I taught "Introduction to Jewish Studies" for the first time this past semester (Spring 2014). I let my students know at the very first meeting that the course wasn't going to be an introduction to Jewish religion, or Jewish history, or even Jewish literature. Although I think that a lot of students come to an "Introduction to Jewish Studies" expecting some or all of these things, I am fortunate to teach in a program that offers other courses that specialize in these matters. Because I am a historian, I did bring a sense of trajectory and structure to the course by relying on a broad-based narrative of Jewish history from a textbook. But my main objective for the course, week in and week out, was to provide an introduction to just what it is that Jewish Studies scholars do. As students read pieces from the textbook, I assigned them a brief scholarly article for each classroom session, engaging questions pertaining to the period about which they had read. We spent much of our time in class discussing the ways the author of the scholarly article intended to intervene in the field and to make a contribution to the literature. By exposing students to a range of scholars and methodological approaches, they got a taste of the breadth of Jewish Studies scholarship.
However, Jewish Studies scholars constantly engage primary sources directly using those methodological tools to tackle the central questions of Jewish history. To give students a taste of the role primary sources play in the field, I asked students to read selections of primary sources that animated both the narrative material in the textbook and the questions in the secondary literature.
I structured students' writing assignments to mimic the scholarly process: students were asked to participate in a library session exposing them both to hard copy and electronic resources, to write book reviews, to prepare an annotated bibliography and a paper abstract (they actually presented their abstracts to each other at the end of the course), and finally to draft a brief paper that outlined the major scholarly trends on a question of their own choosing. I hope they left my course with a facility with the basic research tools and a sense of the richness of methods Jewish Studies scholars employ, as well as an exposure to the broad arc of the Jewish historical experience.