Rhetorics of Tznius in 20th- and 21st-Century American Bais Yaakov Schools

I presented the following talk at an international conference on Bais Yaakov, Bais Yaakov in Historical and Transnational Perspective, hosted by the University of Toronto in March 2023. With some edits for a different medium, you can read my talk below.

My main area of work is Haredi children’s literature, so my approach to tznius in Bais Yaakov is through texts. My research questions center on the rhetoric of texts produced and used for and by Bais Yaakov students and faculty. My preliminary conclusion from looking at texts between 1998 and 2022 is that despite appearances to the contrary, the rhetoric around tznius in Bais Yaakov schools and communities has not changed much over the past couple of decades.

I begin, as many discussions of contemporary tznius begin, with Rabbi Falk’s 1998 publication of Oz veHadar Levusha, with the English title Modesty: An Adornment for Life. While tznius was a part of Bais Yaakov chinuch before this, Rabbi Falk’s book codified many of the customs that were not seen as halakha beforehand. After the publication of this book, which sold tremendously well and spawned numerous editions, faculty (and students) were able to cite specific measurements that Bais Yaakov girls were expected to adhere to – for example, that a skirt had to reach 4 inches below the knee. Debates among students about skirt length began with that as a foundational point now, replacing debates of the 70s and 80s concerned with whether “knee-length” meant above or below the knee. In the 2000s, it was taken for granted that a skirt had to reach 4 inches below the knee – the question was just whether that 4 inches should be counted when standing or sitting.

In his preface to the daily-study edition, Rabbi Falk explains that he is happy that his book was received well and has influenced women and girls for the better. But then he says, “sadness is indicated by the very fact that a detailed sefer had to be written on this subject. In earlier times there was no need for a sefer of this type, because the Jewish woman and girl knew instinctively what was expected of her in terms of tznius and refinement…in this generation there is a serious spiritual pollution in the air resulting from the permissiveness and the misconduct of the world at large…” A common theme in discussions of tznius is how hard it is for the modern girl or woman to resist the amorality of the world around them – a talking point that’s not limited to discussions of tznius, especially when it comes to children’s literature and education.

Lest the contemporary reader feel like she’s being attacked by this, though, Rabbi Falk goes on: “Despite what has just been stated, the present day Bas Yisroel should not feel indicted and censured by this sefer. She is probably as worthy as her counterpart of previous generations, as she had to contend with a far greater exposure to bad influences and her nisyonos in this field are much more severe than those of previous generations.” Between this statement and the previous one I quoted, Rabbi Falk adds details to the “spiritual pollution” by saying that today’s mothers are not imparting the correct ideas about tznius, whether intentionally or not, and that girls following the example set for them at home are falling into this trap of spiritual pollution. He attempts to lessen the accusation against today’s girls and women by saying that they are starting from a lower level than their historical counterparts, who didn’t have to contend with all these negative influences. This isn’t necessarily a false statement, though it is definitely an exaggeration or a collapsing of many centuries into one idea of “the past,” a common theme in Haredi historiography. This rhetoric, though, is representative of how tznius is often talked about in Bais Yaakov today: striving to be as good as previous generations, looking to the past for inspiration, etc.

The next few texts I’ll discuss come from a Bais Yaakov High School shabbos in 2005. Every May, the school heads up to the Catskills to a summer camp for a shabbos. Each year’s shabbos has a different theme, sometimes based on a concept or mitzvah, sometimes based on a possuk. There are performances on Friday afternoon and motzaei Shabbos, workshops on Friday night and Shabbos afternoon, speeches from teachers, rabbis, and students at each meal, etc.

In 2005, the theme of the shabbos was tznius. The shabbos became notorious among Bais Yaakov schools, especially in Brooklyn, because a good number of girls wound up in tears by the end of the shabbos, overcome with fear that they would burn for eternity in gehinnom. This message came mostly from a Friday night workshop led by seminary students, whose scripts included lines about how each limb would burn for every moment it was uncovered in this life. 

I start with that just to give you a sense of why this shabbos holds so much importance in the discussion of tznius in Bais Yaakov. That rhetoric came from the seminary teachers and students. But what were the high school students saying? For that, we’ll have a look at two songs that represented the shabbos theme. Both of them center on the idea of “bas melech ani,” that a Jewish girl is the daughter of the king, i.e. God, but they come at the idea from two different angles.

The first song that Bais Yaakov students encountered during this weekend getaway was the theme song presentation on Friday afternoon. You can see here the rhetoric of being attacked by the outside world, which we saw in Rabbi Falk’s preface to his book. A sense of action pervades this song: tznius is not a passive mitzvah of quietly choosing the right clothing, this song suggests, but a battle – and we’ll see echoes of this in a moment.

The second theme song was performed on motzaei shabbos. This song, clearly, is far less aggressive. “Stand armed and erect” is about fighting; this song is about staying behind the walls. There are so many things I’d love to say about each of these lines, but two things I’ll point out here: First of all, there’s the emphasis on nobility again, on being part of a royal family, which directly informs everything about how the “princess” dresses, speaks, moves, even thinks. The second stanza of the refrain, though, is really fascinating to me for some of the underlying assumptions.

The first two lines “A princess secure for I live with the fact / I follow the truth and need no more than that,” seem to acknowledge the “more” that exists beyond the palace gates as something that’s justifiably alluring. Rather than completely deriding fashion and girls who are into fashion, the song concedes that following the truth might mean giving something up. This attitude appears in a number of other student-created texts, with sympathy for the girls who are struggling.

The second two lines are interesting for their inherent contradiction, something that shows up a lot in tznius rhetoric. If, as the next verses suggest, a princess’s “presence is rarely seen outside the gates,” how can she be a “confident leader?” What exactly does confidence and leadership even mean in this context? That’s left unanswered here, though it is addressed in many other tznius-centered texts.

The textual materials distributed at the shabbos carry on the themes of both these songs. One booklet titled “On the Battlefront: Sharing Common Battles” features short snippets of challenges girls faced and how they withstood temptation and remained tzniusdig. There’s a wide variety of incidents cited in the pamphlet, including those on the screen: not wearing earrings that dangled too long; not watching a “goyishe video”; giving up a sweater that rode up and showed the back; wearing tzniusdig clothing in a community where that’s not a norm; not drawing attention by saying something witty to her uncle; and wearing a nightgown even when classmates wore pajamas. Each snippet is followed by the tagline “another battle won.” Echoing the theme song about fighting, tznius is presented as an ongoing war, each single moment a battle to be fought and won in the war. 

Other material of the shabbos included a booklet containing rules as well as discussion about the ideology behind tznius. When the “why” of tznius is brought up, the songs focused on being daughters of the king and acting with “nobility and grace.” In this booklet, two main reasons are given: in the image on the left, the text says, “Casual, improper dress exhibits a lack of self-esteem and self-respect.” Interactive materials used in workshops took this same approach, asking students to evaluate whether they hang their self-worth on outer appearance and validation or on inner strength and beauty. In the image on the right, a number of answers are contained in what the writer seems to think is a cohesive answer. The idea of covering the body in order to focus on the soul is mentioned, but the text also seems to say “it doesn’t matter if you understand it, just know that it’s important.” I particularly love the line: “Do we understand why each limb must be covered? Can we fathom why a knee or an elbow attracts the attention of men?” 

The last bit from this shabbos that I’ll talk about is a booklet of stories and poems about keeping tznius. The booklet begins with a moshol, parable, about a king’s daughter who goes out into society and seems to disappear, because when the king’s men go to look for her, they can’t find anyone behaving the way a princess should. Stories following that highlight individuals whose tznius impressed great men; young girls inspiring older women with their tznius, like a young cancer patient more concerned about her body being exposed than the threat of dying; and a number of women sacrificing things for tznius, including the Chasam Sofer’s daughter praying to lose her beauty when she couldn’t do anything to stop men from looking at her. (A version of that story is also told about a tana’s daughter who prayed to have her beauty removed and was disfigured in a fire. The story is a trope, also indicating the collapsing of time in Haredi historiography that it can be applied in multiple time periods.)

One feature in particular, pictured on the screen here, is fascinating: an unattributed interview with a senior involved in planning the shabbos. The senior’s responses are enthusiastically positive, displaying the intended effect of the shabbos: joy and pride in following the laws of tznius. The effects of the shabbos do not match the sentiments in this interview, but this is an indication of the intent behind it and the conscious rhetoric around tznius.

Which brings me to the next “text”: Penimi.

Penimi was founded in 2013 and creates curricula in a variety of areas, including a junior high and high school curriculum for tznius. The stated goals of Penimi’s tznius programs are to “build positive associations with this special mitzvah – one that protects the grace and dignity of Jewish women, despite the degradation of the world around us.” These are the same lines used in Rabbi Falk’s 1998 book and in the 2005 BYHS shabbos about dignity and the outside world. So why does Penimi claim that theirs is “a refreshingly novel approach” which “offers students a view of the topic in a way they’ve never experienced before”? I have some thoughts about this, the main one being that Penimi’s approach is a reaction to the effects of previous tznius education that they’ve seen, not to the rhetoric of these previous tznius programs. The emphasis on dignity and grace in the face of a spiritually corrupt world has been a staple of tznius education since at least 1998. And while Penimi features testaments from students about how the program does inspire this positive enthusiasm for the mitzvah, we already saw how the 2005 BYHS shabbos made those same claims, demonstrably false at the time. So I don’t read Penimi’s student testimonials as pure fact.

The last two texts I’ll discuss are very recent: a song album released in 2021, and a picture book published in 2022. 

The Best Compliment is an album of songs about tznius produced by Mrs. Rivki Friedman. The songs are sung by a young boy named Baruch Zicherman, presumably because tznius as interpreted by Haredim includes a prohibition against women singing in public. Ironically, this leads to a young boy singing lines like “I never forget that I’m a princess…”

Two songs that I’ll comment on: Track 15, titled “Yiddishe Kinder,” is a riff on the popular Yiddish song “ven yiddishe kinder zitsen und lernen,” based on “kad yasvun yisrael” – when Jews learn Torah, god says to his heavenly court “look at my children, setting aside their own concerns and immersing themselves in my delight.” Here’s how that song appears on this album:

When Yiddishe kinder dress b’tznius [modestly]
And act in a way that’s refined
What is happening in shomayim [heaven]
At that very same time?

Hashem calls together all his malachim [angels]
And he tells them:
Look at my bnos melachim [daughters of kings],
What a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of god’s name].

Even in a world with pritzus [vulgarity] outside
A bas yisroel [daughter of Israel] knows
That she carries a neshama [soul] inside
That needs tzniusdige [modest] clothes.

Track 15, “Yiddishe Kinder”

First of all, there’s the switch from the boys’ mitzvah of learning Torah to the girls’ mitzvah of tznius: a rhetorical association of the two mitzvos, echoing the idea that tznius is to women what learning Torah is to men. The song also contains the same rhetoric as we’ve seen previously: that tznius is based on Jewish girls being bnos melachim, daughters of the king; and that tznius is in opposition to the pritzus beyond the bounds of the frum community.

The other song that I want to comment on is Track 5, “T’hei Isha Tzenua.” As with many children’s song albums, the songs are often introduced with a little dialogue. For this one, we have two friends talking. One tells the other about how her sister was baking the night before and, as she rolled up each chocolate rugelah, she said “please be chocolatey, please be chocolatey.” Her friend says, “That reminds me of the story of how Hashem created Chava. Every part of her that was created, Hashem said…” The first girl interrupts and jokes, “That she should be chocolatey?” and then asks more seriously “That she should be cute? smart? talented?” Her friend responds, “No! Hashem said t’hei isha tzenua – she should be a tzenua.” Adding on to the already-established rhetoric about princesses and shutting out the world, this song also suggests that other characteristics – like being cute, smart, or talented – are worthless unless there’s also tznius, that the main (and perhaps only) trait a frum girl should be concerned with is tznius.

In the 2022 picture book Proud to Be a Princess, obviously the rhetoric of royalty and princesses continues. The book tells stories of girls who overcame temptations, girls who were saved because they were extra careful with tznius, girls who were horrified to learn what their lack of tznius caused, etc. Some of the stories are well known and have made the rounds of Bais Yaakov schools for a while. For example, there’s the story of a young girl on Kristallnacht, trying to get through the streets to join her family in safety. She’s blonde-haired and blue-eyed, so she can pass as non-Jewish. She tries to blend in by opening her top button and exposing her collarbone, but she feels so uncomfortable with this lack of tznius that she closes it again. When she reaches her family safely and tells them this, her mother points out that she’s wearing a Magen David necklace under her shirt, so being extra careful with tznius actually saved her life – if she had left her top button open, the Germans would have known she was Jewish and attacked her. There’s a lot to unpack there, and that’s a side of tznius rhetoric I haven’t gotten into much today: the emphasis on being saved by tznius or, alternately, the devastating effects of not being tzniusdig. 

The introduction to the book, though, focuses on the idea of royalty and tells a story about Queen Elizabeth visiting New York in 2010 and wearing long sleeves despite the heat. Says the text, “Thousands of Jewish queens and princesses throughout New York, and across the world, were dressed that way too!” This focus on what real princesses and queens dress like is a common trope in tznius discussions. “Do you think the queen of England would ever wear that?” is a common question. 

