FEATURE: CHANGING THEIR LENS - EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING IN THE HOLY CITY


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Title of Course: Jerusalem: Holy City in Time and Imagination
Instructor(s): Matthias Henze and Melissa Weininger
Department: Religion
Course Number: 392
Intended Student Audience: Undergraduates, non-majors

 

Course Description: This course covers the history of Jerusalem, exploring Jerusalem’s significance to the three major monotheistic religions and to the modern state of Israel. As part of the course students travel to Jerusalem over spring break where they encounter the sites they study in class. Students experience Jerusalem as a modern, living city. Through a study of the historical, cultural, religious, and political important of Jerusalem, coupled with students’ own observations and experiences from their visit to the city, the course aims to encourage students to develop analytical tools for understanding the place of Jerusalem in its contemporary contexts.
 


 
“These are exactly the types of classes that make a college experience.”
— Jeremy Reiskind, Sophomore, Sports Management & History Major
 

COURSE GOALS

In this course students gain a basic knowledge of Jerusalem’s past and present, its religious meanings in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and its role in the modern conflict in the Middle East. Instead of simply “covering” the long history of Jerusalem in chronological fashion, this course aims to provide students with the critical tools necessary to develop their own analysis of Jerusalem today. Close attention is paid to how the history of Jerusalem continues to shape the city and life in the city today. The course distinguishes three progressive levels of teaching and learning:

Level A: Gain a basic knowledge about Jerusalem.

  • Geography: become familiar with Jerusalem’s urban geography;
  • History: study major periods and moments in the history of Jerusalem in the regional and international contexts;
  • Religion: study the basic histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as they pertain to their respective (internally diverse) attitudes toward sacred space in general and toward the holy places in particular;
  • Urban development: gain a more detailed understanding of the urban development and political history of modern Jerusalem;
  • Politics: become familiar with the basic political issues pertaining to Jerusalem.

Level B: Become an informed reader of Jerusalem.

  • Writings about Jerusalem through time: practice mindful reading of sources from ancient Near Eastern to modern scholarly prose, attentive to their respective stated or unstated interests;
  • Religious literature: understand the historical-political contexts of different bodies of religious literature, including the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament;
  • The media: learn to identify bias in contemporary representations of Jerusalem in mass media as well as in scholarship, especially where bias is not obvious or hides behind the appearance of scholarly objectivity or scientific truth.

Level C: Become an informed visitor of Jerusalem.

  • The main goal of the trip to Jerusalem is to integrate and critically apply levels A and B;
  • Visit Jerusalem and its surroundings, explore how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam claim, create, and maintain sacred spaces, and experience first hand conflicting claims to authority and religious meaning;
  • Meet with representatives of different groups in Jerusalem and learn about their lives in the city today

PEDAGOGICAL APPROACHES & TEACHING STRATEGIES

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

Henze and Weininger designed the course with a pedagogical approach that seeks to provide multiple perspectives on the city of Jerusalem with an emphasis on the integration of the old and the new and the interconnection of history and modern life. The course is designed to provide students with the critical tools necessary to develop their own analysis of Jerusalem today. In order to achieve this, Henze and Weininger built the course around an experiential learning opportunity during the middle of the semester. The course is divided into a three-unit class with a one-unit week long ‘urban immersion’ in Jerusalem over spring break.

To prepare students for an intensive week of travel within Jerusalem, the first half of the course focuses on building a foundational knowledge of Jerusalem that prepares students for a mindful and critical engagement with historical-political context of contemporary Jerusalem. One of the primary ways that students prepare to become informed travelers to the city is through the collective production of a travel guide that each student bring with them on the Jerusalem trip. Each student produces one chapter of the travel guide highlighting a historical site the students are likely visit on their trip. In addition, prior to leaving for Jerusalem each student gives 20-minute presentation on their chapter of the travel guide.

According to the Henze, students’ coursework prior to the trip gives them “the confidence, when in Jerusalem, to ask questions and add to the conversation”. But Henze and Weininger say the real learning happened over the course the seven-days that they lead the students through key historical and contemporary sites in the city of Jerusalem. Each day’s itinerary includes tours, visits, and speakers that provide students with the opportunity to explore the city, its rich history, and the contemporary context. Henze and Weininger also carefully planned visits and opportunities for students to encounter a variety of people with different backgrounds, religions, and perspectives. For example, students spent one evening in conversation two family members from the Bereaved Families Forum – one Israeli and one Palestinian family– who have lost loved ones to violence in the city. 

In addition, there are daily opportunities for students to collectively reflect on their experiences in the city.  Henze and Weiniger say that regular opportunities for critical reflection with the professors and other students are essential for students to process their own emotional and analytical responses to what they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing during their time in the city. It is this reflection, they say, that enables students to construct their own knowledge, ideas, and values about the city of Jerusalem.

Once back in the U.S., students return to the classroom with Henze and Weininger where the second half of the course provides students with the opportunity to use the knowledge and experience they gained from the trip to analyze major political, cultural, and social issues in the classroom. Guest speakers from across campus and the Houston community, such an archaeologist working in Jerusalem and a former Ambassador to Israel from the Baker Institute, are brought into the classroom where students can ask questions informed by both their experiences in and studies of Jerusalem.

