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Sometimes, an academic semester seems to drag on and on; at other moments, it zips by in a flash. Happily, Fall 2016 fell into the latter category. It moved at a fast clip, which was somewhat surprising given the intellectual ambitions of my two courses. One was an undergraduate seminar called “Pious Forgeries” that explored a raft of celebrated textual and artifactual fabrications from the ancient Near East on into the United States of the 19th century and then Israel of the 21st; the other was a graduate seminar that took the measure of contemporary Jewish life in all of its bewildering variegatedness. Both trafficked in detail, heaps of it.

Start line, finish line
Flickr/Andrew Hurley

At no point in the semester, though, did I feel that the students had lost their way. On the contrary. Both the undergraduates and the graduate students seemed to relish the complex array of issues that were brought to bear: issues of identity, belonging, improvisation, accountability and faith, the weight of the past. Over the course of the term, they grew bolder, more confident in their ability to parse a text, to keep conversation afloat, to value one another’s ideas.

We ended on a good note, too. In our last class together, the undergraduates were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History where, among other things, we peeked inside a laboratory given over to the study of ancient bones, held in our hands both authentic and fraudulent pieces of ancient statuary and learned what it takes professionally to distinguish one from the another. The vastness of the museum, whose stairwells alone were enough to take one’s breath away, added to the expansiveness of the experience.

Although the graduate students didn’t travel too far afield, they had an opportunity to present their final projects amid the high spirits and good eats of a potluck supper. The display of intellectual camaraderie was heartening and uplifting -- and the food wasn’t too shabby, either.

All in all, a good run….But in this instance, as in so many others, term limits do come in handy. ‘Best to end before the intellectual momentum gives out. Besides, a new semester with its own set of challenges awaits.

We spend a lot of time thinking up ways to engage our students: tinkering with the text of our remarks, searching for le mot juste, much less the perfect illustration, devising imaginative exercises. The better the prep, we tell ourselves, the better the class.

classroom
Credit: James F. Clay/Flickr
But now and then, something happens in the classroom -- something entirely unanticipated -- and we're off and running. The most magical moments in the classroom, it turns out, are spontaneous rather than planned.

This week, the subject of my "Jewish Lives" class was Mary Antin and her 1912 autobiography, The Promised Land, a celebration-cum-manifesto of the processes by which immigrants became Americans. We discussed why the book was so widely reviewed and saluted in the years prior to World War I, why it has remained in print for nearly 100 years and what it might possibly offer those of us who've come of age in the 21st century.

Our exchanges, though lively, were couched largely in intellectual terms. The students tended to view the challenges that Antin faced through the prism of history, distantly. Finding one's voice and footing; figuring out which rituals and traditions to retain and which to jettison; how best, as Antin put it, "to take possession of America" -- all this seemed, well, academic.

And then, up in the front of the room, a first-year student who is usually quiet and contained began to speak in an accented English and with mounting excitement about the copy of The Promised Land which she had obtained via interlibrary loan: a first edition. More tellingly still, she told us how its tattered condition as well as its long, long list of stamped due dates bore witness to the book having been read and re-read -- and now, read again.

All of a sudden, it dawned on everyone in the room that Mary Antin’s words were not just glimpses into a world gone by or, for that matter, pretty turns of phrase. In one powerful moment, we came to understand that for some of us at GW in 2011, Mary Antin's words were as evergreen and fresh and vital as they had been way back when in 1912.

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