Some not-perfect Bais Yaakov girls like to compile photos of contemporary queens and princesses to highlight the cherry-picking of royal outfits and the absurdity of saying “dress like a princess” when the wardrobes of today’s princesses do not conform to today’s standards of tznius. 

But the truth is that the truth doesn’t matter. It’s not about the actuality of royalty. The argument is not that Jewish girls should look to real-life princesses and queens as examples. What’s important is the use of royalty as a rhetorical device to convince Bais Yaakov girls that these rules are not restrictive, that counting inches is not something to be dreaded but something to cherish as part of a frum girl’s status as royalty, on constant guard against the pritzusidge world around her. The outcry for a need to present the mitzvah of tznius more positively continues to result in the same rhetoric, though, in what by now has become a cyclical pattern.


Joy and Accomplishment: Creative Assignments Teach Better Than Essays

I’ve been including a creative assignment in most of my classes for a while now. Most of the time, this creative assignment was a quick, fun project, meant to be an easy 10 points towards students’ final grades.

The basic assignment asked students to choose a text we had read, gather thoughts and notes around a single aspect or lens – using class notes – and then use a creative medium to represent an interpretation or understanding of the text: a poem, a short story, a painting, a Lego diorama, digital art – anything at all. I would emphasize that I’m not grading their artistic ability (“stick figures are fine!” is a constant refrain) and that I’m more concerned with their accompanying 250-word written reflection explaining their choices and process.

I gave full credit to every student in each class, with only three exceptions (one who clearly based their artwork on a SparkNotes summary and had not read the text, one who thought the assignment didn’t have to be related to any texts we had read, and one who submitted an image they had downloaded from a Google search).

This semester, I expanded the creative assignment in my composition classes. Rather than a freebie easy assignment, I designed the assignment to be a culmination of the research and critical thinking skills students would have learned all semester.

I had designed my syllabus this semester around children’s literature, with the goal of teaching students how information can be presented in many different ways depending on genre, format, audience, and purpose. We looked at non-fiction picture books, biography picture books and chapter books, and historical fiction, all the while thinking about how authors and illustrators used various techniques to evoke specific emotions and attitudes in the readers.

Pluto's Secret: An Icy World's Tale of Discovery: Amazon.co.uk: Weitekamp,  Margaret, DeVorkin, David, Kidd, Diane: 9781419715266: Books
Pluto’s Secret by Margaret A. Weitenkamp and David DeVorkin, illustrated by Diane Kidd

We read Drs. Myra Zarnowski and Susan Turkel’s 2013 essay “How Nonfiction Reveals the Nature of Science” (Children’s Literature in Education 44.4) and Joe Sutliff Sanders’s 2015 essay “Almost Astronauts and the Pursuit of Reliability in Children’s Nonfiction” (Children’s Literature in Education 46).

For their first paper, students wrote a short essay analyzing a nonfiction picture book through the lens we developed reading Zarnowksi and Turkel: Does the book emphasize the nature of science as they describe it, or does it simply provide facts? Does it emphasize inquiry or authority? Etc.

For their second paper, students wrote a slightly longer essay analyzing a children’s biography through the lens of reliability and inquiry again. After a class visit from the college’s librarian specializing in children’s literature and education (the amazing Dr. Alison Lehner-Quam), students found a children’s biography and researched the person discussed in the children’s text. They then compared the two accounts – one written for children and one written for adults – and wrote an essay about the details included in or left out of each version, about the emotional undertones and the conclusions in each text, etc.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

In the third and final unit of the semester, we read a historical fiction novel, Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (1991). We spent two weeks reading the book and discussing the various rhetorical moves the author makes. (I had given a conference presentation on the book a few years back, so it was a really nice return for me as I encountered all my marginal notes from back then…)

As a medieval and children’s literature specialist, I was in my element: I could provide lectures on medieval features and historical accuracy in the book, as well as lectures on current research on children’s literature as it affected our reading of the book.

When we finished reading the book, we read the author’s historical note, looked at the sources she provided in the book and on her website, and read some interviews in which she discussed the historical basis and her intentions for the book.

With all this in hand, I assigned the final project. This would be a creative project, but it would involve a lot more work than the previous traditional essays had.

To start with, students chose a topic from the book. Many chose medieval pregnancy and childbirth, since those were the main focus of the book. Others wanted to focus on medieval medicine more generally, medieval superstitions, medieval attitudes toward animals, medieval trade and market/fairs, and medieval inns.

For a full week involving two class sessions (via Zoom) and a written homework assignment, students researched their topic. At this stage, we reviewed the foundations of research (choosing and revising keywords, adjusting filters in database searches, using the bibliography of one source to find others) and the skills of identifying reliable sources. The written assignment asked students to submit two potential sources cited in proper MLA format, along with a few bullet points of details they found interesting in each source.

The next week, we focused on turning students’ research into creative projects. I provided an example of turning my own research into short story ideas:

I invited students who already had some ideas to share them with the class so that I could respond and model how they might think about deepening their projects and taking active control of how they were shaping their narratives. Students planned digital art, short stories, and poems – one even planned a video. I then put them into breakout groups where they had a chance to bounce ideas off each other and get started on making their projects.

We had one more session of presenting works in progress for feedback, and then the semester ended. Students had one more week, during finals week, to finish up their projects and submit.

The results of this assignment were amazing. More than any traditional essay I’ve done, even when I’ve invited students to write about a topic they care about, students were invested from the start. They were willing to do more work and to redo any step multiple times until they got it right.

I’m used to students resisting or even just ignoring me when I point out that their sources are not reliable. But this time, students displayed an intense desire to get things right.

Having spent an entire semester critiquing others’ work for accuracy and interpretation of facts, students seemed to be eager to create their own art or stories with as much historical and emotional accuracy as they could. Students read more complex articles than most of my first-year composition students are usually willing to read – and they spent time re-reading to make sure they understood them! Practically an unheard-of thing in my experience.

The stories and artwork students submitted, along with a 2-page reflection explaining their artistic choices, surpassed all my expectations.

There was a story about a prince’s wet nurse who struggled with leaving her own son in order to care for the royal son; a story about a commoner who falls in love with a noble who spurns her when she gets pregnant, and her struggles to hide her pregnancy and ultimate support from women during labor and birth; a collection of images drawn from medieval manuscripts to depict the journey from marriage to childbirth and associated rituals for a noblewoman; original pencil drawings to depict ideas about superstition and religion; a play about a Moroccan merchant coming to England to trade; and a meme-ified video with a text-to-speech narrator titled “why medieval childbirth sucked.”

Reflections included nuanced considerations of how the point of view affects the emotional impact of historical facts, how dialogue adds to the interpretation, how visual elements portray facts and attitudes, etc.

The creative projects and reflections also demonstrate joy and enthusiasm – and I enjoyed them too! I’m not used to enjoying the process of grading final papers. It’s usually a chore that I get done so that I can submit final grades. But this time, I got excited each time my email notifications pinged and I saw another submission from this class.

A good number of students addressed me personally in their reflections, telling me how much they enjoyed this project and how much they had learned. Their reflections, though not traditional essays, displayed more organization and development than I’ve come to expect from first-year writing students, more than the two essays they’d written for me in the moths prior.

I can safely say that I will be incorporating this kind of assignment into as many classes as I can in future.

Klal Yisrael’s Guarantee:Children as the Key to Messianic Redemption in Haredi Musical and Textual Culture

I presented this paper at the CUNY Graduate Center’s English Students Association annual conference on March 11, 2021. Pieces of this are drawn from my dissertation, which I’m in the process of finishing up now.

 In Jewish thought, the era of the Messiah – Mashiach – has not yet arrived. The exact theology surrounding Mashiach differs across various Jewish denominations. Since my purpose today is not to focus on the specific theology, I won’t go into all of the minutiae of beliefs surrounding Mashiach – I’ll just focus on the ideas relevant to the connection between children and Mashiach in Haredi Jewish thought. So first, a brief background on the idea of Mashiach in Haredi theology, with a caveat that this theology is not unique to Haredi thought in all its details. Drawing on a tradition of textual commentary on the Torah and Talmud spanning millennia, Haredi Jews of the 20th and 21st centuries believe that the Jewish people have been in a state of waiting ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel. At least as far back as Maimonides, whose thirteen essential tenets of faith include belief in the arrival of Mashiach, Jews have clung to the hope that Mashiach could arrive at any moment to redeem the Jewish people from their exile and diaspora, bring them to Israel, rebuild the Temple, and usher in an eternity of peace and purity. Though there are many calculations predicting the time of the ultimate redemption, it is believed that Mashiach can arrive early if the Jewish people deserve it. And in Haredi thought, the most powerful and potent force in hastening the arrival of Mashiach is children.

Children are a powerful symbol across the world and across history, though what exactly they symbolize changes from culture to culture and from era to era, often with multiple and competing ideas: in Puritan thought, children represent original sin; in Romantic thought, children represent pre-sexual innocence; in Victorian thought, children are miniature adults who need to be trained in proper behavior. In contemporary America, white children are often viewed as inherently vulnerable and are invoked as the reason behind moral decisions, like preventing same-sex marriage or bathroom use consistent with one’s gender. In systemically-racist America, Black American children are portrayed by white media as already-adult and already-defiant and aggressive in an attempt to justify racism. Contemporary children are increasingly portrayed in adult thrillers as alien and evil, in a reflection of the fear of children as radically other, incomprehensible to adults. At the same time, contemporary culture also views children as developing, in need of policies which nurture them physically and psychologically into their full growth and potential. And the list goes on.

(1:57-2:27 ; 5:29-6:01+)

In the American Haredi community, children most often represent the survival and the future of the Jewish people. This view is captured in a popular Haredi song from the 1990s, “The Man from Vilna.” The song opens with a conversation between an elderly Holocaust survivor flying back from a Chicago wedding and a younger Haredi man who asks him why he’d undertake the journey when surely no one would judge him from staying home at his age. The survivor replies, “no simcha – no celebration – is a burden,” and he tells a story about the months after the war ended. He, along with about 400 others, made their way back to Vilna – Vilnius – after they were liberated from the concentration camps. One person realizes that it’s Simchas Torah, the final day of the Succos holiday, on which men traditionally take the Torah scrolls out of the synagogue ark and dance around the lectern in celebration of the joy of learning Torah and living life according to its laws. The survivors make their way into the synagogue, determined to dance and to find joy despite the horror they had just survived. They find the synagogue destroyed, littered with scraps of desecrated Torah scrolls. They also find two children huddled under a bench, and – realizing that among 400 survivors there are only two children – they hold the children in place of the Torah scrolls and dance, using them as symbols of defiant joy and survival in the face of those who had tried to destroy them.

The structure of the song, much like a country song which tells a story, requires that the refrain happen before we have all the details of the story. The instances of the refrain that occur after we have all the relevant details each change two lines to reflect the new information, which allows for a rhetorical connection between the lines across the refrains throughout the song. In this case, those lines – and thus the ideas being connected to each other – are “though we had no Sifrei Torah [Torah scroll] to clutch close to our hearts, in their place we held the future of a past so torn apart,” which appears in the second refrain as “though we had no Sifrei Torah to gather in our arms, in their place we held those children, the Jewish people would live on.” The final version of these lines is “though we had no Sifrei Torah to clutch and hold up high – am Yisrael chai” – a popular phrase meaning “the nation of Israel lives.” The children are thus clearly figured as the Jewish people’s hope for the future, the replacement of a “past so torn apart” and a symbol of Jewish endurance and continuity.

The Hasidic community is clear about this idea in everyday life, as children are told that they are their parents’ and grandparents’ “revenge on Hitler.” Many Haredi matriarchs and patriarchs – both Hasidic and non-Hasidic – look at wedding photos of their large families, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren numbering the hundreds, and find satisfaction in the knowledge that the Jewish people is revitalized through the birth of new generations. I tried to find a photo I have from a cousin’s wedding, where we all lined up in rows like this first image I got off the internet – to have a personal tie-in here – but I couldn’t find it. So instead, here’s a couple of images of my grandparents – Holocaust survivors – with their grandchildren because my work is always personal and I like to include things like this…

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, a professor of Jewish History, characterizes Jewish historiography as concerned with “ruptures, breaches, breaks” and an attempt to “see how Jews endured them.” Haredi historiography asserts that there are no real ruptures and breaks despite the many tragedies and losses of life – that as long as children survive or as long as more children are created, there is an assurance of continuity not only of the Jewish people but of Jewish theology as perceived through the Haredi idea of continuity. Of course, the idea of “we must save the children” is not unique to Haredi thought – it’s the basis for foreign aid campaigns using images of children and at least part of the basis for the Kindertransport which allowed children from Nazi Germany to flee to Britain (incidentally, that’s how my paternal grandmother survived). While secular and academic Jewish historiography acknowledges the changes which Jewish theology has undergone in the millennia-long history of the religion, Haredi historiography draws a line of continuity from the Torah of Moses at Mt Sinai to the Judaism practiced in contemporary Haredi communities, claiming that despite the changes of the world around them, Jews have maintained the same practices and beliefs unchanged by time and technological advances. A major component of this belief is the symbolism of children.

In a collection of holiday stories for children, written by Shmuel Blitz and published by Artscroll-Mesorah in 1998, this theme of continuity is made clear by a story for Shavuos, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The young protagonist Betzalel tries to stay up all night to learn Torah, as is the custom, but he falls asleep and dreams that he joins figures of Jewish thought and Torah commentary in a study session, led by Moses himself.

