Hillel Organizations or How I Suck at Coming Up with Titles..

July 26, 2007

I’ve spent the past few days at work compiling a list of contacts at Hillels on what my boss calls “key campuses,” which seems to mean campuses where we can get asses in seats for showings of our Israel advocacy film. So as I’ve been working though the Hillel websites, mining them for information as to the organization and orientation of each particular Hillel, I’ve been surprised at the incredible diversity that is out there. Not so much programming diversity. I’ve visited enough schools to know that programming, especially religious programming, will vary widely base on the composition of the student body. What surprised me so much was the vastly different ways in which these Hillels are organized and run. So, for example, Boston College Hillel, which seems to be relatively active, based on their programming calendar, shares its sole professional staff member with Wellesley College. Wellesley also has its own executive director, though it seems to be mostly student run as well. Contrast this to McGill, my alma mater, which has a student board which works closely with a large professional staff, which is integrated very closely into the city’s larger Jewish community.

While I suppose it is somewhat obvious that this would be true, it surprised me nevertheless. I had always thought that the Montreal system was somewhat anomalous, with a citywide Hillel board and staff coordinating the various campuses around the city, each of which has its own student board, and with the larger campuses having some individual staff as well (to say nothing of the separate system for the French speaking schools). So I was nonplussed to find that the same thing seems to exist in Chicago (excluding the larger campuses of the University of Chicago and Northwestern) and in Orange County. I suppose the question I have is, what creates such a system?

I understand where it came from in Montreal. The Jewish community at the Montreal schools was largely local, and lived at home. Instead of being clustered on separate campuses, away from each other, the Jewish student body lived mostly in the Jewish parts of Montreal. It made sense for Hillel to focus on the community as a whole, rather than on any particular university. Is this true of the Orange County and Chicago Hillels? I suspect not, though of course I don’t know. Something worth exploring I think.


A Lost Blog and the Future of Academic Blogging

July 17, 2007

Today for the first time I came across a short lived and unfortunately defunct blog called Giluy Milta B’alma. The idea was that it would be a forum to publish and discuss new and interesting findings in Hebrew manuscripts. The five posts that exist are somewhat uneven, but valuable for all that. It is a shame that the project did not work out, and here, presented in a roundabout, but hopefully useful way, is why.

There has been a great deal of discussion over the last few years about what academic blogging is, can be, should be, will be, etc…, from the UC Davis panel on “Historical Blogging and the New Media,” to the various ruminations at The Valve. (The link is to John Holbo’s, who has thought about these ideas as much, if not more, than anybody, long post introducing The Valve, what it is and what he wants it to be. It is pretty close to a programmatic statement on his vision of what academic blogging should be. Not all of his co-bloggers agree, and it’s worthwhile to poke around the place, read the comment threads and trackbacks and piece together some of the debates that surround Holbo’s vision of the future of blogging in academia. These issues are also addressed by a number of the bloggers on my blogroll.) I don’t want to rehash all of that, others have said it better than I could. The two links I posted above barely scratch the surface of what is a very interesting and productive conversation which has been going on for several years. But in all the time I’ve been following that debate, I never saw anybody suggest something quite like Giluy Milta.

The idea is to present either preliminary findings that are not yet ready for publication, or that are too short to merit a full length article. The blog format perfectly fits this project for two reasons. First of all, it is suited for shorter length pieces, such as “I was poking around in the archives today, this is what I found…:” The sort of things that you always want to put in papers, but don’t really belong there. The second reason is that blogs have built in space for discussion. “That fragment that you found? I think it might actually be…” A blog like Giluy Milta is, or would be, a fantastic forum for just those sorts of discussions.

In a certain sense this sort of project is a mirror image of John Holbo’s book events at The Valve, Crooked Timber and other sites. He and his colleagues bring their expertise to bear on scholarship which has already been produced. Book events stimulate discussion of what’s going on in a field, and contribute to the next phase of scholarship to an extent, but at the end of the day they are not actually part of the process of producing original scholarship. I think Giluy Milta points to a way that blogging can contribute to that production.

Unfortunately, right now two crucial components are missing. There is no audience, and consequently no group of contributors. To be successful, this sort of project needs a large number of contributors who are willing to take the time to post their archival findings online. It also requires people to read their contributions and comment on them, to create the lively sort of forum we see at the Valve. Without contributors, there will never be an audience. Somebody with some clout and some connections needs to get behind a project like this, and get others excited. If that were to happen, I think that it would open up a new opportunity for online scholarship.

Critical Nationalist Historiography

July 1, 2007

Daniel Larison’s recent posts at the new American Scene (which should be read by everybody, though how anybody can keep up with the frenetic pace at which its crack staff of writers updates is a mystery to me) in response to this Bill Bennett article, along with a conversation I had in shul this morning, have got me thinking hard on the subject of secondary school history education. Why do we teach history to kids?


Bennett suggests that we teach history in order to instill a love of our country in our children, what Larison derisively calls “progressive nationalist historiography in which the Chosen People move from strength to strength.” Larison’s ideal history curriculum provides “students with a fundamental understanding of how to think about past events, how to analyse evidence and respond to interpretations of that evidence, and how to organise knowledge about the past into some coherent framework.” Given a choice between these two extremes, my sympathies lie with Larison. It seems self-evident to me that the primary goal of history education should be to teach our children to think intelligently about history, and to engage critically with historical material.

Even so, he misses a sense in which Bennett’s larger point is correct, as silly as some of his supporting points may be. It is not an accident that critical historical scholarship rose in Europe at the same time as Nationalism. There is a reason that American history is a central part of the curriculum in American high schools, whereas the respective histories of Korea, Malaysia and Denmark are ignored. The fact that we teach our history to our students is part of a deeply rooted nationalist element in American society. Yes, Bennett does advocate excessive Jingoism in the classroom. That is not a reason to pretend that part of the motive for teaching American history in our schools is to show students what it means to be American, to illustrate the various principles on which our constitution was based, and how those principles were followed, transformed or ignored in subsequent years. I don’t see why the two cannot be combined. Teaching our students to deal with the mess that is historical evidence and to piece it together into a coherent framework can be done in a way which leaves students feeling respect for the country where they live. As Larison says, Bennett is an easy target, as his particular complaints are overblown. That does not change the fact that we teach our students their country’s history at least partially because we want them to understand the narrative of which they are the most recent chapter, and to have respect for it.