Even though you teach some of the largest classes on campus, your courses typically fill before early registration ends. How do you explain that popularity?
I look for ways to connect with my students, and I raise questions. I almost never give answers. My teaching style is very intense, very engaging, and in your face. I don’t tolerate a lack of civility in the classroom. I don’t tolerate sleeping. I get after people for yawning. I know that I’ve got something to teach them that I’m passionate about, and I want them to understand why I’m passionate about it.
What brought you to Iowa?
I was studying for my PhD at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati when the University offered this job to one of my teachers, who recommended me. It turned out to be my first and only job. The only teaching experience I had before this was teaching young men studying to be rabbis in Cincinnati—six intelligent, motivated students sitting around a small table translating biblical passages. I’d throw out ideas, and they’d devour them. Then I came here. I threw out ideas in my first class of about 15 undergraduates, and they just stared blankly. I realized then that, in this world, you can’t assume interest.
The beautiful thing about this university is that you can have the best and brightest students, and you also can have students who just drift into class. They are a diverse group with diverse interests and abilities. Somehow you have to find a way to educate them all. Even after 37 years, that still makes this job very interesting.
Talk about teaching courses on Judaism in the predominantly Christian state of Iowa.
There has been a chair of Jewish studies here since the 1930s, even though there are very few Jews in Iowa. The Jews who funded the chair understood that where there is ignorance, bad things can happen.
What I’m after is giving students insight into something that, without my class, they wouldn’t otherwise learn. I’m not touchy-feely about it. I love the tradition, and I love the challenge of teaching in this context. But converting people to Judaism is not my job. If they’ve listened to the lecture, hopefully what they take away is an interest in investigating their own traditions. That is what I’ve devoted the professional part of my life to, and I don’t want to fail.
How do you determine your course content?
A liberal arts education is our best weapon against ignorance. These students are going to go out and make decisions about life and love. Everything in the human situation is rooted in variations on three themes: food, sex, and death. Whether it’s a decision to slaughter animals, to drink alcohol, to what we do in the bedroom, to what we are willing to die for—from the table to the bedroom to the grave, nothing in our modern, technological world has changed this. That’s why texts like the Hebrew Bible are still relevant.
Tell us about your children—both UI graduates.
My daughter, Sarah, now is an MD/PhD graduate of the UI Carver College of Medicine and a fellow in internal medicine. As an undergraduate, she had a 4.5 GPA and a Presidential Scholarship. She could have gone anywhere, but she chose to stay here.
My son, Joshua, on the other hand, went through more than a few majors before earning his first undergraduate degree at Iowa. Subsequently, he joined the army as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq. After his discharge, with the help of the GI Bill, he returned to The University of Iowa as a much more focused student. He earned a second undergraduate degree and now works for the government.
They are two wildly different students, but this university allowed both of them to find themselves. It is an utterly remarkable university. It’s got its chinks, but all things have chinks. How could you not love a place that’s been so good to you? I really appreciate the opportunities this university has offered me.
by Sara Langenberg