Connecting Conversations

By Scarlett D’Anna ’12

Last fall, Professor Jonathan Judaken joined the college with an unusual opportunity: to determine the parameters and establish the scope of his position as Rhodes’ first Spence L. Wilson Chair in the Humanities. Tasked with further developing intellectual life on campus, Judaken began by speaking with students and faculty about the culture of Rhodes. These foundational conversations, concerning the college’s particular character and needs, informed his primary work as chair.

A sustained commitment to dialogue runs throughout all the initiatives Judaken has enacted over his first year. With the development of a program advisory committee he has created an avenue for faculty to communicate and collaborate across department lines, and his efforts to encourage cross-listing courses and promote team-teaching similarly enhance interdisciplinary discourse. The Communities in Conversation lecture series—the first step in Judaken’s four-fold plan to facilitate discussion among students, faculty and the wider Memphis community—was met with great success.

“We need to have more conversations with each other outside of the narrow silos of our own departmental borders and boundaries,” Judaken says. Education that is confined within a particular academic discipline may limit students’ interests to one realm of intellectual concerns or one method for discerning truths. Rather, Judaken advocates a question-driven approach to learning that encourages “you to follow the answers wherever they lead—and that doesn’t stop at the doorstep of your department.” 

Professor Judaken’s unique methods are clearly shaped by his own upbringing and education. As a Jew living under South African apartheid, he was a religious minority in a predominantly Christian country; yet, he was also “white,” which guaranteed inclusion among the racially dominant group. Advantaged but marginalized, both an insider and outsider, he says his experience on the perimeters of privilege has been central to his work. Part of his interest in subjects like existentialism, racism and the so-called Jewish Question stem from a desire to confront and come to terms with his own past.

After immigrating to the United States as a teenager, Judaken began his academic career at the University of California, San Diego. He completed his undergraduate education with a degree in Philosophy, spent a year in Paris studying French and French culture and history, and then returned to America to pursue a doctorate in History at the University of California, Irvine. Postdoctoral study took him to Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he spent two years learning from scholars of Jewish history. From there he went on to take a position at the University of Memphis, where he later became the Dunavant Professor of History and director of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities. Judaken’s scholarly contributions are both prolific and wide in scope: He has edited, coedited and written several publications that examine issues of race, prejudice, Jews and Judaism, tolerance and existentialism.

Now firmly settled in Memphis, he is excited to share his manifold intellectual interests with Rhodes students and staff. Judaken says he was drawn to the opportunity to innovate and build academic community in a small, liberal arts environment. His position is the first of its kind on this campus, and one of the challenges he faces as Wilson Chair is integrating the interests of faculty and student groups into newly created structures.

Consider the program advisory committee, which Judaken established in an effort to better facilitate the organization of intellectual life on campus and encourage greater dialogue among disciplines. This group, convened for the first time in the spring, includes faculty from almost every department in the humanities and social sciences, representatives from many of the college’s endowed lectureships, every director of an interdisciplinary studies program and two student leaders (from the Rhodes Lecture Board and Student Government, respectively). “The idea is that the committee will be the main entity through which we will do the organizing of public events,” says Judaken. By involving faculty and students in this process, he hopes to develop an anticipatory annual schedule—highlighting all the guest lecturers and major projects 18 months ahead of time—which is attuned to the college’s interests and generates a sense of cohesive intellectual community on campus.

Judaken has developed a four-part platform for establishing institutionalized dialogue among students and faculty, across disciplines, and between campus and the broader community. The linchpin of the series, Communities in Conversation, debuted this spring. Judaken felt that “there should be an integrated marketing platform for the most significant intellectual events taking place on campus. We could build audiences for these events in accord with a coherent marketing strategy.” A series of bookmarks and flyers peppered the campus before every lecture, heralding the coming speaker to the student body. Judaken caught the attention of groups outside of the college as well, advertising through the local NPR station, Facebook and the alumni email list. By directing the marketing through these social networking sites, Judaken says he hopes to “broaden the audience and establish a group of people with a variety of relationships to Rhodes.” Judaken’s promotional methods were clearly successful; most of the Communities in Conversation events boasted standing-room-only crowds.

The second part of the Conversations sequence is designed specifically for professors. Modeled on the European salon, Tasty Conversations invites faculty to gather for a meal. Participants discuss issues pertinent to the humanities, to Rhodes as a liberal arts institution and to their particular intellectual pursuits.

Great Conversations, slated to begin next year, will feature two faculty members from different departments discussing a common issue over lunch provided for students. Judaken already has plans for one of the first events, which may be framed as a debate. “We’ll hear from an anthropologist and a biologist about the issue of evolution,” he says. “It’s a central category for both of their disciplines, but they don’t necessarily understand it in the same way.” Explicitly for undergraduates, Great Conversations will provide students opportunities to examine problems from multiple academic perspectives.

The fourth piece in the series will be a class available through the Meeman Center. Called Scholarly Conversations, this program will open up Rhodes’ intellectual community to include interested people from off campus. The course work, taught by Judaken and other faculty, will correspond with an impending public event. Later, when participants attend the event, they will already be actively engaged with the subject matter.

Once all four programs are fully implemented, they will work in tandem to encourage academic activity and cultivate intellectual community on campus and beyond. The Communities in Conversation events will sit at the center of this series, influencing the topics that faculty, students and other participants will explore through Tasty, Great, and Scholarly Conversations. Thus, the components will create an interconnected discursive web. So, he explains, “When the public event happens, you have a really informed audience who’s been participating in conversations about the material on various levels.”

Judaken’s commitment to communication across disciplines clearly translates to his work in the classroom. This spring he taught a course titled Intellectuals and Politics, which was cross-listed under History, Religious Studies and Philosophy. The students included majors from each of those departments, as well as from the sciences and Greek and Roman Studies. Having input from so many disciplines shaped the class dynamic accordingly. 

“We had theological discussions, philosophical discussions, historical discussions,” says Judaken, and “that enabled a genuine interdisciplinary dialogue, because of the perspectives the students were bringing to bear.” He describes the experience in somewhat unconventional terms: “Teaching it, at times, was like intellectual rock ’n’ roll.” 

Despite his attention to multiplicity and interest in boundary-crossing conversations, Judaken remains aware and respectful of departmental borders. “You don’t want a collapse of disciplines,” he says. “Students must have a solid grounding within a certain tradition, even if they’re pursuing bridge majors. To be trained well, you should be trained from some disciplinary perspective or another.” Still, he insists that the most important questions are not circumscribed within such academic perspectives, and neither should our answers be bound by them.

Judaken describes his work at Rhodes as a balancing act. His challenge is to harmonize seemingly disparate elements: autonomy and community, disciplinary specifics and interdisciplinarity, specialization in an area and broader expertise. Each has the potential to enrich our students’ educational experiences and intellectual lives, and Judaken’s programs, newly convened committee, and classes foster an academic culture that embraces all these qualities. And like the collaborative, outside-the-box approach he’s developed, Judaken hopes his work through the Wilson Chair will enable “a kind of teaching, research and building of intellectual community that doesn’t force those of us inside the institution of higher education to forget what higher education is all about.