Profound Questions

Head shot of President Maud S. MandelEvery week this semester, six brave students venture in pairs to my office or my home. They’re coming to participate in a tutorial I’m teaching: Memoirs, Memory and the Modern Jewish Experience.

While a president’s time is usually filled with meetings, travel and events, and students’ schedules rarely lead them to my office or my living room, on tutorial days everything changes. The students and I become kindred spirits, fellow learners poised on the ends of a figurative log. I look forward to this time more than any other in my work week.

I was drawn to Williams first and foremost by my desire to help enhance the school’s superb reputation in undergraduate education. During my first year, I focused on understanding every aspect of campus life. Coming into my second year, I wanted to contribute directly to our mission by teaching undergraduates myself. I was particularly excited to teach a tutorial, a small class in which pairs of students work closely with a faculty member on a subject of joint interest: reading deeply, discussing avidly, stretching our minds while refining crucial liberal arts skills, including writing, analysis and problem solving.

The students and I become … fellow learners poised on the ends of a figurative log.

Our particular course explores Jewish history by considering individual voices of Jewish memoirists. Every week we read and compare works written by Jews in the early modern period through contemporary times who lived in places across Europe, the United States and the Middle East. We ask what their memoirs can teach us about how people in different contexts have understood their Jewishness and their relationship to their past as well as the historian’s role in that relationship. Meanwhile, we’re also looking for answers to questions that transcend Jewish studies: about whether memoirs can be historical sources, if (and how) one can derive general insights from individual accounts and—if we can—how to reconcile the contradictions that inevitably arise among multiple voices.

These profound questions have occupied historians, philosophers and scholars of all kinds for centuries. I have been deeply impressed with our students’ ability to wrestle with such challenging material, which is also being studied by my colleagues at the leading edge of our discipline. Each week, these pairs of brave students write essays and respond to each other’s analyses, in writing and verbally, questioning arguments and assumptions while expanding their own views of the study of history, the evolution of concepts of the self and the workings of identity in diverse historical contexts.

The time goes by too quickly, and as the students leave my office or my living room, I turn back to the daily affairs of the college. As important and absorbing as those tasks are—and I truly enjoy every aspect of my job—I find myself already looking forward to our next class. I believe the students are, too.