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Journalists and Historians “Come to Class” Virtually Students get rare opportunity to interact with prominent scholars during shutdown

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A microphone at a podium in front of a lecture hall

This spring, when classes went online, Professor Pamela Nadell had a spark of inspiration. If students and professors were stuck at home, then prominent journalists, historians, and scholars across the nation were stuck at home too.

So why not invite them to class? Virtually of course.

Nadell, an award-winning author who holds the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women's and Gender History and is the director of American University’s Jewish Studies Program, was teaching two classes: a Complex Problems seminar, Antisemitism: Enduring Hatred, and the upper-division American Jewish History. Earlier in the semester, she invited a series of guest speakers to class. They included historian Deborah Lipstadt; Oberlin College Professor Shari Rabin, author of the award-winning Jews on the Frontier; and University of Virginia Professor Gabriel Finder, associate editor of the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, who met with the students in Michelle Engert’s Introduction to Social Justice class to discuss perpetrator trials after the Holocaust. Her students also had the opportunity to go on a special, docent-led tour of the exhibit Americans and the Holocaust at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

When the university pivoted rapidly to online teaching, Nadell started brainstorming. “I wondered if there was something I could do in our online class meetings in real time that I could not do in our regular class meeting,” she says. “As past president of my field’s learned society, the 2,000-member strong Association for Jewish Studies, I have had the privilege of meeting so many of the colleagues whose articles, chapters, and books appeared on my syllabi. Knowing that my colleagues were also locked down in quarantine, I invited them to drop, for a brief twenty minutes, into my class thanks to the wonderful technology of Zoom.”

Nadell’s students were thrilled. “Despite being virtual and disrupted by coronavirus, Professor Nadell managed to bring in authors and speakers to our class that allowed us to learn so much, possibly more than we could have in a traditional classroom setting because of the flexibility to have these unique speakers each class,” says junior history major Halle Shumate.

A Winning Invitation

Nadell herself is an award-winning author and editor of seven books. Her most recent is America's Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today (WW Norton, 2019), which won the 2019 Everett Family Foundation Book of the Year Award from the Jewish Book Council and was proclaimed by Jordana Horn in the New York Times Book Review as “a welcome addition to the American historical canon.”

Nadell says that everyone she invited—even journalists she had never met—jumped at the opportunity to discuss their research and writing with her students. San Francisco’s JWeekly editor Sue Fishkoff spoke about how she came to write The Rebbe’s Army, her book about the Lubavitcher (Chabad) emissaries. Rebecca Erbelding, author of the award-winning Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe, explained how she hit upon a system for organizing the thousands of archival documents she discovered. And Emory University’s Eric Goldstein talked about the exhibit and film that resulted when he discovered how the dean of Emory’s dental school from 1948 to 1961 deliberately flunked Jewish students.

The students got the opportunity to meet the scholars whose works they were reading, and also learned about their research and writing techniques. History doctoral student Andrew Sperling said the experience was especially valuable. “As an aspiring scholar of American Jewish history, I appreciated learning the “behind-the-scenes” work (the inspiration, research, and writing experience) of each scholar that our class read.”

Recent grad Sarah Levin agreed. “In terms of having authors come to class, I thought it was truly a unique opportunity,” she says. “As a history student we can pick apart readings, constantly wondering the methods behind research and writing, but there was never a clear answer to our questions of ‘how’ each piece came to be, just guesses. By having class online and authors stuck at home, we were given the unique opportunity to ask multiple authors their methods and how the historians and journalists created such rich Jewish histories. By learning the methods behind writing extensive historical papers, I was able to implement similar practices when writing my own (much shorter) senior capstone paper.”

Unique Moments

“My favorite moment came in the exchange between undergraduate Halle Shumate and New York Times book review editor Gal Beckerman,” says Nadell. “Halle had already written a paper on his 600+-page, award-winning book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry and was using it as a jumping-off point for her semester-long research paper on the Jewish Defense League. I don’t know who was more excited: Halle, who was meeting an author whose work she so admired, or the seasoned author who saw the impact of his work on an insightful and very smart student, or me!”

It was Shumate’s favorite moment too. “Having the opportunity to speak to Gal Beckerman and engage in discussion with him about Soviet Jewry and his book was an experience I will never forget,” she says. “Since I was writing my research paper on his book, it gave me a perspective for my paper I would not have had otherwise. It was amazing!”

Nadell is already looking forward to introducing next semester’s students to a new group of scholars and authors. “There is indeed a silver lining to online teaching,” she says.