“All right… ready, set…. go!” I tell my students, clicking the powerpoint slide forward. The name of an academic source is the only thing on the slide. Computer keys clacking fills the room for a few seconds, and then…
“I found it,” a student declares happily.
“Good! Did you find a full text of the journal article, online, or…”
“No, it says you have to go to the library to get it…”
“Right, or you can probably InterLibrary Loan the source,” I say, asking the student to explain how she found the source using the university’s search engine and how she could tell that while the journal article was in available in the stacks in the library, it’s not available online. I explain the ILL system to the class. Source Finding Day is a tradition I implemented after discovering that several of my students were using google to search for sources instead of the university library’s website. Students are encouraged to bring smartphones, tablets, or laptops to class and they race to find particular sources. Students seem to enjoy the racing aspect of the “game”, I enjoy giving my students time to learn how to use the library’s website.
After the class races to find particular sources, the class transitions into looking for sources for their particular research projects. Students quietly look for sources, occasionally asking me for help finding academic sources for their individual research topics that they have chosen. All of my courses require students to complete some sort of research project, as I strongly believe that the humanities university classroom should instill students with an understanding of how to find and assess sources from a variety of mediums. (My understanding of the importance of this skill has only grown since the 2018 presidential election and the awareness of inaccurate news pieces commonly shared on social media platforms such as Facebook.) While I understand that some may think I am “wasting” all-too-precious class time for students to work on individual research projects and overall research skills, I think the rewards of ensuring my students have the foundation necessary to complete their research is well worth it.
My focus on research and research projects follows my other pedagogic commitments: I believe that my primary role as a university educator is to instill in students the following three overarching concerns (1) critical thinking skills, (2) understanding and creating complex argumentation, and (3) appreciating the complex ways in which religion and religious identity(ies) can create and support particular identities and subjectivities. It is much less important to me that students exit my classes having memorized a particular set of facts about Judaism or religion in America, but rather that they appreciate the porosity of the categories of “Judaism” and “religion” themselves.
I endeavor to make my classrooms laboratories of thought: places in which students can learn new pathways of thought and new ways of thinking. Group work, small group discussions, and large-group discussions are key for this pedagogic style; I rarely lecture for a full class period. I decenter myself and my own subjectivity as much as possible in the classroom. This enables students to feel free to think in ways that may be diametrically opposed to the way I think. That said, I do not believe that keeping my own background or thoughts a secret the best way to achieve this: instead of making the professor “neutral” (which I suspect this is the reason many professors in the religious classroom refuse to share if they are involved in a religious community outside of the classroom) I believe it puts the professor in a rarefied position of pretending to not have a personal subjectivity or orientation towards the course materials, which is of course impossible.
Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and I make every effort to make my classrooms a safe space. Besides simply taking basic steps that I consider necessary (asking for students’ pronouns and preferred names, having a no-tolerance policy for hate speech, and ensuring that my syllabus is reflective of the diversity of the academy), I consider universal design at every step of syllabus construction. A class must be accessible for it to be a safe space.