The New Humanities Lecture Series Begins
by Robert Lawless
Jonathan Boyarin, ethnographer and anthropologist, visited Rutgers University as the inaugural lecturer for the New Humanities Lecture Series for Undergraduates. This series will bring to campus leading scholars and intellectuals whose writing is included in The New Humanities Reader, the required textbook for Expository Writing 101. The series will thus give thousands of students the opportunity to discuss ideas from their class reading assignments with the authors themselves.
Dr. Boyarin is the author of several books, including A Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory (1992) and Thinking in Jewish (1996). He is widely considered one of America’s most innovative thinkers about contemporary Jewish culture. His contribution to The New Humanities Reader is an ethnological study of a small orthodox synagogue in New York, an essay which raises questions about the role of religious identity in today’s society while examining his own position as both scientific observer and traditional participant. Anthropologists, Dr. Boyarin argues, are “cultural pioneers” who must explore the worlds of other cultures while still retaining their own sense of identity.
Dr. Boyarin spent his day at Rutgers with both students and faculty. He visited an Expository Writing class to discuss his essay in detail, answering questions from students who were in the process of writing papers on his work. At the evening lecture, Professor Richard E. Miller, Chair of the English Department and co-editor of The New Humanities Reader, introduced Dr. Boyarin as a distinguished scholar, a leading anthropologist of Jewish culture, and, above all, a wonderfully engaging storyteller.
Once Dr. Boyarin took the podium, it became clear that Professor Miller was right. He used personal anecdotes, as well as a pictorial slide presentation including family photos, to help explore what were often quite complex ideas about social and religious identity. Dr. Boyarin began his lecture by explaining that his academic career and personal interests have always been unified around one question: What is Jewishness? To find an answer, Dr. Boyarin said, we must start by questioning the meaning of an “idealized Jewishness.” He argued that members of tight-knit ethnic groups often find themselves in a constant struggle between traditional ancestral ties and the creation of their own individual identities within a larger society. The difficult question for each member of a cultural group, Dr. Boyarin explained, is: “How do we live separately and connected at once?”
Dr. Boyarin’s mix of personal narrative and academic exploration set an example for the lecture series, making it a fitting beginning for a new tradition. The Rutgers Writing Program instituted and coordinated this inaugural lecture and will continue hosting these yearly events, giving students the rare opportunity to both examine important essays and cross-examine the author.
Special thanks to the Rutgers Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes, and to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, both of which helped support this event.
The Rutgers Writing Program
The New Humanities Reader site, including information about all of the authors included in the book.