He dreamed that he saw Moshe Rabbeinu sitting at the head of a long table. Seated around him were all the great leaders of the generations. Rabbi Akiva, Hillel, Rambam, and many others were all gathered around, learning together… Betzalel took a seat between Rashi and the Vilna Gaon. He sat and listened to Moshe teach the Torah.

These figures span millennia of Jewish thought and textual development – the Biblical Moses, Talmudic Rabbi Akiva and Hillel, medieval Maimonides and Rashi, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazic, the 17th-century Vilna Gaon who opposed Hasidism… The likelihood of all these figures being able to learn Torah together, with the same methods, philosophies, and interpretations, is very low. But the scene functions as a representation of the belief in the continuity of Torah thought and – through their invitation to Betzalel to join them – the child’s place in the line of Jewish continuity.

Esther van Handel’s A Children’s Treasury of Holiday Tales, another Haredi children’s collection of holiday stories, features the same theme of continuity. In the Rosh Hashanah story, “The Plot Against the Shofar,” Tzvi overhears “two rough-looking youths” plotting to do damage to the Rabbi’s shofar and laughing as they imagine “all those Jews in their old prayer shawls waiting for their old Rabbi to blow shofar, and then…!” Tzvi considers telling the police, the Rabbi, or his parents, but concludes that no one would believe him. Instead, when he goes to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, he brings along his own shofar, which he had been practicing on every day in the preceding month of Elul and lays it on the lectern. When the baal tokei’a [master of shofar-blowing] tries to blow the official shul’s shofar during the services, he discovers that it had been filled with glue. He then sees Tzvi’s shofar lying on the lecternand is able to blow shofar for the congregation.

Tzvi’s worry about the “rough-looking youths” plan results in a rumination that ties the Jewish past, present, and future together around this religious object and ritual: 

He thought about the sounds of the shofar ... He thought about Akeidas Yitzchak [Binding of Isaac]. He thought about the shofar at Har Sinai [Mount Sinai] when Hashem gave the Jewish people the Torah. He thought about the shofar at Mashiach [Messiah].

After a list of the moments in the Jewish nation’s past and future marked by the blowing of the shofar, Tzvi thinks sadly, “I sure hope the shofar will be blown in our shul on Rosh Hashanah.” Tzvi’s contemporary American synagogue is thus rhetorically connected to the events in the Jewish past associated with the shofar as well as the future that the Jews are awaiting, situating Tzvi himself along the chain of tradition and history. The final words of the Rosh Hashanah story belong to the Rabbi, who ties Tzvi’s actions on this childhood Rosh Hashanah to his future: “Tzvi’s shofar saved the say…And I have a feeling that when Tzvi grows up, with Hashem’s help, he’ll be blowing his shofar himself – every Rosh Hashanah.” Tzvi’s earlier list of shofar-moments in Jewish history connected his shul and his childhood Rosh Hashanah to the span of Jewish history, and the Rabbi’s words promise Tzvi an individual place in that connection and the continued survival of the Jewish people. 

(0:31-0:50 ; 1:16-1:50)

“Be a Friend,” a 1999 song from the Tzlil V’Zemer Boys Choir and the source for the title of my paper today, encapsulates the idea that not only do children have the ability to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people; they are “Klal Yisrael’s guarantee,” the Jewish people’s guarantee of futurity. In the context of a lesson about including everyone and not letting any of their fellow Jews fall by the wayside, the refrain features the teacher saying “Be a friend and understand. touch the heart of every man. Yeladim (Hebrew for children), you’re the key, Klal Yisrael’s guarantee.” The song goes on to say a prayer from the children’s perspective: “Hashem (God) help us grow, while we’re young and so, to become the new tomorrow.” Children who grow in friendship while they’re young, the song says, will carry the future, the “new tomorrow,” acting as a guarantee of the Jewish people’s futurity.

In van Handel’s book, the Yom Kippur story immediately following Tzvi’s shofar story continues the theme of children saving the day and emphasizes the idea that the salvation of the Jewish people depends upon the children. The story is in fact titled “Saved by the Children” and opens on the scene of the “heavenly court” where “[t]he Jewish people are in grave danger…Rosh Hashanah has passed, Yom Kippur is almost here, and the sins still outweigh the mitzvos.” The angels who argue on behalf of the Jewish people in the heavenly court set out to find more mitzvos to tip the scales. They decide to search among the Jewish children, because the scales carry “piles of tefillin, lulavim, and Shabbos candles,” all adult ritual items. The angels descend first to “an old neighborhood in Jerusalem,” where Menachem gives his coin to a beggar instead of buying a lollipop; they move on to “a sunny schoolyard in Australia,” where Shira and Rachel end a fight about whose turn it is to jump rope by giving in to each other; their next stop is “an ivy-covered red-brick house in England,” where Shaya asks his father to help him study the alef-bais; and they make a final stop in “a cozy New York kitchen,” where Miriam stops herself before speaking lashon hara [gossip]. Between each location, the angels fly back up to heaven to place the symbols of each mitzvah on the scale: a red lollipop, two jump ropes, and an alef-bais book. The final mitzvah, of avoiding lashon hara, is put on the scale as a “dazzling mitzvah.” This final mitzvah succeeds in tipping the scale, “and the Jewish people were inscribed and sealed for another year in the Book of Life.” The story thus puts the survival of the entire Jewish nation on the shoulders of children from all over the globe. The adults’ mitzvos were not enough to save the Jewish people from year-end destruction, but the small mitzvos of the small children were.


My final text for today is “It’s Gonna Be the Little Kinderlach” (whose tune you might recognize as the annoying Kars 4 Kids jingle), originally recorded by Country Yossi, aka Yossi Toiv, in 1983. It has since become an extremely popular song in Haredi culture, sung in many pre-school classrooms and musical productions, clearly asserting the idea of children as the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people. The song begins by asking “So you wanna know who’s gonna bring Mashiach,” and goes on to answer: “it’s gonna be the little kinderlach,” the little children. Just as “Be a Friend” pins the continuity of the Jewish people on young boys behaving with friendship, just as “Saved by the Children” pins the salvation of the Jewish people on children performing mitzvos, this song lists the actions that will directly “make him come” – learning Torah, saying Grace after Meals, wearing tzitzis, giving charity, visiting the sick and the elderly – these are the actions through which little girls and little boys will “make Mashiach come.”

Many other texts and songs in Haredi musical and textual culture reiterate this sentiment. Ultimately, the function of children in Haredi ideology is both a rebirth after tragedy and trauma and a promise of eternal salvation for the Jewish people.

The Worst of Times, the Best of Times

This semester has been so weird. And yet, it’s been amazing. I sat at my desk in my home office while my students sat at desks and kitchen tables, on couches and beds, each of us looking at computer screens instead of each other. They could see my face; I could not see most of theirs. Most of our conversation happened via typing on Discussion Boards and in Blackboard Collaborate’s chat window. And yet… in at least one class, we managed to become a cohesive group; to have intense and productive conversations about texts; to laugh together; to find comfort in our meetings and discussions.

At the end of each semester, I usually do a “flood-the-board” activity: I’ll leave the classroom for about ten minutes, allowing my students to take over the room. I leave pieces of chalk (or markers) for them, and they get to write all over the board, filling it up with ideas, skills, insights they’ve learned over the course of the semester. I love what happens in those ten minutes. I stand outside the door, but I don’t go too far. I can hear them through the door – quiet at first, then murmuring, and eventually there’s laughter and shouting as they all read each other’s comments and interact with them – they spur each other on, they write jokes (like the comment about my apparent penchant for wearing turtlenecks one semester…), they have fun. And then I come back in, they giggle as they settle down and watch me read their board… I snap photos of the board and share with the class via email afterwards. It’s closure – even though they’re still working on their final essays.

This semester is obviously different. But I used Google Jamboards to try to replicate at least some of that. I put them into breakout groups to allow them the chance to chat with each other as they posted, though I don’t think they used that (I didn’t see any mics turn on in the groups). The board they came up with is just as great, though. Here it is:

Call for Papers: Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhood

Thanks to an amazing series of serendipitous events, I am under contract with Ben Yehuda Press and am soliciting essays for a book tentatively titled:

Texts, Songs, and Cultural Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhoods

The idea of the book is described below, along with some ideas for possible essays. When you’re ready to submit a completed essay, use this link to submit your manuscript.

Childhood and adolescent experiences are shaped in no small part by the artifacts available to children and adolescents: the books they read, the toys they play with, the songs they sing, etc., all affect and shape specific cultural childhoods. The cultural artifacts of Orthodox Jewish childhood and adolescence – including Modern Orthodox and Haredi artifacts – are a rich and virtually unmined resource for understanding Orthodox Jewish communities, ideologies, and practices. Through readings of these texts from both personal and academic perspectives, this volume aims to provide insight into the experience of Orthodox childhoods for both academic and lay audiences.

  • Essays should be at least 500 words and no more than 5,000 words. (I imagine that personal essays may be shorter, while critical essays will likely be longer.)
  • Multiple submissions accepted.
  • Submission deadline: February 1, 2021.
  • Jews of color, queer Jews, disabled Jews, frum Jews, secular Jews, and formerly Orthodox Jews are all encouraged to submit.

What we’re looking for:

  • Critical essays: Focusing on a single cultural artifact or set of artifacts, these essays will provide critical analysis. Essays can be situated in the fields of literature, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, history, psychology, etc.
    • An essay about connections between a text and Orthodox schools might perform a literary analysis by looking within the text and studying the ways in which the text portrays school environment.
    • Another essay about connections between a text and Orthodox schools may take a historical approach, using the text as a touchstone for a historical overview of development of and practices in Orthodox schools.
    • Still another essay might take a sociological approach and examine how the text was and/or is used in Orthodox school libraries and classrooms.
    • We welcome critical essays from both academics and non-academics. You do not need a degree in order to write an essay in this category! Editors will work with you, if necessary, to incorporate scholarship and references.
  • Personal essays: These essays will draw from personal experience with Orthodox artifacts to narrate and/or reflect on the experience of Orthodox childhood.
    • If you have things to say but are not a skilled writer, please submit anyway! An editor will work with you to revise your essay while retaining your personal voice. We want to feature as many voices and experiences as possible.

Possible cultural artifacts include but are not limited to:

  • books from Orthodox publishers: picture books, short story collections, chapter books, teen novels, magazines for children
  • Orthodox music tapes and story tapes (and videos) for children: the Shmuel Kunda series, the Marvelous Middos Machine series, Country Yossi, 613 Torah Avenue, Uncle Moishy, Kivi and Tuki, Rabbi Juravel, Pirchei, JEP
  • material artifacts from Orthodox childhoods: Torah Cards, Gedolim Cards, board games
  • Orthodox educational material: textbooks from Orthodox publishers, school publications (newsletters, yearbooks, etc), handouts, worksheets, curricula
  • songs from summer camps, youth groups, school plays
  • skipping or handclapping songs, games that leave no physical trace

Possible themes for both critical and personal essays include:

  • the roles played by a text or cultural artifact in promoting adherence to Orthodox beliefs and practices
  • connections between Orthodoxy’s childhood cultural artifacts and mainstream American childhood’s cultural artifacts
  • the ways a text or cultural artifact contributed or may contribute to alienation from Orthodoxy
  • how a text or cultural artifact reinforces or models gender roles in Orthodoxy
  • the models of literacy available to Orthodox children
  • connections between a text or cultural artifact and Orthodox schools or homes
  • when and how certain artifacts were used (ie, reading The Little Midrash Says on Shabbos, listening to The Marvelous Middos Machine in preschool classrooms)
  • the portrayal of relationships (between family members, community members, non-Orthodox Jews, non-Jews) in Orthodoxy’s childhood cultural artifacts

About the editor:
Dainy Bernstein is a PhD student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They are working on their dissertation, which focuses on Haredi children’s literature between the years 1980 and 2000, the years of their own childhood and adolescence in Boro Park, Brooklyn. They also teach courses on medieval literature, children’s literature, and Young Adult literature at Lehman College.

About the publisher:
Ben Yehuda Press’s mission is to provide a home for books which exist outside the prescribed parameters for a “Jewish book.” Their titles typically don’t fall into any of the niches claimed by existing Jewish publishing companies – but aren’t of wide enough interest – that is to say, sufficiently pareve – to interest a general publisher.

Online Teaching: A New Semester, A New Plan

Over the past few days on Twitter, there’s been a lot of talk about reassessing and re-evaluating methods used in the Fall 2020 semester, the first semester some of us taught fully online. Stimulating conversations about platforms, schedules, assignment sequences, etc., have captivated me. I’m reading through long threads and reply chains of methods and considerations, of questions as well as answers. The collegial support, first of all, is so amazing. And the ideas being shared are invigorating. They also made me review the methods I’ve been using – and constantly tweaking – this semester, and the plans I’ve been making for the Spring 2021 semester. And I – to my own surprise, as usual – have lots of thoughts! So, time for a blog post rounding up some things I’ve learned over the last few months of our new normal.

As usual, this turned out to be far more than I expected to write. So skip down to the end to see what I’m planning for next semester if you don’t want to read in-depth reflections of my past semester.

