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Society has changed; we must teach to our students’ strengths

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The end of November is a stressful time for university students. It’s when they write most of their term papers, prepare for exams, study for midterms and freak out about missed deadlines. Professors discover that, coincidentally, this is a “dangerous time” for great-aunts and other distant, sometimes imaginary relatives in faraway lands – they get sick or hurt, or worse, die, and prevent our students from studying, forcing them to ask for extensions.

Morbid humour aside, this is also the time of year when professors realize how much harder it is for our students to learn, compared to what it was like for us back when we were in school.

We read for pleasure. Our students are able to navigate complex multimedia messages, immerse themselves in worlds of alternate realities and figure out how to change the ringtone on their phones without looking it up first, but they do not generally like reading. And yet, we force them to both read and write, because that is how we learned and how we were taught to teach. The result: students hate writing papers almost as much as we hate grading them.

What to do? Can we come up with new ways to produce rigorous scholarship that relies on multimedia? Can our research result in plays, musical pieces, films, photographs, cartoons and video games instead of books? Can we then use them as classroom material?

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Contemporary Jewish studies scholars, artists, musicians and actors around the world often discuss blurring lines between scholarship and art, when instead of books, scholars can produce music, a theatrical performance or a visual art exhibit. Recently, the University of Toronto hosted an event devoted to the music and activism of Lin Jaldati, a Dutch-born Yiddish singer who survived Auschwitz. Instead of reading a lecture about her fascinating life, our guests, historian David Shneer and singer Jewlia Eisenberg, performed her songs and told her story via captivating anecdotes, media clips and theatrical sketches, all based on detailed insights derived from Shneer’s archival research. The students in the audience did not feel the need to revert to multitasking on their multimedia devices, as live multimedia was right in front of them, presenting scholarship in a way they can understand and appreciate.

The process of merging art and scholarship is, of course, not new. A hundred years ago, Shloyme Zaynvl Rappoport – better known under his pen name, S. Ansky – conducted a large ethnographic expedition, recording thousands of Jewish folk traditions, customs, beliefs and stories. He later wrote a play entitled The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds, a tragic love story based on this grandiose project.

In 1937, the play was made into a film in Poland and became the most famous Yiddish artistic production ever made. It is still performed in theatres worldwide. The film features a “dance of death” during a wedding, as well as the exorcism of an evil spirit trapped in a human body.

Sometimes contemporary viewers mistake these scenes for field recordings, though they were, of course, performed by professional actors who had closely studied Ansky’s recordings.

Would we be fascinated by the film today had it all been imagined by Ansky, rather than grounded in ethnographic research of a community that was almost fully destroyed in the 20th century? Would we have access to the culture of that community if it was written up exclusively in a thick academic volume rather than made into a film?

When I showed The Dybbuk in my class, the students found it slow and quite boring. They could not understand why there were so many dances that stood in the way of the plot. But after hearing the actual origins of the play in prewar Eastern Europe, they wanted to watch it again, now skipping the action parts and dwelling on ethnographic details.

I hope that one day they too will advance scholarship in a way that our descendants a hundred years from now will understand and appreciate.

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Anna Shternshis is the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and an Al and Malka Green associate professor in Yiddish studies at University of Toronto.