Great Professor Series: Susannah Heschel

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Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies

The Dartmouth Review has, on occasion, been accused of unnecessary negativity. In the spirit of promoting a better Dartmouth for future generations, we have decided to showcase those members of the faculty who exemplify what it means to be a Dartmouth professor. We looked for excellence in teaching, work that bolsters Dartmouth’s reputation, and investment in the Dartmouth community.

We chose a professor who comes from a long line of scholars. The child of a famous theologian who helped drive the American Civil Rights movement, our professor continues his legacy by challenging students’ perceptions of orthodoxy. She is considered one of the foremost scholars on the founder of Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger, and has written authoritatively on Christianity in Nazi Germany and Jewish–Muslim relations. To list her honors and achievements would exceed the present word limit, but it should suffice to note that she has sat on the World Zionist Congress and received four honorary doctorates. Our professor, the chair of the Jewish Studies Program and the Eli Black professor of Jewish Studies, is Susannah Heschel. The Review sat down with Heschel to understand what it is that makes am outstanding Dartmouth professor.

The Dartmouth Review: How did you come to decide to be a professor?

Susannah Heschel (SH): Well, I grew up surrounded by professors. My father was a professor and all of my parents’ friends were professors – they were mostly Jewish scholars who had to flee Nazi Europe. There was something extraordinary about the conversations I grew up around. They were very much centered on Europe, on Jewish concerns, on European culture (especially German culture) and on the value of academic work.

I grew up in a home that was permeated with every aspect of Judaism: philosophical, theological, mystical, religious, rabbinic, Hasidic, legal and haggadic, so I had a love of everything Jewish. But it was even more than that. People might say they love an object, but for me it was part of my being. There was the very deep and intense, constant desire for learning and thinking, and thinking critically. It wasn’t enough to just read a book and say, “Well what was the argument.” I wanted to look at what was wrong with the argument and what should the next step be. That was something very challenging about the world I grew up in and the way my father raised questions. That kind of thinking is really the essence of academic life, and I’ve never left that world.

TDR: Can you tell us about your first years teaching?  

SH: I had a dream of teaching at a small liberal arts college and thought I would stay on the east coast. Then I got a call from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, asking me to come for an interview. I didn’t even want to go, but my advisor said “Oh, you have to go if they invite you.” I went there, I had a great time, and I decided to go and teach there. I had never met people from some of the small Bible churches in Dallas, the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and so on, so it was a very good experience in that sense. I had some wonderful students during my time there, who I adored, and I still think about to this day.  I miss them, and their reasons for taking courses on Judaism touched me deeply. I found them very moving and inspiring.

One student I had was Asian American, grew up in Dallas, and joined the military after he finished high school. His buddies, many of them in the military, were killed in the bombing in Beirut. He lost some very, very good friends and he was in despair. It turns out that where he was stationed, there were a lot of drugs, and he became addicted to cocaine. He was back home to Dallas, and he decided that he was going to have to stop this addiction or he would lose his life. So he enrolled in two classes at SMU in Jewish Studies, with me. Why? Because he felt that the Jews had conquered overwhelming odds, and he wanted to understand what it takes to overcome those odds when the world is against you.  He did quit cocaine, he took quite a few classes with me, he graduated with honors, and he was accepted into a graduate program at Harvard.  I’ll never forget him, of course. I find that an amazing story, and I have many similar ones from my years at SMU.

TDR: How do you see Dartmouth as different from previous jobs?

SH: I think Dartmouth is the best place in the world to teach if you are a professor. The students, are great the colleagues are smart, and the library is fantastic. The size of the place makes it possible for colleagues and co-workers to be friends and to be helpful to each other.

When I go to a lecture, when a speaker comes to Dartmouth, the quality of the questions is much higher than at other schools.  I’ve even been to some not-great lectures that have turned into excellent events simply because of the quality of the questions.

TDR: What are some of the challenges of being a Dartmouth professor?

SH: One of the challenges, of course, is the location. Sometimes I wish we had Jewish institutions in the area, because I have students who come from overseas or have never been to a synagogue, and I would love to take them to a synagogue so that they can see what it is. When I taught in Cleveland I would send the students out and have them compare three different synagogues, and compare the differences between the services and so on.

TDR: Dartmouth is unique as an undergraduate-focused Ivy League. Do you see that as a strength?