Content Links:

Consideration #1: Scheduling
Consideration #2: Assignment Sequences
Consideration #3: Accountability
Spring 2021 Scheduling
Spring 2021 Assignment Sequences
Spring 2021 Accountability

Consideration #1: Scheduling

In the fall semester, I’ve been teaching three classes. One class is scheduled to meet twice a week for 1.5 hours each time, and the other two are scheduled to meet once a week for 3 hours. In planning my classes over the summer, I wanted to avoid “Zoom-fatigue,” and I also wanted to take advantage of the online tools available to us now. I designed the syllabus to be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous class. My plan was for each class to meet for half of the weekly allotted time.

For the twice-a-week class (English 300), we would meet only on Monday mornings for 1.5 hours. The other 1.5 hours of scheduled meeting time would be replaced by asynchronous Discussion Boards, due by Sunday evening before we meet. I planned to upload a video lecture on Sundays, about the text which students would be reading for the following Monday. So students’ weeks would look like this:

  • Watch the video lecture, starting on Monday afternoon.
  • Read the text due the following Monday.
  • Participate in Discussion Boards by Sunday.
  • Come to class on Monday morning, when we would discuss the video lecture, text, and discussions.
  • And repeat…

For my English 300 class, this worked fairly well. I think the reason it worked is in large part due to the strict assignment routine I set up, which I’ll discuss in the next consideration.

This was not the case for my other two classes, both of which were English 223. These two classes were scheduled for once-a-week meetings, 3 hours each. One section met on Monday evenings, and the other section on Thursday evenings. Again, I planned to meet for 1.5 hours rather than 3 hours, with the other 1.5 hours of class time replaced by asynchronous Discussion Boards and a video lecture. Students’ weeks were supposed to look the same as what I envisoned for the English 300 class:

  • Watch the video lecture, starting on Tuesday morning for the Monday evening section, and starting on Friday morning for the Thursday evening section.
  • Read the text due the following Monday or Thursday.
  • Participate in Discussion Boards by Monday morning or Thursday morning.
  • Come to class on Monday or Thursday evening, when we would discuss the video lecture, text, and discussions.
  • And repeat…

The main problem with this schedule is that it gave me little time to read Discussion Boards before class. I had made the deadline just before synchronous class meetings because I wanted to give students the full flexibility that asynchronicity affords. I knew that some students would wait until the last second, but I (foolishly, I guess) assumed at least some students would post earlier in the week. I stressed over and over again in the first month of the semester that the earlier they post, the better. My English 300 class was a bit better at posting earlier in the week, which I think may be due to a few reasons.

First, they had signed up for a bi-weekly class. So setting aside time on Wednesday morning was part of their plan when they registered. My English 223 students had registered for one evening a week, and they were unlikely to use the remaining 1.5 hours to get started on the following week’s texts after spending 1.5 hours in synchronous class.

Second, most of my English 223 students had signed up for evening classes because they work full-time during the day. Many of them also have children or parents to take care of when they get home. They simply do not have time during the day to do 1.5 hours worth of work. And their other evenings are occupied by their other classes.

Third, I was a lot looser in my initial planning for English 223 than I was for English 300. As I mentioned before, my English 300 class kept to a strict routine, and the purpose of each assignment and of the overall course structure was entirely transparent. I did not do so well with my English 223 class. So, onto the next consideration.

Consideration #2: Assignment Sequences

Over the summer, as I planned my Fall 2020 classes, I wanted to set up a routine of the same assignments each week. That way, students would know the broad outlines of what was expected of them each week, and not have to worry about forgetting new assignments.

For my English 300 class, this goal worked out well.

In part (I suspect), this was because I had a clearer idea of the overall goal of the course. English 300 is Introduction to Literary Study. It’s a required course for all English majors, and its goal is to prepare students to study English literature. Fairly simple. When I looked at sample syllabi provided by the English department (this was my first semester teaching the class), I saw that some professors treated the class like a historical survey. I knew immediately that I would not do that. The department has other classes specifically for that purpose. Other professors treated it like a theory class, studying one theory in depth every few weeks. I didn’t want to do that either. I knew that I wanted to teach skill more than theory or content. So I combined a few things, and decided on this approach:

  • I would begin the semester with a lecture on New Criticism, pointing out that students are already familiar with this method of analyzing texts and providing terms for concepts and analytical techniques they are already comfortable with. We would read two short texts (a translation of Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon”) and apply the methods of New Criticism to the texts.
  • Then, I would divide the class into five groups. Each group would be assigned one theory to read in the textbook. We would spend two weeks reading and discussing the theories.
  • After that, the whole class would read the same primary texts each week, and each group would read that week’s text through the lens of their assigned theory.
  • The first essay would ask students to analyze one of the texts we read using their assigned theory.
  • We would then repeat the process, shuffling the groups with each new group studying another theory for a week, reading new primary texts, and writing another essay using this second theory.
  • We would end by reading one more text, everyone thinking about all the theories we’d studied over the semester, and they would write a final paper using any two theories they wanted.

The first week went wonderfully, as we close-read “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Reluctant Dragon.” In Discussion Boards, I pointed out when students were using theoretical lenses like feminism, Marxism, animal studies, etc., to prepare them for seeing the new theories as things they already know and think about, rather than scary complicated new ideas.

In the next few weeks, students stressed the fuck out. They read 30-page chapters on theory, and freaked out about not understanding it on the first read. Despite my numerous reassurances that I did not expect them to understand them on the first read, despite the Discussion Boards which were divided into two sections:

  • 1) What did you find interesting in this chapter? Anything you recognized from previous classes or general knowledge?
  • 2) What questions do you have? What confused you?

They worried not only that they didn’t understand the theory itself, but that they didn’t know how to apply the theories to literary texts. I started despairing and almost pulled the plug on my whole plan. But I stuck with it. And I’m glad I did. I just had to keep reiterating that I did not expect them to become experts overnight, and that the whole point of devoting the following weeks to reading texts through their assigned theories was that they would learn how to read texts through theoretical lenses!

When we read primary texts, each week’s two Discussion Boards were the same:

  • Open Discussion on the text: I started some threads with questions and observations. This was a space for extremely casual and informal discussion of and reaction to the texts.
  • Theoretical Application: This forum each week asked students to use terms and ideas from their assigned theories to think about that week’s texts. I asked them to either write an interpretation of a specific plotline, character, element, etc., or to write some questions about the text through their theoretical lens.

I engaged in both weekly Discussion Boards often throughout the week (which I was able to d because students posted throughout the week and didn’t wait until the last second). I used lots of emojis and memes in the Open Discussion forum to encourage informality, and I wrote lengthy comments in response to the Theoretical Application posts. I also utilized the private feedback spaces to guide individual students who were struggling, rather than calling them out where the whole class could see.

Each synchronous class session was designed the same as well:

  • We begin with an open discussion where students can ask questions or tell us their burning opinions about the text. I address any issues I saw come up in the Discussion Boards, I mention some on-point comments from the Discussion Board, and we have an informal chat (via unmuting and texting in the chat widow) for about 20 minutes.
  • Students then move into breakout rooms, meeting with their assigned theory group to discuss their theory and its application to the text, expanding on their Discussion Board conversations. (I move between groups to answer questions and guide conversations.)
  • We come back to the main room, where students can ask questions that came up during groupwork or share some exciting insights.
  • Students then get shuffled into random groups, where each student teaches the others about their theory and recaps what their group discussed about the text. (Again, I move between groups.)
  • Finally, we come back into the main room, debrief, set up for the next week, and say goodbye.

By the time we moved on to the second set of theories, students commented on how different the experience was the second time around, that they now understood what the point was, and that it’s easier this time around because they know what to expect, they know how to think about theory, and they know how to think about applying the theory to literature. (One student even said “our professor is a genius,” which I will absolutely take.)

I did change the essay requirement so that students didn’t have to use any particular theory. It was a good decision, because it opened the opportunity for students to write about any aspect of the text that caught their interest in the preceding weeks. And the essays were almost all a smashing success.

My English 223 classes were a different story.

English 223 at Lehman is (for one more semester, before the curriculum overhaul takes effect in Fall 2021) an overview of English Literature for non-majors. It’s supposed to cover all of British literature, from Old English to 21st-century literature. That’s… a lot.

Again, this was my first time teaching the course, so I turned to sample syllabi provided by the English department. It seemed like some professors tried to cover all literary eras with three or four short texts each week; some skipped around and assigned a mixture of longer and shorter texts, without covering all literary eras; and many focused on their area of expertise. There did not seem to be a clear consensus on what the purpose of the course was. The catalog description is “Masterworks that form the basis of the literary heritage of the English language. Authors may include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift or Pope, Wordsworth or Keats, Yeats, and a nineteenth- or twentieth-century novel.” I decided to frame the course as a question about the description itself, asking who decides what gets categorized as a “masterwork,” and what “the literary heritage of the English language” even means.

I started the semester with a collection of readings about “the” canon, about “identity canons” (ie, the gay canon, the canon of women writers, the Latinx canon, etc.), and about how and why we read. I then began a backwards-march through British literature, beginning with a postmodern dystopian novel (Individutopia, by Joss Sheldon) and aiming to end with Beowulf. The point was to flip the expected, to ask “what is the current state of English literature” before moving on to “what forms the basis of this body of literature?”

The plan for routine was:

  • A detailed video lecture about the ideas I wanted to focus on, including historical context and literary analysis.
  • Two Discussion Boards each week, with specific questions that students choose from. Students post one original thread in each forum, and reply to at least five classmates overall.
  • Groupwork in synchronous class sessions to work on various literary analysis skills.

From the beginning, this was a disaster. I had taught composition classes before, where students were not English majors. I thought I knew what to expect. But students in my 223 classes struggled with reading the texts on the canon and all its issues, and seemed to be using the page citations in my Discussion Board questions as an invitation to read only those pages. So their responses were completely out of context. Too late, I realized that I should have begun with at least one or two weeks about how to read, only then (maybe) moving on to these meta discussions.

Discussion of Individutopia was okay, not great. The essays on Individutopia displayed a complete lack of knowledge about writing paragraphs, essays, thesis statements, etc. This is a writing intensive class, but it’s not a composition class. I had set aside time to teach writing, but not to the extent that most students clearly needed. I do not blame the students, of course. But I was very frustrated.

We moved on to the Modernism week, where I had students reading an excerpt from Woolf’s essay on Modernism, Joyce’s “Araby,” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I was a bit hesitant to assign that much reading for one week, but the sample syllabi I had consulted assigned far more per week than that. It was an unmitigated disaster. Clearly, almost no one read all three texts. Some students could not differentiate between the editor’s headnote and the actual text. And the comments on the video lecture displayed very little understanding of the concepts of modernism I was explaining.

After that week, I changed the entire syllabus. I scrapped all the future readings. I had not assigned any full novels after the two weeks on Individutopia, in order to allow each week to be focused on a different literary era. Now, I assigned Pride and Prejudice to be read over three weeks (I provided the text as a PDF, not asking students to make a sudden mid-semester purchase), the 2005 movie for one week, and Ibi Zoboi’s Pride for three weeks. The remainder of the semester would be spent on in-class essay-writing work. I split the class into three groups, with each group required to attend synchronous classes only once every three weeks. Smaller class sizes would, I hoped, allow me to provide more direction to individual students. All students were told to watch the recording of class lectures afterwards.

I also reduced Discussion Boards to one per week, no longer requiring students to create a new thread: their only Discussion Board requirement was to post three times per week, original thread or as a response to a classmate (or me, since I did start some threads). I added Reading Responses instead of the second Discussion Board. I wrote detailed instructions for short responses, designed to scaffold some reading and writing skills I hadn’t thought I would need to teach, in preparation for the second essay. I emphasized again and again that these Reading Responses were preparation for the essay, and that some students may even be able to use whole sentences or paragraphs from the Reading Responses in their essays.

  • The first Reading Response for Pride and Prejudice asked students to identify three characters, describe their social status, wealth, and personality; and reflect on how these three elements affect their interactions with others (total 250 words).
  • In that week’s synchronous class, we focused on analyzing short passages of text.
  • The following week’s Reading Response asked students to copy over a single short passage, explain why they chose it, and analyze its significance (total 250 words).
  • In that week’s synchronous class, we zoomed out to look at chapter summaries. In groups, students wrote chapter summaries in a Google Slides document. I asked them to write a five-point plot summary, a one-sentence plot summary, and one sentence about the chapter’s significance to the novel’s overall plots, relationships, and themes.
  • The Reading Response for the following week asked them to do literally that exact thing with one chapter chosen from the next 20 chapters.
  • In the following week’s synchronous class, by which time students were supposed to have finished reading the novel, we made lists of couples in the novel. We took notes on how their relationships end (happy? rich? in love?) and the trajectory of how each couple go to where they are. I showed them how looking at these patterns can lead us to answer “what is the novel saying about relationships? about marriage? about society’s rules? etc.?” (See image below.) Students pasted potential thesis statements into the chat, I copied them into a document I was sharing on their screens, and I asked each student to explain their thesis (essentially asking for proof and support). I bolded components of the thesis to show how theses can be broken down into components that require support and proof.
  • They watched the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie for the next week, and the Reading Response asked them to do review the thesis work we had done in class, and then think about whether the relationships and social rules play out the same way in the movie (again, total 250 words).
  • The essay asked them to take all of that work and put it into an essay which makes a claim about what the novel (or movie) says about marriage, relationships, social rules, pride, etc.
Image: Document of notes taken in class as described above, charting relationships’ trajectories and end results. The last one is crossed out because the student realized, after trying to prove it, that this interpretation is insupportable by the novel – a victory for learning about how interpretation and support works!

