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

Nancy Sinkoff

Rutgers University

I often tell my students that crafting a convincing historical argument can be compared to an attorney making a summation argument to a jury. She has to tell a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, and must adduce evidence that convinces the jury that the narrative holds together and is "true," with the understanding that the evidence has been selected in order to make a specific claim.

I like to tell historical narratives and my most successful teaching, therefore, takes place in two broad surveys of Jewish history, where I teach frontally and tell students how I conceptualize the Jewish past. The first, "JSC 2: The Early Modern/Modern Experience," starts at the end of the fifteenth century and culminates in the interwar years in both Europe and the United States, and the second, "Jewish Power, Jewish Politics," begins with the war with Rome and ends with the contestations between the government of the modern State of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants in the territories.

In JSC 2, students are exposed to the political, economic, social, and religious transformations that marked the transition from subjects to citizens, from a community whose status was based on privileges to that of individuals with rights, from societies based on hierarchy to those committed to equality, and from identities based on fate to those based on self-conscious choice. A Western bias, with the centrality of the process of political emancipation at its core, is explicit in this narrative and I foreground it in my introductory lecture. At the end of the course, we test the hypotheses of these transformations by comparing the structure, identities, politics, varieties of religious commitments, and languages of interwar Jewry to those of their early modern predecessors. In general, I feel that I have convinced the jury, that is, of helping them understand how vastly different contemporary Jewish life is from its premodern past.

In "Jewish Power, Jewish Politics," I approach the wide variety of Jewish political behavior in the diaspora by presenting students with a simplified dichotomy between the quiescent politics of the Sages and the adversarial politics of the rebels during the War with Rome. We then move rapidly through Jewish history, examining the Bar Kokhba revolt, the "royal alliance" in medieval Iberia, the "Noble-Jewish" nexus in early modern Poland, and the étatism of the Haskalah, highlighting the fact that for most of Jewish history, dina dimalkhuta dina was understood by Jewish leaders to be the best strategy for safeguarding Jewish interests and security. We then look at the birth of modern, radical Jewish politics in Eastern Europe and its migration to the American diaspora, spending time with the modern Jewish labor movement, the attraction of Jews to socialism, communism, liberalism, and to postwar neoconservatism, interrogating the topics in light of the introductory dichotomy. Sections on Jewish political behavior during the Holocaust and among Jewish settlers who do not wish to uphold the dina of a Jewish malkhuta close the course. While I always pose rhetorical questions, encourage questions, and read primary sources with my students, the course's success has derived, in great part, from my mastery of the material and ability to communicate it in a frontal style to my students.

My least successful courses have been seminars, no matter what the topic ("Modern Jewish Historiography," "Community and Crisis," "What If You Can't Go Home? Cultural Effects of Nazism and Communism on Postwar Lives," "Jewish Historical Fiction") and I attribute this to the fact that my undergraduates, in general, are daunted by the demands of reading sufficient historical material on their own, analyzing its key features, and articulating its meanings in small group discussions. I have come to the conclusion that in order for seminars to be successful, I have to spend far more time in class on the mechanics of being a student of history and far less time on actual historical content and texts. Seminars are thus far less satisfying to me as an educator, and I therefore prefer frontal lecturing, enhanced by relevant films, analysis of images, and structured in-class discussions of primary sources.