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New course at U of T the first of its kind

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Alexis Lerner

It may sound like gematria – the ancient system of Hebrew numerology – but a new course at the University of Toronto’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies is actually a cutting-edge exercise in how to see and demystify numbers when it comes to a host of Jewish issues.

The course, called Jews: by the numbers, started in January and offers “an introduction to research methodology, with an emphasis on research design, qualitative and quantitative methods and the digital humanities.”

Put less academically, the course teaches students how to read, evaluate and plot data in tables, charts and graphs, using the latest analysis and illustration tools. They get their data from polls, studies and analyses of North American Jewry, Holocaust survivors, anti-Semitism and the latest surveys on what millennials and members of generation Z are thinking.

Funded by the Joseph Lebovic Fund in Jewish Studies, it’s the first course of its kind at U of T, perhaps the world, and accomplishes two broad objectives.

“It gives Jewish studies representation in the social sciences, but it also brings people from all over the university into the centre for Jewish studies – people from the business school, health sciences and geography,” course instructor Alexis Lerner, a PhD candidate in political science at U of T, told The CJN. Those who have never taken a Jewish studies course are coming to the centre for Jewish studies for the first time, she said.

That’s partly because the course fulfills the requirement of students in arts and sciences to study quantitative methods – the numerical analysis of data collected through polls, questionnaires and surveys.

Traditionally, Jewish studies, particularly Holocaust studies, have been dominated by students of history and literature. “This is a way to bring Jewish studies back into the social sciences,” Lerner explained.

Essentially an applied statistics course, it teaches students to deconstruct the sort of polls and surveys that often pop up in the media: that young people’s knowledge of the Holocaust is weak, that American Jews have high rates of intermarriage, that anti-Semitism is on the rise.

“We look at the study and break it down,” said Lerner, who’s expecting to complete her doctorate in 2020. “Students discuss who participated in the study, who conducted it and on whose behalf, and how that organization arrived at particular findings.”

The class draws on many sources of data, including: the PEW Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans; the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 index of anti-Semitism, the International Tracing Service’s digital archive; and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which collates and analyzes data on political violence and protest around the world.

It’s also intended to teach students to recognize bias in the data.

The class will culminate with a collaborative coding project, in which students will listen to Holocaust survivors’ testimonies from the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation archives and assign codes based on several variables, including the survivor’s emotional state.

For example, if a subject pauses, frowns or raises his or her voice, a student could discover how those displays correlate to places of incarceration, gender, age or family status before and after the war.

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The 13 students taking the inaugural class are mostly non-Jews and come from a variety of backgrounds and academic fields, Lerner said.

She said that when the students started the course, some expressed concerns about working with numbers. But about halfway through the semester, she noticed her students engaging complicated statistical concepts like error or unpredictability “with confidence and a command of the material that demonstrates to me that they always knew how to think about data. They just needed real-world examples that they connect with in order to really grasp the concepts.”

Lerner jokingly called the course “the inside of my head,” but said it’s “really cool to see students on board and excited to learn the material.”