The Jewish Face of Cal State San Marcosby Tina B. Eshel July 29, 2015
In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior explored “troubling trends” on university campuses across the country, including the pressure on professors to avoid provocative subject matter or make sure that what they were teaching didn’t offend any students. In the last few years, teachers have even begun writing disclaimers into their course syllabi, to warn registering students of any potential triggers the class might ignite.
Prior’s take is that political correctness is being replaced by what she calls “empathetic correctness,” and that this is changing how professors teach and, consequently, how students learn. Her premise is that students today are becoming increasingly hypersensitive to both the messengers and the messages.
“Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort,” Prior writes.
No longer is it enough for a professor to conduct research, get published and teach courses to ensure professorial advancement (and tenure, that holy grail of the Ivory Tower). Professors today have to give great customer service, cater to the emotional needs of their students and make sure they don’t oppress anyone by challenging their views on any number of sensitive topics. How is a professor, specifically a Jewish one, going to make the grade?
Alyssa Sepinwall is a professor of history at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) and the most recent recipient of CSUSM’s highest faculty honor, the Brakebill Award. This award is given to faculty on the basis of outstanding contributions to their students, to their academic disciplines, and to their campus communities. According to the school’s website, the nominees are expected to have “records of superlative teaching” and “quality contributions in the areas of research, creative scholarship, and service to the campus and the community.”
Sepinwall’s area of expertise lies in French-Jewish History. Her first book was a biography of Abbe Henri Gregoire, an 18th century French priest and revolutionary who argued that Jews should not be oppressed and that slaves should be freed.
When Professor Sepinwall came to CSUSM 16 years ago, there weren’t many Jewish happenings on campus. In fact, hers was the first Jewish course ever offered at the North County inland university. Her commitment to the Jewish community has lead to an exponential increase in the Jewish-themed courses and activities offered around campus.
“Now, we have some new classes this year thanks to the Leichtag Foundation,” she explains. “Also, we have a Hillel now in North County that [many] people don’t know about yet. That’s been very exciting and made it easier to attract Jewish kids to campus because there’s a social life and an infrastructure there waiting for them.
“One thing that Hillel is trying to do at San Marcos is to build bridges with other organizations,” she says. “Instead of waiting for something bad to happen or for them to be attacked, they’re introducing themselves.” For example, Hillel has been partnering with the LGBTQ community and also with the Muslim community on campus. Other professors are participating in the outreach as well.
Sepinwall speaks with a strong voice and pauses to gather her thoughts. Her gentle inflections reveal a self-assuredness and enthusiasm for the collaborations she now experiences on campus with her colleagues from across academic disciplines. She’s passionate about many things, especially French-Jewish history, and more recently, Haitian culture and history. But her influence on campus expands beyond her classroom.
“My colleague in political science, Elizabeth Matthews, has worked with me to bring all kinds of Jewish related programming to campus. For instance, for this year we had Yale Strom playing with his ensemble Common Cords which is Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Christian musicians. That was extremely well attended.”
Sepinwall grew up in New Jersey in a Conservative Jewish home before going to the University of Pennsylvania where she studied French History and got involved with Hillel. Post graduation, she headed to Israel for a year and participated in Project Otzma, a program of the United Jewish Federation geared toward training Jewish leaders for the future. She went to Stanford for graduate school where she earned her Ph.D. in history and Jewish studies.
Another of Sepinwall’s colleagues, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, is an expert on Iraqi history and, she says, he is very interested in the history of Jews in the Muslim world.
“He teaches a class that’s called The Spanish Past in the Modern Middle East … he’s given several talks now for the Agency for Jewish Education, which has been very nice,” she adds.
This past spring, Professor Al-Marashi brought his interest out of the classroom to host a moderated panel with students from a variety of faiths.
“They sat in a panel together and talked about their beliefs,” Sepinwall recalls. “That way [the participants and panel] could see commonalities and differences.”
She calls this development exciting and beneficial.
“That way the students see things they might share and not only [interact on Israel].”
Sepinwall notes another professor, Merryl Goldberg, in the School of Arts, who, as a founding member of the internationally acclaimed Klezmer Conservatory, is working to make Jewish connections in her courses too.
“[Professor Goldberg] teaches classes about how to integrate arts into education and her students also learn about Jewish music from her.”
Sepinwall says the trend in history instruction is to help students learn a variety of perspectives from the past, not just that of the “winners.” She wants her students to read primary sources about events from history so they can from their own interpretations.
One of the more interesting classes we discussed was her Women in Jewish History course.
“This class looks more broadly at Jewish history and it’s a very popular class. Every time I offer it, it fills, which is interesting since San Marcos still doesn’t have a huge Jewish [student] population so it’s a class that’s full of mostly non-Jews.”
It focuses on social history and everyday life with an emphasis on understanding the lives of ordinary Jews. And she approaches the history lesson by starting from the end, with contemporary times and the stereotypes about Jewish women that are perpetuated through modern popular culture.
“[They] tend to be on tv about annoying Jewish mothers … the portrayal of Jewish women in American culture is very narrow. You either have the annoying overbearing mother or the annoying princess.”
The history lesson comes when the class delves into where these stereotypes come from. From there, Sepinwall challenges those stereotypes by taking the class through an exploration of Jewish women as social activists who shaped culture as we know it by pushing for focus on issues of diversity and gender.
“One thing that’s true is that Jews’ ideas about gender were different than a lot of the people they lived around. And women often had more latitude to be working. For instance, the traditional old fashion of men work, women stayed home isn’t the ideal Jewish version because traditionally Jewish men study and Jewish women work and they raise their family and they make money.”
This way of living didn’t change for Jewish communities, especially in Europe, until the 19th century, she says.
Professor Sepinwall’s work also focuses on Haiti, because she’s interested in how the French Revolution affected both blacks and Jews. She’s keen on French Jewish films, especially those that look at French Jewish/Muslim relationships (she has long been involved with the San Diego Jewish Film Festival).
“There’s a lot of discussion about France not being safe” she says, but just as there are anti-Semites, there are French people who believe their country should be a place of plurality and it’s important to take a stand for the values they believe in. For her part, Sepinwall is interested in stories that explore things like how Muslims and Jews got to think of themselves as opposed, if there was a time before there was conflict, and if there will ever be a time of cooperation.
In an era of political correctness on campus, Sepinwall’s questions are more than timely, they are essential to the health of academic rigor in an increasingly diverse, sometimes thin-skinned world.
Learn more about Alyssa Sepinwall and Jewish life at Cal State San Marcos at csusm.edu.