Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Middle East Mixup in NYU History Course Offerings

with 4 comments

by Weiner

For those New York University undergraduates interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a great course offered by the history department is available on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:00 am: Zachary Lockman‘s “Palestine, Zionism, and Israel.”

Of course, if you’re really interested, you can stick around until 2:00 pm, and then attend David Engel‘s “Zionism and the State of Israel,” offered by the very same history department.

That’s a bit strange, don’t you think? Two courses on almost the same topic, offered only a few hours apart by the same department?

I’m sure both courses will be excellent. I’ve never studied with Lockman but I saw him speak and I was very impressed. I took Engel’s superb graduate level class, “History of the Jews of Russia and Poland,” and his undergraduate course on the Holocaust regularly gets rave reviews. Undoubtedly the professors will offer different and interesting perspectives, and probably use some different material. Still, it seems absurd to offer two history courses on roughly the same topic during the same year or semester, let alone the same day.

I don’t blame either professor. From what I’ve heard, neither one even knew the other one was going to offer the course. I blame the terrible lack of communication between the NYU History Department, which I belong to, and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies (the co-sponsor of Engel’s course) which I also belong to. For all I know, there may also be a lack of communication between NYU’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies department (MEIS, the co-sponsor of Lockman’s course) and the History department as well.

I know that the uneasy relationship between Skirball and History has been an on-going problem, in terms of arranging qualifying/comprehensive exams, prospectus defenses, course requirements and other bureaucratic issues.

There’s also a problem, though, concerning the lack of communication between Skirball, where David Engel has a chair, and MEIS, to which Lockman is affiliated. The problem is apparent in the very names of the departments. MEIS has Lockman, who is an expert on Israel-Palestine, but it doesn’t really have any Israel Studies. Those belong in the Taub Center, which is affiliated with Skirball. In fact, Skirball has several students, some historians, others not, who are getting their PhDs in Israel Studies. At the same time, the Skirball department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies does not have any faculty who know Arabic or who has any training about the larger Middle East from a non-Jewish perspective.

Israel is part of the Middle East. Islam is not the only religion in the region. To understand Israeli history, some knowledge of Arabic language, Arab culture, Islam and the larger Middle East is essential. The divisions between the two departments, Skirball and MEIS, which often seem to operate within isolation of each other, hampers NYU students’ education.

It also speaks to larger issues more important than two similar courses being offered in the same day. If NYU can’t coordinate these two departments to work together, getting the people of the Middle East to live together peacefully seems even more out of reach. You never know though. Netanyahu and Abbas are talking. Maybe academics are more divided than those outside the Ivory Tower. In any case, talking is an important first step, for politicians and professors.


Written by David Weinfeld

September 9, 2010 at 18:52

4 Responses

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  1. The whole thing seems endemic of a university (and I’m sure NYU is by no means alone in this) in which balkanization has so separated the various departments and fields and disciplines that people can be literally doing the exact same thing and not be aware of it, much less learning valuable things from people studying slightly different things.

    Its a big problem…


    September 9, 2010 at 20:10

  2. Yes, and it’s a pain for the TAs whose sections are canceled because of under-enrollment.

    There are four courses this semester offered on overlapping themes–Lockman’s, Engel’s, one through MAP, and one other one that I forget. While I actually think the courses are quite different from each other a) it’s not obvious from their titles b) students won’t necessarily know this (Engel’s is very much about historical methodology; I assume Lockman’s is not, but how would anybody but the profs know?) and c) that being said, who would want to take 2 or more content-area similar classes in one semester. I wouldn’t.

    The whole thing is exceedingly frustrating. Luckily, my (one) section is super.


    September 9, 2010 at 22:09

  3. Sarah, does that mean you get paid less? Since you are only teaching one section?
    That would be BS


    September 9, 2010 at 23:02

  4. Yes. That is precisely what it means. I get it–our wages are based on contact hours. And I now have fewer contact hours.

    But it did bring home the weirdness of the way we’re paid–for these large classes, it’s 2310 per section, plus a flat 1000 for grading (unless the recent 7902 negotiations changed this). But teaching two sections is actually not, at least for me, much more work than teaching one. It’s more energy, and yes, 75 minutes more per week, and double the grading, but this class doesn’t have much grading (only midterm and final), has small sections anyway. For me, the work is in the lesson planning, which is what feels particularly sucky.


    September 9, 2010 at 23:06

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