A Discussion with Julia Watts Belser, Theology Professor, Georgetown University

By: Emily Coccia

October 29, 2015

For her final project as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Program, Emily Coccia conducted interviews with Georgetown faculty members to explore new paradigms for how to teach diversity.

: On March 2, 2015, Emily Coccia, an undergraduate fellow in the Doyle Engaging Difference Program and member of the Georgetown College class of 2015, interviewed Julia Watts Belser, who joined the Georgetown faculty 
in 2014 as a professor in the Theology Department. Professor Belser works in Jewish Studies, with a focus in Talmud, rabbinic literature, and Jewish ethics. Her research brings ancient texts into conversation with disability studies, queer theory, feminist thought, and environmental ethics. An ordained rabbi, Belser also writes queer feminist Jewish theology and brings disability culture into conversation with Jewish tradition. In this interview, she discusses her experiences teaching, reflecting on the challenges and joys of working to create a deliberately inclusive classroom atmosphere.

In your work on classical Judaism, you’ve managed to integrate disabilities studies, queer theory, and feminist thought, among other critical theories. I saw this effort come through quite obviously in your class, “Judaism and Gender,” but I’m curious about some of your other courses, especially those that are less obviously focused on an issue like gender. How have you worked to destabilize the canon and bring in these theories that often seem not to have an accepted place outside of the twenty-first century?

It’s certainly easier in a course like “Judaism and Gender” where the focus is on the intersection between these two identities, though we also brought in issues of sexuality and ethnicity too. Yet even in “Jewish Sages and Sinners,” I have found that I can easily integrate these same sorts of questions of intersectionality and diversity, touching on questions of gender, disability, race, and class, among others. One way I’ve worked to bring in new voices is by not using textbooks; this way of structuring my syllabus gives me more flexibility in shaping the class. Sometimes it’s difficult to find readings for an introductory-level course that both introduce students to the field of Jewish studies and also open the door to larger conversations on something like gender or sexuality.  

In an introductory course where students may not expect issues of diversity, how do you structure the class to help ensure that students treat all material with the same level of respect?

On the first day of class, I’m very upfront about what the class will cover over the course of the semester. I also hand out a detailed syllabus and organize my classes in units, which can build on and inform things that have happened or will happen in the course. For instance, I have a unit on gender, which allows us to fully delve into the conversation, rather than having a token “gender day” tacked on at the end of the semester. During this unit, we talk about the new material we’re reading, but also reflect back on what we’ve done so far. As the semester goes on, I hope that students bring this new paradigm with them and use it to inform future readings. It has been wonderful to see how excited students get to make those sorts of connections later in the semester.  

You mentioned that you have been able to bring in questions of race, ethnicity, and class. How have you introduced these questions into your class?

Historically, there has been a significant conversation on Judaism and race, including questions about whether Judaism is an ethnicity or a race. Many students tend to assume that Jews are white, which actually allows me an entrance into a discussion on the social construction of race. We can ask what’s at stake for Jews in claiming a certain racial identity. These conversations help destabilize the idea of Judaism as a monolithic identity group, which often happens to minority groups. While questions of gender and sexuality certainly do this, so do discussions on race and class. In addition to illuminating the presence of normative identities within the Jewish community, we also have conversations on topics like the Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. This year, we were able to have a very productive discussion on Ferguson and how many Jews have been involved in calls for justice there. Being able to engage with contemporary issues provides the basis for a discussion of how and when the Jewish community has and has not engaged with social justice movements.  

These topics all sounds fascinating, and in our class, I think we definitely engaged with many areas of intersectionality in a respectful way. Have you encountered any real difficulties in having some of these conversations?

This year I taught “Problem of God,” and in my class, I focused on gender, sexuality, and the body. As a required class, I was aware that some students might feel like they were being forced to engage with difference. So like I mentioned earlier, I made it as clear as possible that we would be talking about these sorts of issues on day one when students still had the freedom to leave the course during add/drop. I prefer to avoid the “shock factor,” instead opting to let students know what’s coming. It certainly doesn’t solve all problems, but it helps avoid catching students of guard. Once the course has started, I aim to structure conversations so that students recognize that there are multiple approaches. For instance, when we talk about gender, we look at a variety of feminist activists to see how they have each thought and reshaped their religious communities. In a class like “Problem of God,” I didn’t want a debate, so I framed the class as a study of what others have done and thought.

Regardless of a your personal views, you can still identify the stakes and arguments of an issue. In this way, it becomes more a study of social movements than an argument leading to value judgments. I’m much more interested in exposing students to existing views from those involved, especially those who identify with the specific communities we’re discussing. The students have an obligation to understand and see what it matters, but not to share their own views. While they often do contribute personal stories or views, structuring the class in this way takes off the pressure. I never want minority views to feel threatened, so if discussion is all going one way, I’ll ask if someone can think of an argument on the other side. It doesn’t have to be what they think, but it’s a way of really understanding the nuances of both sides of an issue.   

They all sound like great strategies. Finally, and you’ve touched on it a bit already, what have you found to be most rewarding about this style of teaching and creating a diverse syllabus and inclusive classroom atmosphere?

It’s always great to have students return and tell me that this class was meaningful to them in some way. It matters to have spaces, especially classrooms, where this kind of material and these questions are central; it creates a vibrant community and class discussion. Hearing from students—both in the classroom and after the course ends—gives me a sense of why this work of education matters so much. I see education as an experience of critical consciousness and hope to bring that vision to my students through my work. 

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A Discussion with Julia Watts Belser, Theology Professor, Georgetown University