None of that worked as planned, either.

The students who were doing fine continued to show up for synchronous classes as required, and some even attended during weeks when they weren’t scheduled (they asked my permission first). They also submitted their Reading Responses with thoughtful writing, showing sufficient preparation for writing their next essay. They made appointments to speak with me during office hours, and we reviewed their first essay and their Reading Responses one-on-one.

Some students who had been struggling stopped coming to synchronous classes at all. I wasn’t holding them accountable for attendance, and they knew that. So they stopped coming.

Some students who had been severely misunderstanding the texts and the assignments submitted Reading Responses that were way off the mark. When that happened, I provided detailed feedback and encouraged them to meet with me during office hours, and to visit the writing center. When I finally got in touch with a few who were really failing, they candidly told me that they were not even reading the assignment sheets, just assuming that a Reading Response meant “write some thoughts about what you read.” I was despairing, no idea how to fix this. (You would think that these students would then make sure to read the directions for the following assignments. That did not happen.)

Eventually, I was able to see that my feeling of failure here was coming from the unique position that online teaching puts both professors and students in. I know not every student will get an A, and I know a good few students might fail. But in “regular” classes, I don’t see it as clearly as I was seeing it now, every week, with every assignment. As Jody Greene points out in an excellent Twitter thread, the result of our wonderful thinking about how to keep students engaged and motivated during these online semesters often results in exposing the accountability (or lack thereof) we may not have realized wasn’t in place before. So, onto the next consideration.

Consideration #3: Accountability

My immediate reaction to Jody Greene’s tweet thread was this:

Two tweets from Dainy Bernstein. Tweet 1 text: "This is pretty much it. Students are used to opening the text five minutes before class, skimming the intro, reading Sparknotes. In class, depend on clues from other students to pick up and engage just enough in conversation and groupwork. Now, they can't do that." Tweet 2 text: "That's not necessarily a good thing. When I realized early this semester that I was asking students to come up with original thoughts each week in a way I wouldn't expect in f2f classes, I scaled it all way back. Making space for removing that pressure actually raised engagement."

As I said above, online teaching means that I see and register students’ failure to engage or understand differently. If a student is checked out in a regular classroom setting, I may notice it, but it won’t distract me. I won’t obsess over it. In online teaching, if a student is doing the bare minimum or less, it’s right there in my face when I read their Discussion Boards and Reading Responses, when I check on the Grade Center (which I am doing so much more often than I usually do). At first, I thought – great! This is built-in capability to keep an eye on students, identify who needs help early, and actually support students better! I forgot that some students just aren’t interested in that. And that some students don’t think they need help, no matter how much I may offer it.

Like, this RMP review shouldn’t bother me, because I know I reached out to all students who got zeroes on assignments and essays to offer help, I know that I spent forty-five minutes talking to one student who got a zero on his essay and subsequently gave him an A, and I know that each zero was very much deserved, and yet it still bothers me (and not just because of the misgendering).

screenshot from Rate My Professor, with an "awful" rating. Review reads: "Skip her class she is a lousy grader. She likes to give zeroes on papers."

Now, Jody Greene’s observation that “our previous expectations of how much work students were actually doing in our classes were off by a mile” is a good one. But I did always know that a significant percentage of students rarely do the reading before class, and that the ones who do don’t always read it as carefully as I would like.

And that’s usually fine! In-person classes allow students to sit back during the first part of discussion, to listen to the conversation and pick up on key details. When we point to specific lines in the text, they can get a sense of the text. When I assign groupwork, they’ll admit to their groupmates that they didn’t read (but please don’t let the professor know), and their group members will catch them up and protect them from my potential wrath.

And all of that is fine. That’s how learning works. With those who have more time and energy (and interest) sometimes carrying those whose jobs and families overwhelm them.

(The students who genuinely don’t care won’t be doing these things I describe to catch up in class. They’re a whole separate story. But again, I can usually ignore them during in-person classes, after establishing that they’re not interested in my help. I only have to deal with them when they’re upset at their inevitable bad essay grades.)

But students are feeling now that they’re being expected to do more work, because we are holding them accountable and grading bits and pieces of weekly work on a level we have not done until now. Sure, we collected and graded in-class writing, but being in person and jotting down some things on a paper during class sessions is very different from submitting Discussion Boards or Reading Responses outside of synchronous class sessions.

Which leads me to my Spring 2021 plans.

Will they work better? Only time will tell. But they’re based on all of the above thoughts and considerations, so maybe.

Spring 2021 Scheduling:

I’m teaching two classes in Spring 2021. They’re both classes I’ve taught before, though not for a little while. My English 121 class (English Composition II: Introduction to Literature) meets on Wednesday evenings for 4 hours. My English 301 class (British Literature I: Origins to Early Modern) meets on Tuesday evenings for 3 hours. I am planning to ask students to attend class for the full time, rather than splitting things up into a combination of synchronous and asynchronous. Here’s how they’ll work:

English 121: English Composition II: Introduction to Literature

The class is scheduled to run from 6pm to 9:40pm. Composition classes are always 4 hours / 4 credits at Lehman. Once-a-week 4-hour classes can be brutal. I taught two back-to-back sections of once-a-week 4-hour composition classes at College of Staten Island one semester, so I have some ideas from that coming into play here too.

  • We begin class at 6pm via Teams video sessions. I will lecture a bit and facilitate discussion of the assigned reading, the writing skill we’re discussing, etc.
  • At 6:45pm, our video session will end. Students remain logged into Teams but our activity moves to the text channels. They will read or re-read the text for that week, and will chat via text channels. They will ask questions about specific words or ideas and get answers from me in real time. They will respond to specific prompts. They will engage in informal conversation with classmates and with me. We’ll do this for 1 hour 15 minutes (the extra 15 minutes is a buffer for getting drinks, bathroom breaks, and getting back into the video session).
  • At 8:00pm, we’ll return to a Teams video session. We’ll review any questions, talk about implications of the text channel discussions, etc. I will introduce a new key concept or skill.
  • At 8:45pm, our Teams video session ends again. Students remain logged onto the text channels. They complete some writing work, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs or groups. They ask questions via the text channel, and they submit their writing. I won’t be able to see their work as they write.
  • At 9:15pm, we return to the Teams video session. We review any questions and insights, we take a look at a few students’ work, we critique them, and we wrap up the session. I tell them what we’ll be reading / writing for next week, and we say goodbye at 9:40pm.
  • I stay on for a half hour longer to comment on the writing of students’ whose submissions were not used as samples in the last section of class.

English 301: British Literature I: Origins to Early Modern

(First of all, yes, the course title is being changed along with the complete curriculum overhaul.)

This class is scheduled meet from 6pm to 8:40pm on Tuesdays. It is a writing-intensive course, but (in contrast to the 223 classes I taught in fall 2020) almost all students enrolled in this class are English majors. Many are also education majors. I am planning to use plenty of class time to teach, practice, and critique writing. Those weeks when they’re writing essay drafts will of course look slightly different than the schedule I outline here:

  • We begin class at 6pm via Teams video sessions. Students will have (supposedly) read the assigned text ahead of class. I will have prepared them for reading via a short lecture at the end of the previous week’s class. We’ll spend half an hour on open discussion, plot review, etc. I will set up the focus of the evening.
  • At 6:30pm, our video session will end. Students will remain logged onto Teams and will move to text channels. They will follow instructions to re-read (or read for the first time) the text, or specific sections of a longer text. They will ask for clarification about specific words, lines, characters, plot points, etc. I will post prompts and questions to think about as they read. They will discuss these questions and themes with me and with each other in the text channel. I will encourage them to cite specific lines as they share their thoughts and analyses. For some sessions, they’ll work in pairs or groups. For some sessions, I’ll provide worksheets for them to use in addition to the regular text-chatting.
  • At 7:30pm, we will return to our Teams video session. We’ll talk about the points brought up in the text chat. I’ll make any corrections or clarifications necessary, which I’ll have been marking down during the hour of text-chatting.
  • At 8:00pm, we’ll end the video session again and move back to text-chatting. This time, I’ll ask students to move beyond the comprehension / light analysis of the previous text-session. They will write brief analytic responses to the text we’ve been discussing, using my prompt which will direct them in skills of literary analysis (building throughout the semester).
  • At 8:30pm, we’ll jump back into our video session one last time. We’ll review any questions, and I will set them up for next week’s reading.

And that’s it!

It’s a lot of moving back and forth, but it accomplishes at least two things:

  1. It avoids “Zoom fatigue.”
  2. It allows the “extra work” of Discussion Boards and Responses, when there’s an asynchronous component, to more closely resemble the “regular” in-class work of reading, discussing, and low-stakes writing.

Spring 2021 Assignment Sequences

Since I’m setting aside so much time during synchronous class sessions for writing, I won’t feel the need to “check in” and “make sure” students are reading more than I normally do in in-person classes. As Roopika Risam put it on Twitter:

Screenshot of tweet thread by Roopika Risam (username @roopikarisam) QT Jody Greene: Tweet 1 reads: "Unpopular opinion but there’s a pandemic on. If you trusted that students did the reading and were satisfied with how they did in your class before the pandemic, don’t add more assignments for “accountability” just because it gives you a sense of security." Tweet 2 reads: "Having worked in faculty support for online teaching during this pandemic, I’ve seen so many courses designed to obtain proof that students read *everything* assigned. It adds up. Then multiply by 5. And that’s before factoring in direct and indirect pandemic effects." Tweet 3 reads: "No wonder students are struggling! We didn’t prepare them for this much “accountability” before and are now dumping it on them in the middle of a public health, economic, and political crisis like many of them have never experienced before."

So now I’m able to more consciously go back to designing assignments the way I used to: designed to help students practice skills of reading and writing, not to prove that they’re doing the work.

Assignment Sequence for English 121:

The overarching idea behind the whole sequence is, of course, scaffolding. I begin this composition class with basic skills of summarizing and close reading, and then move on to a more complex essay. We end with a research essay. The weekly assignments are directly tied to these essays.

Each week, students will submit a short piece of writing, except for weeks when essays are due, of course. Each week’s assignment is due on Monday of the following week (five days after our synchronous session). The assignment will be drawn directly from what we worked on in the synchronous session, giving students an immediate chance to practice the skills they just learned. The will be allowed – and encouraged – to simply revise their in-class work for submission by Monday.

The assignments are as follows, week by week:

  1. Introduction Video: a close reading of a personal item.
  2. Summary of the short text we read and discussed in class.
  3. Essay #1: a short (2-3 page) close reading of one of the previous weeks’ short texts.
  4. Summary of a critical essay (we will read this entirely in class, no reading due while they work on their essay).
  5. Summary and analysis of a critical essay.
  6. Creative writing (we’re talking about narratives and how the stories we tell, and the way we tell them, reveal things about us, our values, and our hopes for the future, etc.)
  7. Essay #2 First Draft.
  8. Essay #2 Graded Draft, after a session on revision, organization, development, and peer review.
  9. Spring Break – no work. (Only I have to grade all their essays!)
  10. Summary of the movie we discussed in class.
  11. Analysis of the movie.
  12. A “video essay,” based on the YouTube video essay we discussed in class.
  13. Research Question for the final essay, following a practical session about choosing and refining a research question.
  14. Annotated Bibliography, following a practical session about finding and evaluating sources.
  15. Final Essay First Draft, after a session on citation and peer review.

The Graded Draft of the Final Essay will be due during Finals Week.

Assignment Sequence for English 301:

This is primarily a literature class, so it’s weighted less heavily to writing. As I’ve described above, I will assign reading due before the synchronous class times, as usual. But I am also building in the opportunity for students to catch up in case they didn’t have time to start or finish reading before class. The writing for this class is also scaffolded, but I’m not asking the students to do any low-stakes writing outside of class. Their essays, including all scaffolded stages, are due on Fridays, following the Tuesday synchronous classes. (I’ll accept submission over Saturday and Sunday also with no penalty.)

So the week-by-week writing schedule looks like this:

  1. Introduction Video.
  2. None.
  3. Essay #1 Graded Draft (on medieval and early modern poetry, using the work they’ll have done in class over the past three weeks).
  4. None.
  5. None.
  6. None.
  7. Essay #2 First Draft (on medieval romance; they’ll have submitted a proposal which I will respond to immediately at the end of class).
  8. Essay #2 Graded Draft (following a peer review session in class on Tuesday).
  9. Spring Break – no assignments (again, I will spend Spring Break grading!)
  10. None.
  11. None.
  12. Annotated Bibliography (following two sessions on finding secondary sources).
  13. Final Essay Proposal (on medieval and early modern drama).
  14. Final Essay First Draft.

During Finals Week: Final Essay Graded Draft (following peer review in our last synchronous session).

Gosh, even just typing that makes me feel like a weight’s been lifted off my chest. I can’t even imagine what that will do to students juggling four or five classes.

And finally: Spring 2021 Accountability

None. I’ve eliminated the need for it.

With tremendous thanks to all my colleagues on Twitter (and Facebook, and the ESA Discord server) whose ideas and discussions are so valuable as we grapple with all this. Here’s hoping this intense work informs my teaching practices forever after. (Sorry, I am feeling very choked up with emotion after re-reading and proofreading this…)

Happy teaching, y’all!

