Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Separation of Church and Prof?

For the second straight year, I have had a student approach me on this day in the Jewish calendar to wish me a Happy New Year.  One could suggest that these students are being perceptive since I was born into a Jewish family.  Or one could suggest that they have a poor sense of boundaries since I only look Jewish/sound Jewish (I complain a lot).  But I am not at all a religious person.  Indeed, I am pretty anti-religious when it comes down to it.  So, it feels mighty awkward to me. 

I guess I would never have imagined approaching a prof with an assumption about them and then acting on it.  I know there is no ill intention--obviously, the opposite.  But I still think that my religion or lack thereof is a private thing (only fit for blogging).  I do mention other private things in class, like my family to illustrate various concepts (like my strategic dogs and what they imply for strategic thinking), but I never identify myself by religion.  So, is it appropriate for students to assume that I am of one particular sect/brand/whatever and then appeal to the imagined community that the student thinks we share?  Again, I think not. 

This never happened before the last couple of years.  Are folks being more presumptuous or am I just becoming too approachable and informal in class?  Your guess is as good or better than mine.


Erin Jenne said...

Ha! You should act perplexed and explain to them that new year's isn't until January. That would be funny :D JS riffed abt this on TDS with Seth rogen abt some lady in the audience who asked JS what he was going to do. JS' answer: nothing.

Steve Greene said...

You're approachable. Given "Saideman" and your appearance its a pretty easy conclusion you are of Jewish ethnicity. Just smile and say thanks.

Steve Saideman said...

I guess I didn't make it clear that I think religion is a private thing, not a public thing. That is the problem. I don't mind them playing the game of what my background might be, but I do mind them breaching the wall between public and private. Perhaps too many years in West Texas when religion was shoved into my face on a regular basis shaped my attitudes.

Rob Chasen said...

You'd better change your name to Susan Smith (although that might cause other misunderstandings) if you don't want people to assume you're Jewish, whether in Montreal or New York or Philadelphia. I'm about as agnostic as one can be, but I take "Shanah Tovah" to be about as religious a comment as December's "Happy Holidays".

brianS said...

Happy New Year, Steve.


JWells said...

One of my grandparents is Jewish by virtue of her parents being descended from Jewish parents. She is a devout Southern Baptist, yet she is also proud of her Jewish heritage. In my family our Jewish descent is just that, a lineage: three generations of Jewish descendants, none of whom actually practice Judaism. I don't see any contention between identifying as a Jew and being "anti-religious."

And I'm really shocked to see a professor concerned about being "too approachable and informal in class." Undergraduates, now more than ever I believe, need to see their professors and instructors as real people, not infallible demigods disseminating Truth to them. You should be proud of the fact that students feel comfortable enough to do something so outlandishly personal, so intimate, as to say happy new year (yes, that was a bit of sarcasm). And if you don't want to be identified with a certain label, politely explain to the student that you recognize the importance of the day, but it carries no meaning for you personally.

At least, that's how I would handle it, but maybe as a mere graduate student I have yet to shake off my connection to the unwashed masses of undergrads. Actually, I hope I never do.

Steve Saideman said...

JW, this post generated a long discussion on facebook. I guess the point I was trying to make it that I feel religion is a private thing, and while I am actually pretty damned informal and approachable in most ways, this is the one line that I would rather people not cross.

Perhaps it was too much time in hyper-religious West Texas. Perhaps it is because I have paid some family costs for not being a believer/follower. Perhaps it is because I see religion in general as doing heaps of harm. Whatever it is, the reality is that I feel uncomfortable when people make religious advances upon me. Other folks don't mind, and don't see it as a religious thing. But the "new year" is tied to a religious event that has all kinds of meaning for the people who believe and follow.

I am pretty sure if you ask my students, they do not see me as an infallible demigod. I am quite open to criticism and being wrong. And I could be wrong about how I feel about all of this, but that does not change how I feel.

JWells said...

I'm sorry I missed that discussion; I don't mean to beat a dead horse. I do think, in my family, being Jewish and believing in Judaism are separable, and I guess not so much in yours, but I definitely see your point. Yes, Rosh Hashanah is much more than just another day on the calendar, so I see your point there as well.

And I do apologize for the jibe. I come from a small undergraduate institution where professors ate lunch in the dining hall, played intramural sports, and occasionally invited small seminars to their homes for dinner to celebrate the end of the semester, so I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction when I hear professors, like those I'm now surrounded by at a huge state school, speak of undergrads as if they are of a second class, unworthy of the professor's time and concern. Many aren't like that, and I believe you when you say your aren't either, but like I said, that's my gut reaction.

Steve Saideman said...

I went to a place like that myself. I wish McGill was smaller. I did go to a student-run poker tourney or two when they had them. Will do pizza and beer with undergrads when I get the chance. I just think there is a difference between interacting with folks and people making unwarranted assumptions about religion. I would feel the same way if it were a grad student or prof or stranger.