As a professor of Jewish Studies, how do you perceive your responsibility to the Jewish community?

Ilan Stavans

Amherst College

I understand the classroom as a collective brain, one made of smaller thinking engines that, in their interaction, enhance its aggregate capacity. This brain doesn't live in isolation. It is part of a larger body we call society with which it exists in communication. What happens in the classroom is a reflection of the patterns of society at large and vice versa. My responsibility as the driving force of that brain is, thus, a responsibility for society as a whole. Another way of answering this question is by saying that my Jewishness defines everything I do, including what I write and how I teach. It is never a database or an agenda; it's a sensibility. Teaching and writing, writing and teaching—the two go hand in hand.

But I'm not a professor of Jewish Studies or, for that matter, of any other discipline. Disciplines might be useful tools to understand the world but they are obnoxiously constraining, especially when it comes to articulating knowledge in the classroom. I don't even like to be called a professor; the noun is too pompous for me. It often serves as an excuse to falsify and pontificate. I'm simply a teacher. My obligation as a teacher is to inspire students, to make them think broadly, to deepen their curiosity. That obligation is done by erasing the borders of disciplines. What I hope students get isn't information but pleasure—intellectual pleasure. And the capacity to articulate questions.