I think a lot of people who come to Jewish Studies from the outside underestimate the nature of the commitment demanded by the field. Myself, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to teach. I still do. But my ideas about teaching in general, and Jewish Studies in particular, have changed.
A lot of us remember our college experiences and say to ourselves, “that is what teaching would be like!” We envision the iconic college professor standing before the class, expounding on whatever, resplendent in tweed vests and sportcoats. Not so long ago a smoking pipe would have been part of this picture. We think, “what fun to have that job!” But romanticizing inevitably leads to judgements on the aesthetics, judging the forest before getting to know the trees. Mistake!
Our culture encourages big picture thinking while our profession inevitably relies on details. Our country celebrates the successes of legendary CEOs Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman the people with the ideas that got them “the good things in life,” and so we celebrate grand ideas. We don’t hear much about their Operations teams, the people responsible for ordinary day to day execution. Where is the glamour in that? But as future teachers, whether on the forefront of the classroom or huddled away in subterranean library stacks, we are at once CEO and Operations teams. We steer the ship…and then we get out and push.
I’m still wrapping my mind around everything that this entails, but a big part must be a constant awareness of our audience. This is no simple matter, as anyone who takes a Hebrew College course knows! My horizons expanded enormously my first year, not only from the classes themselves, but also from the wonderful variety of students around me. I’ve met people whose viewpoints are so far from my own, that I never could have dreamed about finding mutual understanding. Yet this is just what has happened. As we refined our ideas, I realized something special was happening. We were not only learning how to talk with one another, but also how to teach one another. Isn’t this kind of communication in our postmodern, and yet highly tribal world, a genuine miracle? Yes.
But here is the big picture: Our future students will be different from us, will process teaching differently from us. Those of us destined for research may never even see them. No matter what, we must always be aware that we are not just talking at them, but teaching them. We must “hear” them, however they communicate, and respond appropriately. Affirmative communication, a true miracle indeed!
Isn’t this something worth pondering as we enter the High Holy Days? If we truly want to repair our broken world, doesn’t a pledge to study to become better teachers justify our inscription in the Book of Life?