Faces of Rhodes
Dr. Jonathan Judaken
Spence L. Wilson Chair in Humanities
by Scarlett D′Anna
The empty bookshelves lining the walls of Buckman 201 appear insufficient for the task at hand: holding all of Professor Jonathan Judaken’s books, presently packed into cardboard boxes on his office floor. Amid the move-in clutter are a Jackson Pollock print, African masks, a small statue of a Hindu goddess, and an Albert Einstein bobble-head doll. Decorations that range from a plastic toy to abstract art may sound incongruous, but the effect is one of eclectic harmony. Such personal touches seem fitting in the workspace of an educator who takes a synergetic approach both to teaching and learning.
As Rhodes’ first Spence L. Wilson Chair in Humanities, it will be Judaken’s job to bring that attitude not only to his own classroom, but also to the wider college community. His goal this semester is to talk with students and faculty, learn about the culture of Rhodes, and then take steps toward meeting the college’s particular needs. Possible changes could include the further development of learning communities, cross-listing courses, and promoting team teaching.
In the spring, Professor Judaken plans to create a program advisory committee that will facilitate the organization of intellectual life on campus and encourage greater dialogue between disciplines. “We need to have more conversations with each other outside of the narrow silos of our own departmental borders and boundaries,” he says. Education that is confined within a particular academic discipline can encourage students to think that one methodology is the only avenue for answering questions. Judaken advocates a question-driven approach to learning, which encourages “you to follow the answers wherever they lead—and which doesn’t stop at the doorstep of your department.”
Professor Judaken’s unique methods are clearly shaped by his own upbringing and education. As a Jew living under South African apartheid, he was a religious minority in a predominantly Christian country; yet, he was also “white,” which guaranteed inclusion among the racially dominant group. Advantaged but marginalized, both an insider and an outsider, he says his experience on the perimeters of privilege have been central to his work. Part of his interest in subjects like existentialism, racism and the so-called Jewish Question stem from a desire to confront and come to terms with his own past.
After immigrating to the United States as a teenager, Judaken began his academic career at University of California, San Diego. He completed his undergraduate education with a degree in Philosophy, spent a year in Paris studying French, and then returned to America to pursue a doctorate in History at University of California, Irvine. Post-doctoral study brought him to Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From there he went on to take a position at the University of Memphis, where he later became the Dunavant Professor of History and Director of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities. Judaken’s scholarly contributions are both prolific and wide in scope: he has edited, co-edited, and written several publications, which examine issues of race, prejudice, Jews and Judaism, tolerance, and existentialism.
He is now firmly settled in Memphis, excited to share his manifold intellectual interests with Rhodes students and staff. Judaken says he was drawn to the opportunity to innovate and build intellectual community in a small, liberal arts environment. His new position is unique, the first of its kind on this campus. And like the collaborative, outside-the-box approach he’s developed as a teacher and as a student, he hopes his work through the Wilson Chair will enable “a kind of teaching, research, and building of intellectual community that doesn’t force those of us inside the institution of higher education to forget what higher education is all about.”