SH: I’ll give you an example: I was once offered a position at a big research university. What it meant was that I would walk into a large auditorium for one hour, two times a week, and give a lecture. And then there would be half a dozen graduate students who were TAs, and they would meet with the students for discussion, grading all the papers, et cetera. I felt that it was such an anonymous thing to do. It’s a terrible thing – I just walk into a room! I wouldn’t get to know anybody, we wouldn’t have any interaction, I wouldn’t hear what they thought, I wouldn’t be stimulated by them.

TDR: How does the focus on teaching benefit your own academic growth?

SH: When I teach a class, I am forced to think about the about the assumptions that I have about a topic. I’ll give you an example: What is interesting about nineteenth century Germany-Jewish history? I’ve always found it interesting – it’s my period, it’s what I write about. But when I teach it to somebody who doesn’t know anything about Judaism or Jewish history, let alone the nineteenth century, how do I explain to them why it is exciting, why they should want to study it? Why would they even want to take a course in Jewish history? Most of the material that you learn about in an undergraduate class, you may forget twenty years later, but there will always be something that will stay with you. What is that something? I have to decide: What do I want the students to take away that they will always remember, that will change the way they think, and that will also be something they bring to their other courses.

TDR: How do you ensure Jewish Studies stays relevant at Dartmouth?

SH: I think it’s impressive that when we looked at our enrolment figures in Jewish Studies, we estimate that somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of Dartmouth undergraduate students have taken a Jewish Studies course. We are a department that is interesting, that is stimulating, that is attractive to students, and our enrolments are going up, at a time when Jewish Studies courses at most other universities have plummeted. We offer a great deal: not only in the courses we teach, but in the visiting professors we bring, and the cross-listings we do with other departments, whether it’s sociology or anthropology or history or comparative literature, and in the many conferences and guest speakers we bring to campus. We are a very active department. There has never been a term when I’ve taught and I haven’t brought guest speakers to meet with my students. When I taught courses on the history of the Holocaust, just about every major historian of the Holocaust came to Dartmouth to speak.

TDR: Why do you bring so many guest speakers and conferences to campus?

SH: Why do I do it? I love it! I don’t know why other people don’t do it. I can’t even count the number of conferences I have put on at Dartmouth. First of all, I have to say that Dartmouth makes it possible. The funds available, the resources, the hotel space, and the ease with which one can organize catering or advertisement is much easier here than at most other places. I think that to culminate a class by bringing in a dozen scholars in the field to talk to the students is fantastic for them, and it’s great for me too. There was one time a couple of years ago when I did this, I had a marvelous array of speakers, but there was one in particular…. He got up to give his lecture, and as it happens, I had a very big class, and some of the more macho guys from my class came to that particular lecture. The speaker was a macho guy, and he got up there and they bonded during his lecture. He was a role model for them – it was marvelous. I think it’s important for the students to see someone who is like them, to see that you don’t have to be some kind of otherworldly, ethereal person to be a great scholar. I like to show my students that.

TDR: What can Dartmouth do to improve its reputation?

SH: I worry sometimes when I go overseas – and I go frequently – to lecture or teach in Europe or South Africa, Dartmouth is not as well-known as it should be. I think we need to make ourselves better-known in academic circles internationally. We should encourage faculty to give papers at international conferences in other countries. Student exchanges should be more active. That is when we have an FSP in a foreign country, we should have guest speakers from that country come in and meet our students and get to see the level that our students are at. We have the Harris professorship. I’ve brought in maybe ten or twelve professors through the Harris professorship, which only brings in people from Germany. It would be nice to have additional endowments to bring in guest professors from other places.

TDR: How do you see the role of the Dartmouth professor in student life?

SH: I don’t feel that there are as many opportunities here for informal get-togathers with students as I’ve experienced at other institutions. For example, when I’ve taught elsewhere, I have been invited to talk to students in the evening in a dorm lounge, and that doesn’t happen here, at least not with me. I don’t feel that the student life people do enough to foster relationships between faculty and students. I had once proposed taking a trip to Boston with my students. It was not easy to arrange, and I dropped it. But I also have to say that I appreciate the way students behave here, in contrast to some other institutions. There are of course occasional outbreaks, in terms of misbehavior, in terms of expressing political views. Everybody knows that. But I don’t see what they have in some other universities, for example and Israel Apartheid week. We don’t have that here.