What are the three biggest challenges you face as director of a Jewish Studies program?

Leah S. Marcus

Vanderbilt University

The Program in Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt is young, having been founded seven years ago by Jack M. Sasson, the Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible, and then-Provost Nicholas Zeppos, along with an enthusiastic cohort of advisory faculty. We were fortunate to come into the world with adequate funding and ample administrative support. There have been challenges, however:

(1) Before the creation of the Jewish Studies program, there was very little history of institutional involvement in Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt. The undergraduate population has grown from 2 percent Jewish in the 1990s to 16–18 percent today. But we are a relatively small university and can't depend on "heritage" students to fill our full range of courses—not only those labeled Holocaust, which are perennially oversubscribed. We also need to ensure that all of our courses appeal to a mixed population of Jewish Studies majors and minors and interested students from outside the Jewish Studies umbrella. I would not describe these as problems because we seem to be successful in addressing them: enrollments are steady and climbing, which is what one hopes for in a young, expanding program.

(2) A major challenge at the moment is to convince the administration that Jewish Studies is an area studies field that draws on many disciplines but is nevertheless deserving of the same respect and autonomy granted other, less diverse, academic fields. This is not a problem for our faculty when working with each other. They share a deep knowledge of Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and tend to adopt critical approaches that fall under the broad rubric of cultural studies; they have several methodologies in common, such as an interest in manuscript work and expertise in the close reading of texts. Yet the administration wants its Jewish Studies faculty to publish in discipline-focused journals—literature or history or sociology or religious studies—in order to ratify their competence as scholars. Undervaluation from the perspective of more established disciplines is a problem that is to some extent inherent in all interdisciplinary work, and it will exist for us for some time.

(3) A major challenge for the immediate future is to create a successful doctoral program that allows students the flexibility to work across departments to pursue their areas of interest. We currently offer an MA degree, but students wishing to go further must either move to another university or enroll in an existing Vanderbilt PhD program and an additional certificate in Jewish Studies. Our initial goal is to fund fellowships for doctoral candidates so that we can grant our own free-standing PhD in cooperation with other departments at Vanderbilt.