What happens when professors go back to school? What pressures do they face? What epiphanies do they have? What kind of students do they make? And, most importantly, how do their teaching and scholarship change as a result of being back on the other side of the lectern?
For three UCLA Humanities professors, the idea is anything but academic. The three have each received a New Directions Fellowship
from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an honor that allows mid-career faculty to go back and receive systematic training outside of their discipline.
Designed to promote interdisciplinary research in the humanities, the fellowship pays for up to 15 mid-career professors nationwide to return to school for formal training in a discipline other than the one in which they are expert. By also covering a recipient’s salaries and benefits over the program’s 18-month term, the fellowship leaves the scholar’s home institution with enough resources to hire a temporary replacement.
In March, Gil Z. Hochberg, an associate professor of comparative literature and women’s studies, became the latest UCLA professor to be awarded a Mellon New Directions grant. Having written about Israeli and Palestinian literature, she will enroll in an immersion program in Palestinian Arabic dialect and study cultural heritage at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. In 2009, fellow comparative literature scholar Eleanor Kaufman used the grant to study medieval philosophy. Three years earlier, Carol Bakhos, a Jewish Studies professor, received a fellowship to study interpretations of the Qur’an at Princeton.
“We’re so grateful to the Mellon Foundation because this program helps scholars grow and improve while protecting the teaching strength of the Humanities Division,” said David Schaberg, dean of UCLA’s Humanities Division. “We’re also proud of Gil for taking on such an arduous course of study in the interest of promoting understanding in such a conflict-ridden area of the world.”Two languages, one hopeGil Hochberg
, whose research up to this point has explored contemporary Israeli and Palestinian literature, is a native speaker of Hebrew, and she reads but doesn’t speak Arabic. At least, not yet.
She said she will use the 18-month fellowship first to study the Palestinian dialect of Arabic for one year at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and secondly to study Palestinian culture in its relationship to Islam.
“I can read Arabic but I don’t have the vernacular, so I don’t have a valid speaking capacity,” Hochberg explained, noting that the Palestinian dialect is distinct among Arabic speakers. That’s critical for her scholarship because “I’ve moved into visual materials, including films, experimental documentary and performance realms in which the spoken word is really important. My sense is that in order to get a profound and deeper understanding of the contemporary culture of a people so torn apart and in struggle, you have to have the language that people use to talk to each other.”
For Hochberg, going back to school has even larger implications. She hopes it may help her make one small but significant contribution toward a future of coexistence, mutual respect and true equality between Palestinians and Israeli Jews in Israel and Palestine.
“I strongly believe things don’t have to be as they are,” she said. “I am profoundly attached to Israel. It pains me that Israel is what it is. I want it to be a better place and the only and most important place to start is Palestine.”The eternal studentCarol Bakhos,
associate professor of late antique Judaism and Jewish Studies, points out that “as scholars, we’re always students” but admits the experience of returning to school in 2006 “reignited all those juices that flow when you’re embarking on a new journey ... it was an immensely rewarding, joyful experience to be a student again, as well as fascinating, because you’re looking at your instructor from a different perspective and making assessments about how you might be a more effective instructor.”
Her 18 months as a Mellon New Directions student allowed Bakhos to hone her skills in Arabic, “with an eye toward reading medieval Islamic interpretive texts, learning about the field of the Qur’an and early Islam and Qur’anic exegesis, and becoming familiar with the secondary sources as well as the primary sources.” And she plans to continue that study because “it’s unrealistic to think that you can fully master an area of study — in a year. The Mellon Fellowship provides scholars with an opportunity to build, or reinforce, a foundation in a subfield or a related area of study.” Her monograph on Jewish, Christian and Islamic interpretations of the family of Abraham is expected out in the spring of 2013.
As for what kind of student she was, Bakhos said, “I had the luxury of not needing to take the finals, and yet because I was such a nerd, I took them anyway. It reminded me to appreciate the anxiety that students have around exams and just how much they have to juggle.”Enormous freedom
During the 2009-2010 school year, Eleanor Kaufman
, professor of comparative literature, English, and French and Francophone Studies, used her Mellon New Directions fellowship to study medieval philosophy at St. Louis University, attending graduate seminars. She observed that “at SLU, there were also quite a few seminary students present from different (Catholic) orders, and these graduate students were on the whole much more knowledgeable than I was about the material, so I learned a great deal from the other students as well as the professors. It felt like such an enormous freedom to be one of the students who had the most to learn instead of the person expected to be the authority, something I miss tremendously from my student days. And the material I was studying, with its very particular form of logic, is so difficult (at least for me) that it was like living in Los Angeles — there was the feeling of being able to explore it infinitely with the sure knowledge you wouldn’t cover it all.”
Kaufman’s fellowship was an extension of something she’s done all along. She explains: “I have tried in the years that I’ve been a professor to keep taking classes and learning new things — mostly foreign languages and different forms of emergency preparedness training, subjects I have less aptitude for than medieval philosophy — so those experiences were good preparation for my Mellon adventure, which has certainly been the greatest windfall of my professional career.”
In sum, Kaufman’s fellowship had direct positive impact on her own work.
“I did what I set out to do, which was to study Aquinas in the hope of linking his thought to the 20th-century French philosophy I work on,” she said, “which tends, if it addresses Scholastic philosophy at all, to dismiss it entirely. I think my initial hypothesis, that there are in fact some very profound connections between these disparate philosophical domains, was even more on target than I envisioned, as I have found many additional connections alongside the ones I set out to focus on. My studies of medieval philosophy in fact allowed me to write a much more ambitious introduction to a book on the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze that I was finishing (Deleuze, the Dark Precursor).” — With reporting by Meg Sullivan and Alison Hewitt