From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

On October 29, 2020, over 60 people tuned in from all over the world to participate in “On the Margins of Contemporary Jewish Orthodoxies,” a symposium organized by Baruch College. The symposium featured talks on historical predecessors of contemporary exiters, the social realities of contemporary exiters, people who live on the margins of orthodoxies, and the portrayal of exiters in literature and film.

Naomi Seidman noted in the final keynote of the day that this is an “OTD moment” in multiple arenas: on social media, OTD groups abound; adding to the visibility of those social media groups are the films and TV shows centering or featuring OTD characters and narratives; and in the academic field of Jewish Studies, there is discussion of creating a separate OTD Studies discipline.

In addition to the formal presentations, the Zoom chat was alive with conversation from presenters and attendees. The presentations themselves were academic in style and content, and – in typical OTD fashion – the chat resembled a bais medrash coffee room, moving with ease between textual and philosophical analysis, social and emotional confessions, and jokes that ranged from intellectual or tinged with pain and sadness, to the kind with the punchline of “magical goyishe penis.”

There was much overlap between almost all of the presentations. I had prepared a talk about OTD memoirs and fictional films. Earlier in the day, Zalman Newfield talked about how the OTD experience matches or doesn’t match the experiences depicted in OTD memoirs, based on sociological research. His talk touched on both of the memoirs I would speak about later. Sara Feldman, speaking on the same panel I was on, talked about OTD films in Yiddish. Her focus was on a period earlier than the last decade, which I would focus on. But she did touch on the three films I would talk about. The overlap was generative, each of our talks building on what was said before.

In full disclosure, I don’t work on OTD Studies as part of my main work. I work on childhood and children’s literature, and my dissertation is on American Haredi children’s literature, 1980-2000. The focus there is not on those leaving the community, but on the community itself. Of course, the topics are connected. But I submitted an abstract to this symposium because I could not pass up the chance to talk with scholars about a topic so interesting in general and so personal to me; and because I had *thoughts* with a capital T about these memoirs and films, and this would give me an opportunity to talk about them and not feel like I’m shouting into a void.

But after this symposium, the whole day, left me exhilarated and recharged, I realized that while I may not be itching to be a part of that field, it has never left me. One of the organizers sent me a private message after I finished my presentation, asking if I had ever published any of this. I was startled – this talk was literally just me writing up some thoughts and conversations I’d had on Facebook with friends. I spent a grand total of three days actually writing the presentation, the weekend before the symposium. (I had been thinking about it for far longer than that, of course.) I wasn’t even sure I was saying anything that wasn’t obvious! And he thought it was publishable??

Anyway, I am not going to work on any of this in the near future because I really, really (like, really) need to finish writing my dissertation. But how can I deprive people of my brilliance? 😉 So I’m posting the presentation and my talk here, lightly edited for the different format of the blog.

Title slide: From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

Anyone who was aware of Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox, when it was published in 2012 undoubtedly remembers the controversy and furious debate surrounding the book – maybe even more than the book itself. There were three main groups of reactions to the book: The Hasidic and frum communities reacted with anger; people who had left Orthodox Judaism reacted with skepticism on the whole; and people who had no experience with either community ate it up eagerly and praised Feldman for her courage.

Slide: The cover of Feldman’s book “Unorthodox,” and lines quoted below.

This is not necessarily a flaw in the design: as Feldman acknowledges in the afterword to the revised 2020 edition:

“Writing a book was part of a much bigger plan, a necessity if I was to truly be free to start a new life with my son outside of our community. The publicity it would bring me would serve as a tool, my lawyer had explained, would provide me with leverage against people who would normally render me voiceless and therefore powerless.”

The project of writing the book was, for Feldman, both a creative process initiated by her classes at Sarah Lawrence, and a tool in her journey to self-actualization. That the people who loved the book enough to stand by her side were those who could prove useful and powerful in her fight against the forces holding her back is no coincidence. She wielded the tools she had at her disposal, and the ability to shock with a glimpse into a usually-cloistered community and the “scandalous” rejection of that community was one of those tools.

Even in the first edition of the memoir, Feldman acknowledges that she uses her unique past, ironically the place where her voice and individuality were denied, to stand out among the crowd. For her college admissions essays:

“The first two are autobiographical. I think to myself, This is my shtick. I gotta use whatever I got.”

All high school seniors are advised to find the one thing that makes them unique, makes them stand out from the crowd, and it just so happens that Feldman’s is her Hasidic upbringing.

Naomi Seidman makes a similar comment in her review of the fictionalized Netflix mini-series based on Feldman’s memoir.

In this version, the protagonist, Esty, is not a writer but a musician: a pianist and a singer. One of the most emotional moments in the mini-series comes in the fourth and final episode, when Esty auditions for admission into a prestigious Berlin conservatory. Her first song choice is Schubert’s “An die musik”. When the admissions committee asks her why she chose to sing that song, which is not the right song for her voice, she tells them the story of her Hasidic grandmother listening to Schubert’s records in secret.

Slide: Still of Esty singing from the show “Unorthodox,” and lines from Seidman’s review quoted below.

When the committee asks “why secret,” Seidman writes:

“Maybe, just maybe Esty heard that question and saw her shot. The only way forward was through the one thing she had that everyone wanted, the story of the “insular community” she had left behind.”

The admissions committee allows her to sing another song, and she performs a powerful rendition of “Mi bon siyach,” the song traditionally sung as the kallah circles the chosson under the chuppah. Again Seidman explains:

“Even the Hasidic song was only what it was because it came with this story of a woman finally allowed to sing, a secret finally “scandalously” shared.”

Just as Feldman used her scandalous, titillating story to break her way into the writing market, Esty does too. She knows that this is her “shtick,” that outsiders would sit up and pay attention to this story about a community of repression and strict rules, and about a young girl breaking free and finding her voice.

The structure of Feldman’s memoir is somewhat at odds with the title of her book. Although the title promises a “scandalous rejection,” the book delivers eight chapters of Feldman’s life within the Satmar community and only one chapter detailing her escape.

Part of this is due to the timeline on which she wrote the book: She had only just left the community when she wrote it. In fact, her meeting with her editor and subsequent rush to finish the book is a significant component of Chapter 9: Up in Arms. If she was going to use this memoir as a tool, as a way to prevent the community from silencing her, it makes sense that it comes at the beginning of her escape. But that means that the focus of the book is on the ills of her family and community, rather than on her life outside of it. Her sequel, Exodus (2015), chronicles more of her journey afterwards.

But the first book, Unorthodox, not only focuses on the community more than the rejection; it also includes reflections that are not thought-through, at times childish, and almost always angry. As any good therapist will tell someone experiencing post-traumatic stress, anger is a natural and necessary stage. But anger is not the goal – the goal is to be able to reflect on the trauma and heal from it. Anger is an indication that the affected person is still hurting.

Slide: Feldman signing books, and lines from her book quoted below

Feldman addresses this, albeit obliquely, in her afterword to the 2020 revised edition, when she describes the feeling that overcame her when she wrote her first memoir: as she sank into one memory, and then the next:

“the process began to feel intuitive, like I could shut off the part of myself concentrated on outlines and chapter and characters and all the other things I had learned in college workshops and just trust some long-lost inner voice.”

As she writes a novel years later, she waits “for that ghost to haunt me again,” and

“I have come to understand that she has always been ready and willing, and that it is I who have not always been tolerant of her presence. Because she is from the past, and the rest of me is very much trying to be in the present, so as not to be burdened by anything that came before. We are two women, one lost and one found, still trying to find a way to work together to tell a story.”

One of the key rules about writing memoir is that it’s not therapy – the writing process is an extremely useful tool in therapy, but the public-facing work needs to move past that. The purpose of memoir is to give readers something they can identify with on some level. But Feldman’s book, written by someone who, by her own admission, had not yet reconciled the parts of her that were still hurting, aims to expose, to “provide a glimpse,” as many reviews said, into a secretive community.

Later memoirs, even those published just a few years later, are less angry; their structure is not so heavily weighted toward the author’s childhood and adolescent years; and they provide enough reflection to provide relief from the pain, and from the anger that characterizes the first stages of healing from trauma.

Slide: the cover of Deen’s book “All Who Go Do Not Return,” and lines from the book quoted below.

Shulem Deen published his memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, in 2015, three years after Feldman’s. But he began writing his memoir before Feldman’s was published. Unlike Feldman, he was not using his memoir as a tool in his journey, so he had the luxury and the advantage of revising, editing, revising, and editing again. Feldman’s memoir begins with a prologue in which her mother tells her about their family, and the story proper begins with Devorah as a young child. Shulem Deen’s memoir, on the other hand, begins with the sentence:

“I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others.”

The story Deen tells is personal. But from the very first sentence, the reader is aware of a vast number of others who have shared this very personal experience and is thus invited to see themselves in whichever part of the story resonates with them. This is a story of a single individual within a community, whereas Feldman’s is a story about a single individual and a community. The difference is subtle, but crucial. Deen does not shy away from describing traditions, rituals, and practices of his New Square community. But the story is not about the community, nor is it designed to shock or to titillate outsiders who want to peer into this “strange” world. It is a story of one person who finds other like-minded people despite the community.

In addition, Deen had spent years reflecting on his past by the time his memoir was published. The Shulem of the text is easily distinguished from the Shulem who wrote it for the first half of the book, because Deen is able to critically reflect on his past. He does not paint himself as a saint. He is anxious for the reader to understand that he is not a saint, speaking frankly about the times when he hit his students, when he perpetuates the system that he later comes to be horrified at. Deen takes the reader on an intense emotional journey, a journey of interiority.

The epilogue of All Who Go Do Not Return narrates a day Deen spends with his son Akiva. When he is told that his son Hershy would not be joining them as planned, he feels “a rising sense of fury.” He writes that

“it was eight weeks since I’d last seen the boys. Several years since I’d seen Tziri and Freidy – and even Chaya Suri stopped coming soon after I moved to Brooklyn, after she turned thirteen.”

He thinks about how their lives may have changed, and how he knows nothing about that.

“My calls and letters continue to go unanswered. The cell phones I bought them must never have been charged, always going straight to voice mail, my messages unreturned. In the beginning, Akiva would call on occasion, but now, even he no longer does. I can sense, with each visit, the growing distance between us. Soon, I am all too aware, the boys, too, will turn thirteen.”

The paragraph begins with “a rising sense of fury” at the response of “does it matter” to his question about why Hershy will not be joining him that day, but Deen leads us right past that anger and into a sense of deep sadness about the reality of missing out on his own children’s lives. Deen lays himself open, vulnerable and raw, in a way that Feldman doesn’t.

So what accounts for this difference? A lot of things, of course.

Slide: comparison of Feldman’s memoir an Deen’s memoir

We can’t ignore the gender difference – men have certain advantages, even in such restricted communities. There’s also the stage each author was at when writing their memoir.

But I want to turn from the authors themselves, from their choices and lives, and look at the market. Would Shulem Deen’s raw, vulnerable, painful memoir have sold as well if the non-frum and non-OTD world had not been shocked and scandalized and titillated by Feldman’s memoir first? That’s a speculative question, but I think the answer is no.

Shock factor, as we all know too well now, plays an important role in disseminating an idea. To the non-frum and non-Jewish reading public, that delicious feeling of being able to express horror at “them,” and to righteously support a young woman fighting for her freedom, opened the doors for more memoirs about this community and those who left it.

And of course, publishers accept and reject manuscripts based on how well they think the books will sell. The controversy raised over Feldman’s memoir, no matter where you come down on that question, also helped open the market. Those who stood firmly with Feldman – most often non-frum and non-OTD people – jumped at the chance to read more exposé, more scandal, in Deen’s and other memoirs. Those who were disappointed in Feldman’s style or portrayal – mostly OTD people – jumped at the chance to read a different version of their own story and to perhaps find more identification and catharsis through that. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that Feldman’s book, with all its controversies and all its problems, paved the way for more nuanced and more vulnerable memoirs, including Deen’s.

[As a side-note: I’m not including One of Us because it’s neither memoir nor fiction. But of course, the documentary play a large role in this whole story.]

This same trajectory appears in fictional portrayals of those who leave Hasidic and frum Orthodoxy.

Slide: stills from the films “Mendy: A Question of Faith,” “Felix et Meira,” and “Disobedience”

The 2003 film Mendy: A Question of Faith portrays the freedom and wild abandon experienced by a young man breaking free of his Hasidic community. Mendy is immediately caught up in drug-dealing, he has sex workers thrown at him in seedy clubs, he takes psychedelic drugs and dances away the night in a flashing, whirling sequence, and wakes up in bed next to a naked woman whose name he never knows. Basically, it’s a vision of what our parents and teachers warn is waiting for us. It’s a wild breaking free, and it deals with very little of Mendy’s feelings about his community except anger.

The 2014 Felix et Meira is quieter. It focuses on Meira’s pain – and joy as she finds her own path. The final shot of the movie, in which she holds her son and sits with her new partner in a boat drifting down the river, suggests that she stays on the “outside.” But it doesn’t make it look like an easy future. She and her new partner are both aware of the painful journey still ahead.

The 2017 film Disobedience, based on the book of the same name, is likewise quieter, more internally-focused. The story centers on Ronit’s feelings about her father, her uncle, her childhood friends; and on Esty’s feelings about her husband and Ronit. There is some scandal in that people in the community find out about Esty and Ronit’s relationship, but the focus of the story is on the pain and grief of leaving one’s community, of finding one’s path – not on shock or scandal. That Disobedience was embraced by non-frum, non-OTD, and non-Jewish lesbians as a “lesbian film” is further proof of its resonance on an emotional level, rather than the titillating narrative of repression and freedom in Mendy’s story.

