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

Tony Michels

University of Wisconsin at Madison

What is the least successful course I have taught? If you asked my former student, Alia, she might say it was my undergraduate survey, "The American Jewish Experience." After taking the course in 1999, Alia regretted that I made the Jews seem "ordinary." I gave lectures on migration patterns, economic niches, intracommunal debates, and other aspects of social, cultural, and political history. I considered these topics interesting and significant, but Alia brought a different perspective to bear. A devout Christian (of an unspecified denomination) and an African-American, she expected a course that would somehow do justice to God's Chosen People. The Jews are special, Alia believed, so she wanted to know why I depicted them prosaically, as if they were like any other people. I do not recall what I said, but I know I failed to give a cogent answer. Alia's question pointed to others I had not adequately considered, probably because they always seemed too daunting. Does Jewish history differ in any profound way from that of other ethnic, religious, or racial groups? Is there anything inherently unique about Jewish history? If not, why do I teach it? Why not subsume Jews under some general rubric? I suppose that if I accepted the theological underpinning of Alia's criticism, I would have reached definitive conclusions by now. But, as it stands, I am still working through the questions, hopefully to the benefit of all my courses. I thank Alia for prompting me.