds i think that part of their apprehension to answering such a direct question is motivated by the tension they feel between the judaism that was taught to them in hebrew school and the judaism that is presented to them during your courses.

    thanks to zak, ed and gail for much food for thought.

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