What is the most and least successful course you have taught?

Michael Feige

Ben-Gurion University

Coming for a year from Israel to Emory University, Atlanta, I was required to teach two courses on Israel and two general courses in Sociology. For one of those courses, I chose "Introduction to Sociology" (101). Teaching that course often in Israel, and having experience in teaching more advanced sociology courses, I was under the illusion that even if you would wake me up in the middle of the night, I would be able to stand before a class and deliver an inspiring appearance. That turned out not to be the case. I learned how culture-specific an introduction to a seemingly universalistic academic discipline can be. I knew Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, but I did not truly know my students. When teaching the sociology of religion, class, ethnicity, deviance, and gender, I found it difficult to relate to their life experiences. It was a sobering experience for me, as the supposedly easy course turned out to be the most exhausting, time-consuming, and anxiety-generating that I have ever done.

My best classes would be small seminars of highly motivated advanced students, discussing contested topics of Israeli historiography, touching upon their identity as Israelis, their moral convictions, and also, tacitly, the turbulent academic world that they hope to join. Those miraculous, intense encounters sometimes do happen, and when they do, they may have a profound influence on the students. This year, however, my first-year introductory course on Israeli society, with seventy students, is becoming an unexpected pleasure. It all started by accident. Checking attendance, I realized that the students—for reasons beyond my grasp—added their identity numbers to their names. I told them that, not being from the Mossad, I have no use for those numbers. I asked them to write their majors instead. The following week, they were requested to add their hometown. Growing in confidence, I moved to all kinds of simple opinion polls, presenting the results in the following class. When discussing the dominance of the army in the Israeli cultural sphere, I pointed out that last week, when the question was what Israeli movie they liked best, most students chose movies having the army as their main theme. The question on the favorite Israeli song showed that most students chose songs that were composed and performed before they were born, and about a third picked songs probably older than their parents. And the most popular prime minister, according to students of Israel Studies at BenGurion University, was Yitzhak Rabin, with the namesake of the university coming only second. Learning about Israeli society became a joint experience full of surprises, for me as well as for the students. For Israeli students, studying their own society is both thrilling and unnerving; the polls, limited and "unscientific" as they were, stressed the connection between the material learned and their living experiences, in a totally different and more satisfying way than my "Introduction to Sociology" course mentioned before.