Rethinking Classroom Boundaries
Mara Benjamin is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class X). She is Assistant Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am one of four Jewish faculty at a private, historically Norwegian, Lutheran liberal arts college, and I am the first person to occupy a permanent position teaching Judaism. For me, teaching Jewish texts (and texts like the Hebrew Bible, claimed by both Judaism and Christianity religious communities) to a largely Christian student body is a constant negotiation between the framework of the academy, the knowledge and assumptions of my students, and my own passion for Jewish texts and traditions.
By training, my primary intellectual loyalty is to the critical, academic study of religion. In graduate school, I thought that meant I should have a certain detachment from the particulars of whom or where I was teaching. But while I remain deeply committed to the practice of academic teaching and scholarship, this job has forced me to rethink some of my assumptions. My students are genuinely curious and eager to learn about Judaism, and they see me as both a teacher and a practitioner. I have discovered that striving for impermeable boundaries between my personal practice and my professional self is less useful for student learning than I had previously imagined. Instead, I now seek a careful and mindful reflectivity about the different commitments that shape each sphere of life. I have found that I have become more effective as teacher by bringing this awareness to my classroom, because now I can also ask students to reflect on their own lives and commitments more expansively.