The mini-series based on Feldman’s memoir encapsulates this shift: while the 2012 memoir focuses on the harshness of Feldman’s family and community, the 2020 fictional mini-series focuses instead on Esty’s deeply intimate struggle to find herself and carve a place for herself in the world.

Slide: Titled “Conclusions,” showing covers of 6 memoirs, 3 films, and 1 miniseries, with contact info

In terms of the market, exposés and scandalous narratives may have been necessary to jumpstart interest in the OTD experience, as the earlier memoirs including Feldman’s suggest. But by now, thankfully, there is room for emotional vulnerability, for narratives of pain and grief, which can lead to a collective healing for both OTD individuals and the frum community.

Teaching in the Time of Corona: Look, Ma! No Plans!

A week ago, I posted the instructions for moving online that I sent to my students. (Was it really only a week ago…?) It was so clear, so detailed, so hopeful, so… delusional.

Most of my students managed to get onto Slack and Zoom, the two digital tools I chose to use for my classes. Many filled out the Google Forms survey asking about their accessibility needs and preferences. Slowly, students started interacting on Slack. Then one class met on Zoom, and things were going well. We were settling into our new normal.

The next class didn’t meet until this past Tuesday, but we were interacting via email and Slack. There were glitches and hitches, and I began to rethink what I was expecting my students to do. By the time we Zoomed on Tuesday, I had decided to abandon the second and third papers of the semester. It was hard enough to communicate about the texts – some students are of an -ahem- older generation as returning students, and they were really struggling with the tech. Even students who were okay with it were obviously juggling multiple emails from multiple instructors, and as much as it would be great if everyone would have adopted my organization suggestions (charts for each class with times of video meeting and deadlines for written work etc), that… was not happening.

We met on Tuesday. It was a decent class. Our class was “normally” scheduled to meet for 2.5 hours once a week. We spent 1.5 hours on Zoom, despite my original plans to keep the meeting under an hour. Most of that time was spent on learning how to use Slack and going over the plans for the rest of the semester.

Then CUNY announced a “Recalibration” period, giving us another week off to give students more time to request and acquire laptops and iPads as needed. They also said that our spring break – always scheduled over Passover at CUNY – was to be cut short, now only April 8 – April 10. Yep, I got those dates right. Spring break is 2 days. In a way, that makes sense. We had a week “off” to move our classes online, and we have another week “off” now again. So we don’t need another break, right?

Well, look, I have given up on thinking I can plan more than a week ahead – if even that. I did update the reading schedule for both classes (thankfully, the YA class can remain the same since we had planned to spend two weeks reading our current book, each student at their own pace and when they can).

I cut a few texts: to my dismay, I cut an excerpt from Sometimes We Tell the Truth from my medieval and early modern survey. In the past, I’ve paired Reeve’s Tale from the YA retelling with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale for a conversation about quyting and scholarship on Chaucer. And I was supposed to present a paper at the New Chaucer Society’s July conference in Durham about how I use YA texts in a medieval survey class, but of course, that’s not happening…

Today I met with my YA class for the second time. We’re still in middle of reading Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and my students are having some amazing conversations on Slack – better than they had in f2f classes, actually.

But our hour-long session today was spent on reviewing assignments, discussing anxieties over how the course will be graded now, learning and practicing how to post entries for their reading list (annotated bibliography) assignment – and then the whole thing broke down into a sharing circle as one student told us that their friend had died from apparent coronavirus yesterday, and another student shared that they had tested positive but that they’re feeling better now, and then students unmuted themselves one at a time and shared their anxieties, and I stopped responding and just sat back with tears in the corners of my eyes and let them talk to each other.

We didn’t discuss the book or their Slack conversations at all. I have given up.

No, I haven’t given up. I’ve shifted my priorities. Last week, I was saying that professors have to boil down their curricula to the absolute necessities and cut the rest. I wasn’t really taking my own advice, though I thought I was. It has become clear to me that the goals of my class can no longer be anything like what they were before.

Before, my goals were to have students survey the primary texts and understand the conversations in the respective scholarly fields.

Now, my goal is to have students talking to me and to each other, maintaining sanity, maintaining community. We do that through reading and talking about our books. We do that by escaping into the worlds of shapeshifter families and dancing plagues, of medieval trans heroes and sheep-thieves.

If they engage with the texts and keep their minds off whatever nonsense is happening in the world and in their lives, that’s good. If they learn something from my course goals, even better. But I will not be making lecture videos for them to watch anymore, I will not be giving them additional assignments to aid comprehension. I will be more active in Slack than I had planned to be.

And most of all, I will stop proclaiming what I will do in anything more than one week increments, if that.

Online YA Class: Day 1 (Setting Things Up + The Inexplicable Logic of My Life)

When CUNY shut down for a week, my class was at the tail end of reading and discussing Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.

The disruption meant that we had one planned class left for discussing the book, but everyone was so disoriented and worried about the world that it was difficult to think about returning to the book in a substantial way when we reconvened online (or at least, that was my impression). I also didn’t want to a) leave loose ends hanging for this book or b) start a new book AND a new platform at the same time.

So it worked out pretty well: I was able to ask students to play around with the new platforms using a text we’d already discussed. They were able to gather their thoughts on the book and get comfortable with these new online tools at the same time. And moving forward into the next week, they’re beginning to read the next book, now that they’ve gotten a bit comfortable with a whole new way of learning.

Here’s how I worked it all:

On Sunday, I emailed the full document outlining the plans for the semester. That document (posted here) gave instructions for accessing Slack and Zoom, the two online platforms I settled on. When students entered Slack, they were asked to post in a #confirmation channel, just saying hi so I could keep track of who accessed the Slack, and to get them posting, even if only one word. On Monday, I posted to the #random channel with an image of some blackout poems I had created. The purpose of this was to get them used to seeing the #random channel as a place for easy informal conversation, and to allow them to post their own images. In this class, no one responded until Wednesday, when I posted an image of my tea infuser, a cat chasing a fish.

screenshot of a slack conversation showing two images of blackout poetry
screenshot of slack conversation showing image of a cat-shaped tea infuser, followed by two student comments

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, I sent another email with a few PowerPoint slides. My hope was that this would provide stability and reassure students by giving them a concrete plan. The other purposes were to provide a review of what we had talked about in previous classes, which seemed like a lifetime ago, and to encourage them (but not require them) to begin using Slack. And also to provide a bit of levity – see the “Whistling in the Dark” slide, which links to this video and this one.

On Thursday, we had out first Zoom lesson. I started by asking students to, one by one, tell us about how they’ve been feeling and/or something they’ve begun to incorporate into their routine now that everything is different. It was good for a number of reasons. My primary reasons for doing that were to 1) hear their voices and 2) make sure everyone knows how to mute themselves 😉

It went way over the time I thought it would (it took 30 minutes to get through everyone) but was so worth it. I felt the sense of community that we had before coming back as they talked about their jobs and their families and various worries. Everyone was tense and a bit formal at the start, and by the end we were back to our usual loose, comfortable atmosphere. Moving into talking about Slack and the assignments etc was a lot easier after that.

Students also fiddled with Zoom while we met and found features I hadn’t known about – I had been asking for them to physically show me a thumbs up if they understood/were on board with something I said. They discovered the ability to send a thumbs up emoji, and I will incorporate that in future Zoom sessions! They also discovered the ability to digitally raise their hands, which lets me know who has a question and works better than the in-video chat window.

When we had all gotten comfortable again, I asked if anyone had any questions or concerns. There were a couple questions and some general anxiety about how the class will work. I addressed those briefly, and moved seamlessly into a synchronous demonstration of how Slack works. Via Zoom, I shared my screen with everyone and showed them:

  1. how to switch between classes on Slack, since many of them are attending multiple classes on Slack now.
  2. how to find the channels that may not appear in their menu right away (on both desktop and mobile).
  3. how to post to a channel.
  4. how to reply to someone else’s comment or question.
  5. where to post general queries and where to post text- or assignment-specific thoughts.
  6. how to privately message me.
  7. how posting shorter comments works better than long responses to my prompts, to facilitate conversation among their peers.

I then asked everyone to post one comment or question about The Inexplicable Logic of My Life in that book’s channel. The comments came flying in – almost all of them were immediately comfortable with the platform, and it was clear that they had been thinking about the book quite a bit! There were a few snags, which was part of why I asked them to do this, of course – to identify any problems and enable us to troubleshoot. Three students had issues, and I was able to help them while the rest of the class posted and read each other’s posts.

After everyone had posted, I asked them to respond to at least one classmate’s comment or question. The purpose here was to make sure they knew how to start a thread (Slack’s interface isn’t entirely intuitive for that) and also to reinforce the message that “I agree with you” is not enough of an engagement. Once they got that, the responses – again – came flying in, and I very much enjoyed watching the conversations unfold. For me, it was like listening in to groupwork as I usually do during in-person classes. It reassured me that this will work!

Finally, I showed them the #reading-list channel, which is a variation on an assignment I had literally given to them the day before CUNY shut down for a week.

I then asked them if they had any other questions or concerns. They did, of course 🙂 I answered them, we reviewed the requirements for the following week (read The Sisters of the Winter Wood at your own pace; engage ten times on Slack, but no I’m not literally counting ten times; try to set aside two half-hour chunks of the week to be on Slack rather than checking in constantly or at the last second; video-lectures and PowerPoints and relevant links will be posted to the #sisters-winter-wood channel and BlackBoard).

(We did not get to talk about the songs in the book, which is a disappointment to me. But c’est la vie!)

And then, with a sense of relief, hope, and determination (at least on my part), we said goodbye, to meet again in a week’s time!

Online Teaching During a Pandemic: Two Syllabi

This past week has been a flurry of more global, more intense collegiality than I’ve ever witnessed. It comes as a result of a terrible situation, of course. But I have been so grateful for and so amazed by the communities that have sprung up, by the support being offered freely from those with any kind of expertise.

I was so appreciative of people on Twitter and Facebook who shared brief ideas and suggestions as they worked on their newly-online syllabi. I want to share mine here as well – not to say that they are exemplars but to provide a starting point and a way for others to think about possibilities that they might incorporate into their own courses.

This is far from set in stone. As I told my students during our first Zoom meeting today, I expect that things will continue to shift as we all figure out what we can and can’t expect of ourselves and each other in this new format that we’ve had little time to prepare for. To that point, if you want to share your revised syllabus, please drop a link in the comments! I would love to see what others are doing.

I started with a table of contents. I don’t usually do this in my syllabi, though it occurs to me that I should start doing that now… But here, I wanted students to be able to navigate easily through this document that I wasn’t presenting in person.

I did include videos recorded via Zoom, where I shared my screen with students and walked them through each section. But for future weeks, if students want to check something, they can now easily navigate to it within this (admittedly very large) document.

Here’s the syllabus for my class on Critical Approaches to Adolescent Literature. Further down is the syllabus for my class on Early British Literature. (The first section, on distance learning and isolation, is identical in both documents, so I only include it once here.)

General Notes on Distance Learning and Isolation:

Some of you may have taken online classes before. This is NOT what you would expect from an online class. This is a stopgap emergency measure, and there’s no way it can be as effective as a class that was originally designed to be online. We’re all doing the best we can, but there will be glitches and upsets. The main goal here is to finish the semester without losing our minds.

That means that if you’re not sure about an assignment, or if you somehow don’t see a notification and realize only a week later, don’t worry. Send me an email or visit my office hours (details below). Flexibility is key here, and I will do all I can to ensure you all get the grades you’re aiming for.

Having a routine has been proven to help people maintain healthy mental states. If you’re taking care of children or elderly people, you’ll probably have a routine mostly built in. But make sure to schedule time for classes and homework, if only to ensure you have time for yourself! Build little routines into your day.

Some ideas:

  1. Set aside a designated space for schoolwork, whether it’s a commonly used space or your own separate office. Returning to the same spot for a specific activity will help get you in the right headspace. (It’s science!)
  2. Maintain your eating and cooking routines. Take some extra time with them if this is an activity you enjoy. Indulge in some fancy teas or coffees, or whatever gets you excited.
  3. If you had a crafts hobby you haven’t touched in a while, pick it back up; or, start a new crafts hobby! Set aside some time each day, and make sure to practice self-care.
  4. If you won’t be leaving the house (a smart idea, all things considered), do some exercises or stretched. Get the adrenaline flowing! (https://www.downdogapp.com/ is offering their app free for a while, so if you need some coaching, they’ve got you!)
  5. If you usually do your makeup or other kinds of grooming, don’t ignore that just because you’re not leaving the house. Spend some time on yourself, just for yourself. It’ll help you maintain a sense of the “world out there.”
  6. Keep in touch with friends! Be active on social media, form chat groups, etc. Even if you can’t get together, make sure to maintain contact. Check in with people who might need help and reach out if you need help.


