The Freedom to Teach across Boundaries

Cecile E. Kuznitz

Since arriving at Bard College in 2003 I have served as director of its Jewish Studies Program. Until this fall I was also the sole faculty member teaching full-time in Jewish Studies (in addition to being a member and currently chair of the Historical Studies Program). On the one hand, the need to ground the Jewish Studies curriculum has impelled me to develop a wide range of courses in the field. At the same time, given the general climate on American campuses and Bard's small size—just under 2,000 undergraduates—I have had to diversify my teaching repertoire beyond Jewish Studies in order to attract sufficient enrollments to fill my class slots. While this need to broaden my course offerings in two directions has presented challenges, Bard's support for the humanities and flexible curricular structure has also afforded me the freedom to explore new topics and expand my intellectual horizons.

To complement offerings in my core fields of modern Jewish history and East European Jewish history, I developed a course on Yiddish culture in translation that incorporates a great deal of literature, theater, and film. This class builds on Bard's strength in the arts and well as its support for interdisciplinary approaches. When some graduates of the course asked to study the language itself I was able to offer a tutorial in beginning Yiddish. Through this exercise I familiarized myself with a number of resources and techniques for foreign language instruction. In this way I have taken advantage of Bard's flexibility both to move beyond the discipline of history and to extend my pedagogical range.

As I soon realized that student interest in Jewish Studies would not sustain my full teaching load I considered strategies to attract a broader constituency. Thinking about aspects of the Jewish experience that I might fruitfully place in a comparative context resulted in a new History course entitled "Diaspora and Homeland." The inspiration for this class came in part from personal curiosity: I had been intrigued to see stores selling both saris and reggae music near my childhood home in Queens, New York. I learned that this neighborhood now houses the United States' largest Indo-Caribbean and Indo-Guyanese community, descendants of South Asians who crossed the Atlantic to work as indentured servants after the end of slavery in the Americas. Their sense of a double displacement from the Indian subcontinent and then the Caribbean mirrors the experience of American Jews who recall both the Land of Israel and Eastern Europe as lost homelands.

The semester begins with a consideration of theoretical literature on Diaspora and the place of this concept in Jewish life and thought. We then examine the African and Asian experiences, allowing students to draw comparisons among the case studies themselves. In the course of discussion and written work they have developed intriguing parallels between the thought of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Marcus Garvey and between the ways that Jewish and Chinese immigrants in the United States relate to the "old country." The course attracts a diverse audience; its most recent iteration included students from African American, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese, Tibetan, Israeli, Turkish, Polish, and Ukrainian backgrounds. As a professor of Jewish Studies it is gratifying to see such a range of students exposed to Jewish history and to discover this material's relevance to their own primary areas of interest.

As much as I learned from my forays into African and Asian Studies, I was always conscious of my limited knowledge of these fields in comparison to my own area of expertise. I was thus happy subsequently to co-teach "Diaspora and Homeland" with a colleague specializing in African American history. My teaching partner argued strongly in favor of retaining the unit on Asia, in part to broaden the comparative dimension of the course, in part to force us both out of our comfort zones. What we lost in the depth of knowledge we could draw upon in the classroom we gained in the sense of a shared intellectual journey with our students. While in a large university such teaching beyond our fields might well be frowned upon, I have found that Bard's ethos as a liberal arts college provides the freedom for such curricular explorations.

Bard's small size and flexible curriculum has also allowed me to develop my interest in urban history into a teaching field. Another course that I regularly offer with a colleague looks comparatively at several cities in Europe and the United States. One of our case studies is Vilna, which has been a focus of my own research. I use Vilna's complex history to trace a number of themes—such as the impact of shifting borders and ruling powers—from the medieval to the post-Soviet era, themes that would not arise from our consideration of American and West European urban centers. While I incorporate my own work on Vilna's Jewish community I stress the city's notably diverse population, asking students to compare narratives of Jewish Vilna alongside those of Polish Wilno and Lithuanian Vilnius.

By incorporating a case study much less familiar than others covered in the course, such as Chicago or Paris, we hope to expand students' perspective on the history of the West and perhaps even to spark an interest in the region of Eastern Europe. At the same time, the freedom to teach my own specialization alongside a range of other examples has helped me to think critically about patterns of urban settlement, politics, and culture in a comparative context.

Like colleagues at many other institutions, I have faced the dilemma of sustaining enrollments in a period of retrenchment for the humanities. In addition, I have had to think creatively about how a Jewish Studies program with limited resources can productively serve the interests of a diverse campus. Yet I have found that the freedom afforded by the small size and flexibility of a liberal arts college like Bard has also opened up possibilities for intellectual growth and curricular innovation.

Cecile E. Kuznitz is associate professor of History and director of Jewish Studies and Historical Studies at Bard College. She also serves as senior academic advisor at the Max Weinreich Center, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Her book YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation was published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press.