"We teach what we want, when we want, and how we want, and if we're happy, our students will be happy."
My department chair offered these unabashedly individualistic words of orientation and guidance the week I received my job offer from Colby College. Who knew that academic freedom could be so free from constraints? With the partial exception of some course scheduling issues, my colleague's description of the Religious Studies Department has proven true. As the slogan of my adopted hometown in Maine puts it, "Yes, life's good here."
Over the past eight years, however, I've found that I can best realize the potential that this freedom affords by means of collaboration in pursuit of shared goals, not the individualism that is so common within and outside of academia. For that reason, the advice I offer to junior colleagues and those who have just received job offers from other universities is somewhat different from the guidance I received at the start of my own career. "You have great freedom to teach—and research—whatever and however you want. To find happiness and fulfillment in your work, and to increase the likelihood that you'll earn tenure along the way, focus on the intersections between your passions and your institution's priorities."
Colby is a liberal arts college that seeks to foster transformational facultystudent collaboration as well as meaningful engagement with the people of Maine. I have chosen to tailor many facets of my professional life to align with these aspects of Colby's mission. This alignment enables me to work in various partnerships with colleagues, students, and other community members rather than merely as an isolated academic. The professor I have become is quite different from the one who would have emerged at another university—and I have no regrets.
I can indeed teach whatever and however I want, but my chair neglected an important caveat during our initial conversation: if my students aren't happy, they won't take my courses and I won't be happy either. Seminars on ancient and medieval texts, the subject of my formal academic training, simply do not appeal to many Colby students, so I have developed competence and even expertise in areas I could never have imagined in graduate school. This past year, for example, I taught courses on Israeli popular music and, at the request of several students, on Zionist-Palestinian-British relations during the Mandate period. The most unanticipated of my Colby courses, and among the most rewarding, explores the history of Jews in Maine. A number of students have gone on to conduct advanced research on local Jewish history, as have I. One student copresented with me at an AJS conference, and I coauthored a forthcoming academic article with another.
Colby's ethos has shaped not only what I teach but also how I teach. Since earning tenure, I have chosen to spend a tremendous amount of time overhauling my courses to introduce pedagogical techniques that better engage my students. I regularly involve advanced students in course design and revision, and I have reshaped portions of my scholarly research agenda in order to facilitate collaboration with undergraduates. When viewed in the either/or terms common at research universities, I chose to sacrifice scholarly productivity for the sake of pedagogy. This conventional dichotomy, however, feels false at a liberal arts college: my teaching informs my research no less than the reverse, and my professional life is richer because research and teaching go hand in hand.
The freedom to rethink conventional academic norms in pursuit of personal passions and institutional priorities also underpins my professional engagement with Maine's Jewish communities. I regularly give talks around the state because I believe that serving as a public intellectual is not only enjoyable but also a vital part of my job in a region with very few Jewish Studies scholars. For the same reason, I spend a lot of time arranging guest lectures at Colby and organizing public conferences that feature presentations by students as well as scholars. Crucially, I was able to persuade my colleagues and dean to count all of this work as service to the college—equivalent to committee work—for the purposes of merit, tenure, and promotion reviews. Creating learning opportunities for the general public, after all, advances Colby's commitment to serving the people of Maine.
Principles that underpin my use of the freedom I experience—attention to institutional priorities, pursuit of opportunities for partnership, and a willingness to rethink conventional dichotomies—also motivate my work as the director of Colby's Jewish Studies program. Since that program made public scholarship a central element of its mission, Colby has become the state's largest provider of learning opportunities on Jewish topics. Students and faculty benefit from this arrangement at least as much as other community members. Building on this track record, I helped to establish Colby's new Center for Small Town Jewish Life. This center brings the Jewish Studies program, Colby Hillel, and the local synagogue into formal partnerships, bridging the divides between academia and Jewish communal organizations.
The Center for Small Town Jewish Life creates vibrant educational and cultural programs while fostering a sense of community that encompasses students and Maine residents alike. This unconventional collaborative endeavor advances the shared priorities of its three partner entities even as it preserves the autonomy and distinct objectives of each. The benefits of this partnership for Colby's Jewish Studies program have thus far included a second endowed chair, greater visibility, more effective public programming, and expanded opportunities for students to learn from their engagement with the people of Maine. The center's collaborative model is designed to be replicable at other small-town colleges and universities.
It's fitting that Colby's Center for Small Town Jewish Life finds its administrative home within the college's division of academic affairs: its very existence stems from the freedom that academic life can offer to professors who work outside of customary boxes. Through collaboration in pursuit of shared priorities, Jewish Studies faculty are ideally positioned to seize the interdisciplinary and interinstitutional opportunities that such freedom affords.
David M. Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College. A member of the Religious Studies Department, he directs Colby's Jewish Studies Program and is associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. His current research explores the ways Christians have used ideas about Jews to think about Muslims.