  1. Read Young Adult books to get a sense of the field.
    • More flexible reading schedule. Not totally free-for-all, though!
    • Discuss books in informal chats and via once-a-week video conferences.
  2. Learn about topics of debate and conversation in the field of Young Adult literature.
    • Listen to / watch videos I will share with you.
    • Occasionally, read secondary criticism.
    • Some low-stakes assignments to make sure you understand the videos/texts. These may be in the form of charts, drawings, infographics, etc.
  3. Learn / hone skills of critical analysis.
    • Discuss the YA novels and the secondary videos/texts with classmates, in formal groupwork and informal chats. Required: 10 engagements per week.
    • Write one more essay. (I am grading your first essay and will return it to you shortly.)
    • Create a reading list.
    • Write fanfic or create fan-art.



No more Discussion Boards. Slack channels will replace these.

Assignment sheets will still be posted to BlackBoard (as will this document). You will submit your final reading lists and your final paper via BlackBoard. Everything else will happen on Slack and Zoom.


  1. Follow this link: [removed]
    • You will be prompted to create an account with any email you choose. Your name should be your FULL NAME, first and last, so that I can keep track of you.
    • There are a number of “channels” which you can access from the left side of the screen on a computer, or from the menu on a smartphone.
      • The #general channel is for questions / comments about the class. This document will be hosted there.
      • The #assignments channel will have writing assignments and reading schedules.
      • The #random channel is for you all to informally chat about anything at all.
    • Each book we read will have its own channel.
      • You can enter the channels whenever you want and add your thoughts.
      • You should keep to the reading schedule, but you may read ahead and skip backwards to return to books we finished discussing.
      • Channels with new posts will appear bolded in your list.
      • You can post directly to the whole channel, or you can reply to a specific post. You can also tag people, so that we know who you’re responding to.
    • Each writing assignment will have its own channel. I’ll post detailed instructions there, and you can ask questions and have informal chats with each other there as well.


  • Follow this link: [removed]
    • You will be asked to allow a download of the Zoom app, whether on phone or computer. Allow it!
    • Once you’re in, click “Join” and enter this Meeting ID: [removed]. Follow instructions to create a username.
    • We will use this meeting space in two ways:
      • Once a week, we’ll meet “face-to-face” for an hour. See the survey I sent asking which day you prefer: [removed]. Zoom meetings on the free plan can only go for 40 minutes, so we will have to hang up and rejoin to get a full hour.
      • Once a week, I will hold office hours. See the survey I sent asking for which times you prefer. When I’m holding office hours, you will be able to enter the “waiting room” and I will let you into my “office” in the order that you called in.


Reading Schedule:

  • Thursday, March 19: Finish up with The Inexplicable Logic of My Life
  • March 24 – March 31:The Sisters of the Winter Wood
                Slack for chats; Zoom once a week on Thursday 3:30-4:30pm
  • April 2: Sometimes We Tell the Truth (selection, not the whole book)
            Slack for chat; one Zoom session on Thursday 3:30-4:30pm
  • April 7 – April 16: Spring break.
  • April 21 – May 5: Dark and Deepest Red           
    Slack for chats; Zoom once a week on Thursday 3:30-4:30pm
  • May 7 – May 14: The Poet X
                Slack for chats; Zoom once a week on Thursday 3:30-4:30pm

Writing Schedule:

March 24 – May 14: Share a book for your reading list, one per week.
To limit outside exposure, there will be no library or bookstore requirement. Instead, you will use online libraries or sites like Goodreads to gather titles. And since we have this added online chat space, we can spread the assignment out over the rest of the semester.

  • Each week, you’ll find one book that fits a theme, genre, or topic (as described on the assignment sheet).
  • You’ll post it to the Slack channel #reading-list.
  • You will include the title, author, publisher, and year of publication.
  • You will also include a summary (copy-pasted from the site on which you found it) and you will cite your source (Goodreads, NYPL, Buzzfeed, Epic Reads, etc).
  • Finally, you’ll add a sentence or tow about why you chose this book.
  • Keep all your books in a document. You will turn in this document at the end of the semester, through BlackBoard, so that I can have an easy record of it to grade.

April 20: Fanfic/fan-art due
I’m pushing this way back rather than having it due in a couple of weeks because it’ll be difficult enough to figure out what’s going on with the regular reading – we can save the more creative piece for later, so that you have more time to get used to online stuff first.

  • You will have the option to work in partners or on your own.
  • We’ll talk about specifics after we read Sometimes We Tell the Truth.

May 16: First Draft of Final Essay

May 16 – May 21: Mandatory virtual-office meeting to discuss your paper

May 22: Final Draft of Final Essay
I’m pushing the essay to the end of the semester. Originally, I had planned to have a day of presentations at the end of the semester. But since we can’t do that, it makes more sense to just leave this big project for the end. That also gives you the chance to write about any of the books on the syllabus, rather than limiting you to only the texts we’ve read before your essay is due. So, a win-win!

Things to do before our first class on Thursday, March 19:

  1. Read this entire document!!!
  2. Make sure you can access Slack and Zoom.
  3. Fill out the survey.
  4. Finish reading The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.
  5. Make sure you have a quiet space and/or headphones, and you’re ready on Thursday at 3:30pm.

See you then! Onward, brave adventurers!

ENG301: British Literature I, Spring 2020: Online Instruction (March 24-May 12, 2020)

MAIN GOALS FOR THE CLASS and how we’ll achieve them:

The move to online, and the loss of a week as your professors rethink their syllabus, means that some things have to be dropped from the syllabus. Other things need to be rearranged. Below is an outline that explains my choices – where I chose to keep things, where I chose to cut things, how I chose to reconfigure some assignments, and the reasons behind it all.

  1. Get a sense of medieval and early modern British texts:
    • Discussion of texts in informal chats (using Slack) and via brief weekly video conferences will replace our 2.5hr weekly classes.
    • The Slack will be open all week long. I will check it on a regular schedule (not 24/7). This way, we can make sure that you understand the basics of text as you’re reading (plot, character, language, etc).
    • Infographic timeline: I will show you how to create an infographic, and you will organize the texts from our syllabus in chronological order.
  2. Understand the ways various medieval and early modern genres work:
    • I will record some video and audio for you, accompanied by PowerPoints. These will replace my lectures that usually gave you context of the genre and the conventions. (Like when we talked about courtly love in relation to Lanval, for example.)
    • It would have made sense to cut some texts from the syllabus, but we need a good representation of all the genres. I’ve cut down the amount of time we spend on a couple of the texts, and I’ve cut out the secondary (critical) text on The Merchant of Venice.
  3. Learn about topics of debate and conversation in the field of medieval and early modern British literature:
    • This will be covered in videos and PowerPoints as well.
    • Some leading questions designed to help you think about the debates/topics will be posted in Slack so that you can think about them during the week as you read.
    • During our 30-minute weekly video-conferencing session, we’ll talk about the topics/debates a bit.
    • Some low-stakes assignments to make sure you understand the videos/texts. These may be in the form of charts, drawings, infographics, etc. which you’ll post on Slack. This will basically replace in-class writing. They’ll be short and very informal (and ungraded).
  4. Learn / hone skills of critical analysis:
    • Discuss the texts and the secondary videos with classmates, in formal groupwork and informal chats. Required: 10 engagements per week. Engagements can happen at any time before Tuesday at 6pm. They can be in the form of a question (clarifying a point in the text, asking about context, etc.); a thought about interpreting the text; or a response to a classmate’s question or interpretation. Responses MUST be more than “I agree with you.” They must substantively contribute to the conversation. (Let’s be real, otherwise you can just write “I agree with you” ten times, and that’s not learning…)
    • Write two more essays: one on romance (Lanval, Bisclavret, The King of Tars, Roman de Silence) and one on drama (The Second Shepherds’ Play, The Merchant of Venice).
    • Write an adaptation or fanfic of ONE text from the syllabus. (This is definitely critical! You’ll write this after we discuss Sometimes We Tell the Truth, which is an adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.)



Assignment sheets will still be posted to BlackBoard (as will this document). You will submit your papers, timeline, and creative project via BlackBoard. Everything else will happen on Slack and Zoom. Slack and Zoom both have phone apps.


  1. Follow this link: [removed]  
    • You will be prompted to create an account with any email you choose (keep in mind that everyone in the class will be able to see your email address, so use your Lehman email if you want privacy). Your name should be your FULL NAME, first and last, so that I can keep track of you.
    • There are a number of “channels” which you can access from the left side of the screen on a computer, or from the menu on a smartphone.
      • The #intro-syllabus channel is for questions / comments about the class. This document will be hosted there.
      • The #assignments channel will have writing assignments and reading schedules.
      • The #random channel is for you all to informally chat about anything at all.
    • Each text we read will have its own channel.
      • You can enter the channels at any point during the week when we’re reading a specific text and add your thoughts. Do not go ahead. You may return to previous weeks’ discussions, if you have more thoughts you want to add. (This is a bonus of online learning!)
      • You can post directly to the whole channel, or you can reply to a specific post. You can also tag people, so that we know who you’re responding to.
      • Channels with new posts will appear bolded in your list.
    • Each writing assignment will have its own channel. I’ll post detailed instructions there, and you can ask questions and have informal chats with each other there as well. Same rules as with the text channels.
    • If you want to create a private study group with just a few people, you can do that!


  • Follow this link: [removed]
    • You will be asked to allow a download of the Zoom app, whether on phone or computer. Allow it!
    • Once you’re in, click “Join” and enter this Meeting ID: [removed]. Follow instructions to create a username.
    • We will use this meeting space in two ways:
      • Once a week, we’ll meet “face-to-face” for 30 minutes. We will not meet as a full class – I think that would get overwhelming. Instead, we’ll meet in smaller groups for 30 minutes each. See the survey I sent asking which timeslot you prefer: [removed]. I will post the groups/schedule as soon as everyone has responded.
      • Once a week, I will hold office hours. See the survey I sent asking for which times you prefer. When I’m holding office hours, you will be able to enter the “waiting room” and I will let you into my “office” in the order that you called in.


Reading Schedule:

March 24: The King of Tars; Beowulf (lines 1-1250); Cohen’s “Monster Theory” Seven Theses

  1. Review the seven theses (document of your summaries posted to BlackBoard and to the #king-of-tars-beowulf channel on Slack).
  2. Review the plot of The King of Tars.
  3. Read Beowulf lines 1-1250.
  4. Watch the video of me talking about monsters & lump-babies & Grendel & Beowulf…
  5. Join the Slack channel and engage at least 10 times before class on Tuesday, March 24.
  6. Make sure you know your timeslot. Join Zoom on time.

March 31: Roman de Silence

  1. Access the document of questions about Roman de Silence.
  2. Note that you will be reading selected lines throughout the text. You do not need to read the whole long text!
  3. Watch/listen to/read any supplementary material I give you (I’m not sure yet what format it will be in – this depends on your preferences, among other things.)
  4. Read Roman de Silence, using the questions to help you understand the text.
  5. Check in on Slack frequently this week. Silence can be confusing – use the resource of what can be a group-study, where you can all help each other out. I will of course also be checking in to answer questions, etc.
  6. Engage on Slack at least 10 times before class on Tuesday, March 31.
  7. Join your Zoom at the right time.

SPRING BREAK!! Yes, that’s still on… Make sure to relax and actually take time for yourself. It’s easy to just hop onto Slack and chat with people (and sure, do that in the #random channel). But don’t do schoolwork unless you have to.

April 21: The Canterbury Tales: “The Miller’s Tale”

  1. Access supplemental materials I provide (video, audio, or written). These will include links to resources to help you understand the Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
  2. Read the Norton’s introduction to Chaucer (pages 256-261).
  3. Read the Norton’s introduction to “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale” (page 282).
  4. Read “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale” (pages 282-298).
  5. Engage on Slack at least 10 times, at any point during your reading of the introductory materials or the text itself.
  6. Join your Zoom at the right time.

April 28: Sometimes We Tell the Truth excerpt

  1. Access my supplementary materials.
  2. Download the PDF of the excerpt you need to read (posted to BlackBoard and Slack, as all docs you need will be).
  3. Read the text!
  4. Engage on Slack at least 10 times.
  5. Join Zoom at the right time.

May 5: The Second Shepherds’ Play
Instructions: Same as previous weeks, with perhaps some adjustments as we figure things out!

May 12: The Merchant of Venice
Instructions: Same as previous weeks, with perhaps some adjustments as we figure things out!

I will check Slack chats a few times throughout the week. I will not be available 24/7…

Writing Schedule:

  • all due by 11:59pm via BlackBoard on the dates listed
  • detailed assignment sheets will be posted to BlackBoard and Slack
  • we will review the assignments via Zoom
  • you can ask me questions about the assignment in Slack, and you can chat with classmates and share ideas as well (I’m not worried about plagiarism – partly because I can see everything you write on Slack even if you’re in a private group 😉)

Essay #2 (Romance) Draft #1                         Saturday, April 4

Essay #2 (Romance) Final Draft                     Sunday, April 19

Creative adaptation / fanfic                             Tuesday, May 5

Infographic timeline                                        Tuesday, May 12

Essay #3 (Drama)                                           Saturday, May 23

Things to do before our first class on Tuesday, March 24:

  1. Read this entire document!!! Use the videos linked in the doc and on Slack to help you understand everything. Ask questions on Slack if there’s anything you don’t understand.
  2. Make sure you can access Slack and Zoom (links above).
  3. Fill out the survey: [removed]
  4. Review The King of Tars and the monster theses; read Beowulf lines 1-1250.
  5. Make sure you have a quiet space and/or headphones, and you’re ready on Tuesday at your assigned time to join Zoom.

See you soon! Onward, brave adventurers!