 

PEER LEARNING & COMMUNITY BUILDING

Henze and Weininger’s vision for the course was to create an atmosphere of respect for diverse ideas, opinions, and personal relationships to the course material. They began by selecting students with a variety of academic interests, religious backgrounds, and approaches to the material. In order to attract the best pool of applicants Henze and Weininger wanted to insure that the cost of travel to Jerusalem would not be a barrier to participation. Therefore, the students’ travel and lodging costs were paid for in part by supporters of the Program in Jewish Studies. In the end, fifteen students were selected to take part in the first offering of the course.

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From the beginning Henze and Weininger focused on creating a community of trust, respect, and engagement among the students that facilitated peer-to-peer learning. All aspects of the course from assignments to the organization of student time while in Jerusalem were designed to help students develop the pedagogical skills to be each others instructors and to put those skills into practice. For example, Henze and Weininger asked students to keep an electronic journal by blogging about their learning, reflections, and experiences over the course of the semester. These blogs became a way for students to process their own learning, as well as, to learn from each other as students read and commented on each others blog posts. According to Henze and Weininger this assignment proved essential to creating a strong and coherent community of students once they traveled to Jerusalem as the interaction on the student blogs enabled the class community to extend beyond the more structured face-to-face interaction in the classroom.

 
“Class discussion are my favorite part of the course. I feel as though I actually have something to offer, intellectually speaking.”
— Sparrow Gates, Sophomore, Religion Major
 

TEAM TEACHING

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To learn about the city of Jerusalem in the 21st century poses a set of unique challenges as the city’s history spans four thousand years, is the center of three world religions, and there are conflicting perspectives that make the city highly contested. Henze and Weininger wanted not only the content and experiences afforded by the course to illustrate the challenges, but they wanted the course itself to challenge student’s ideas, perceptions, and emotions about the city of Jerusalem. With this in mind, they designed their team teaching itself as a way to model how to engage with and embrace these challenges. Drawing from their own academic backgrounds and study of the city, they were able to model for students how to engage in dialogue with others in a political context where it is impossible to be neutral.  Henze and Weininger said that in classroom discussions they focused on modeling good communication skills when talking about difficult topics and experiences. This helped students to feel intellectually and emotionally prepared to engage on “difficult conversations.”

 
“When I hear their differing interpretations and ways of addressing the issues it makes me more confident and comfortable to develop my own understanding and conclusions.”
— Eric Brighton, Junior, Computer and Electrical Engineering Major
 

LESSONS LEARNED AND FUTURE ITERATIONS OF THE COURSE

Henze and Weininger plan to teach the course again in the spring of 2017 with some minor changes to the course design.

  • The class presents some logistical challenges. Traveling abroad to a region of the world that is frequently subject to travel advisories means that flexibility has to be built into the course design as well as the travel plans. While both the travel to and within Jerusalem worked out well this time around, for the next iteration of the course they will make minor changes to the itinerary for flexibility and to avoid repetition.
     
  • The most valuable experiences for students were the personal encounters they had with people in both formal and informal settings. For the next trip, they plan to increase the number of personal encounters on the trip.
     
  •  Students were attracted to this course for a variety of reasons but most of them held deep emotion connections – whether they were religious, intellectual, or personal - to the city. These emotions were brought to the surface and often intensified once in Jerusalem. For future iterations of the course, Henze and Weininger, want to focus on ways to not only provide for the emotional well-being of their students, but to enhance the support the students can offer each other.
     
  • The course provided students with the tools to reflect on their experiences, beliefs, and viewpoints, but for future iterations of the course they want to provide more opportunities for students to develop their critical research skills. In order to help students integrate their experiences in Jerusalem with research projects, they plan to (1) provide a framework beginning early in the semester for students to begin thinking about their final projects and (2) devote classroom time to teaching students how to approach a research project and reading scholarly texts and guide students through the process of research step by step.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

 

TEACHING TEAM

Matthias Henze
Founding Director of Jewish Studies
Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism
Professor of Religion
Email: mhenze@rice.edu  

Dr. Henze's academic interests are broad, though the focus of his published work has been on the Jewish literature from around the turn of the Common Era, with an emphasis on early Jewish apocalyptic literature.  His most recent monograph, Jewish Apocalypticism in Late First Century Israel, is the first of two interrelated volumes he is writing on the Syriac Apocalypse of Barcuh, an early Jewish apocalypse. 

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Melissa Weininger
Anna Smith Fine Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies
Email: melissa.s.weininger@rice.edu

Dr. Weininger specializes in the study of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, with an emphasis on gender, nationalism, and ideology.  Her research includes work on Jesus in modern Jewish literature, gender and modernity, and nationalism in contemporary Israeli literature.  Her most recent publication is an article on A.A. Kabak's Hebrew novel about Jesus, The Narrow Path, and his development of an ethics of nationalism.  She is also working on a project on the role of gender and nation in modern Jewish literature and culture.