Pedagogy

The Digital Yiddish Classroom: Reflections on Teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age

Sarah Ellen Zarrow

INTRODUCTION

At the Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in December 2016, In geveb organized a roundtable discussion entitled, “Teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age.” This essay is the first in a series of reflections by Yiddish educators and scholars inspired by that conversation. You can read the full series here.

Yiddish is at home on the web. For decades, activists for modern Yiddish culture have hailed digital technology as the tool that can “save an endangered literature.” As Ross Perlin explains, Yiddish has an “outsized presence online, with as much activity as languages much more widely spoken.” Such activity includes resources for scholars; digitized historical newspapers, digitized books,oral histories, radio, and song; post-vernacular cultural production and appreciation; Haredi chat rooms; blogs like those of Yiddish poet Zachary Sholem Berger and Hasidic blogger Kalte Kanye; an online Yiddish reading group; and the digital edition of the Yiddish Forverts, not to mention, of course, In geveb itself. It seems, then, that the web is a natural home for Yiddish, which may seem surprising to those who think of Yiddish primarily as an artifact of the past. If all that is true, then, Yiddish pedagogy should be right at home with digital methodologies, and digital Yiddish pedagogy should be the currency of all Yiddish teachers. For this reason, we’ve solicited a series of reflections from Yiddish language instructors about the use of digital pedagogy in their teaching.

What becomes immediately clear in any exploration of what “digital pedagogy” means for language teaching in any language, is that there is no agreement on what constitutes a “digital methodology.” (It’s all part of the “digital humanities.” But what’s that?) Does it include well-worn practices such as using audiovisual material in the classroom? Is it distance learning, whether synchronous or asynchronous? What about MOOCs, which professors either love or love to hate? Is it only digital if it’s interactive, or does a taped lecture count as digital? Is it necessary for students to produce digital work, or is it sufficient that the teacher uses digital tools? Leaving aside Yiddish, there is no agreement on these issues (though a consensus is beginning to emerge on best digital practices and on what is truly innovative in digital teaching and what is merely an adaptation of a tested method to a digital environment).

At In geveb, we think about the digital on a daily basis. When the editors were conceptualizing the journal, we considered what it meant to be a digital journal, not just a journal online. We knew that being digital meant that we could embed links, include sounds and videos as well as images, and edit content as needed, with edits appearing immediately. In other words: we didn’t want to be simply a print journal made available online, we wanted to be an online journal harnessing the particular tools, advantages, and style of a digital publication. In the same way, we envision a Yiddish pedagogy that takes advantage of all the digital environment has to offer, without simply replicating an in-person, traditional classroom (to the extent that it’s even possible) online.

It’s become clear from the best critical thinking in the digital humanities that good digital pedagogy always considers the rationale behind a particular choice. While using digital tools or materials may be “new” or “fun,” teachers must not incorporate these tools for their own sake, but use them when and how they support language learning. As teachers, we should be able to explain our pedagogical choices. (Of course, this also applies when we make a traditional choice—why this text and not that? Why an essay and not a blog assignment?) To that end, some of the considerations a teacher—of any subject—might make in the realm of digital pedagogy:

Online or within the classroom’s walls? (Or both?) Online teaching has the potential to reach students in far-flung places (or, for that matter, to involve remote teachers). Marginalized communities have already benefitted so much from chatrooms, listservs, and the like, and Yiddish has found a home in these places as well.

If online: synchronous or asynchronous? That is, will students meet at a particular time, or will they learn on their own time? If the latter: how will you (the teacher) keep attendance, or will you at all? Is time spent face-to-face, even virtually, important, or not?

What resources to use? Will there be a textbook? Will the students use online material, either texts or multimedia? What are the associated costs with these materials, and are they accessible? (If students are far-flung: will rights issues prevent students in other countries from accessing certain websites or files?)

What will your students produce? Will your students produce more conventional evidence that they have learned the material? Will they take tests? (If so: online or on paper?) Will they write essays? Or will they use digital tools in their work? Will they produce an online exhibit? Or a podcast? The options are nearly endless, and teachers need to make sure that what students ultimately do in a course matches up with what they are supposed to have learned by the course’s end.

What digital skills will your students learn and use? (And what skills do they come in with?) Even “digital natives” aren’t, it turns out, very good at the internet. Are you asking students to use complicated equipment? Do they know how to post to a forum? Do they know how to respond to other students’ comments? And, indeed, is learning these skills part of the course, or are students supposed to have these skills prior to taking the course? Will the time spent learning new skills detract from language learning? If students are to produce a podcast in order to help them practice speaking clearly and correctly, and with a degree of ease: will learning how to produce the podcast occupy too much time (by your count or theirs)?

Who is the authority in the classroom? The days of one authoritative teacher in a classroom and a group of students diligently writing down the lecture are, thankfully, over. But a digitally integrated class (whether online or in person) also diminishes the authority of the teacher, for better or worse. In the example of a Yiddish course, having students participate in online forums might expose them to ungrammatical Yiddish. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but what will you the teacher, do about it? Pairing students off to practice with each other, in a setting you can’t monitor, will have a similar effect. Having a teacher act more as a guide rather than the ultimate authority is, to my mind, more of a net positive than negative, but it’s a good idea to be aware of this possibility.

In geveb set out to explore the issue of “Teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age” at the recent Association for Jewish Studies Annual Meeting, held in San Diego this past December.

Our roundtable was composed of Yiddish teachers from within and from beyond the university. We asked our participants to consider the following questions:

  • The benefits (and pitfalls) of digital interventions in teaching Yiddish
  • The state of online learning for Yiddish and how it might be improved
  • What digital resources exist for the Yiddish classroom, and the best practices for using them
  • Whether Yiddish pedagogy faces different digital-age challenges than other language pedagogies (or, indeed, than any pedagogy)

The panel included six respondents, each of whom have agreed to share some of their thoughts with the In geveb reading audience in the coming weeks:

Kolya Borodulin discussed his experience teaching fully-online Yiddish language classes and demonstrated the platform used at the Workmen’s Circle.

Paula Teitelbaum discussed how creating new digital materials and using materials available on the internet has affected her teaching in real-space classrooms and in online platforms.

Sunny Yudkoff spoke about integrating old and new technologies, particularly with regard to student assignments.

Agi Legutko discussed three digital interventions in teaching Yiddish: YiddishPOP, Mapping Yiddish New York, and the Grosbard Project.

Asya Vaisman Schulman talked about an in-progress multi-media textbook for beginners.

Jordan Brown spoke about the value of Duolingo both as a supplement to a classroom-based language course, and as a tool for self-study.

Presentation—and discussion—brought panelists and audience to all sorts of interesting places. Were there instances in teaching where technology was divisive, rather than a connecting force? What resources or tools would teachers love to have? Does Yiddish pedagogy face different digital-age challenges than other pedagogies? What are the possibilities that digital pedagogy opens up for teaching “non-standard” (non-YIVO) dialect? Discussion lasted until we were booted from the room, but as technology changes and (we hope) improves, questions of digital Yiddish pedagogy will become ever-more relevant.


A note from the editor: If you incorporate digital materials or methodologies into your teaching and you are interested in sharing materials, reflections from your teaching experience, or broader theoretical reflections about digital language pedagogy, please write to us. We are eager to continue this conversation beyond the original participants.
MLA STYLE
Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. “The Digital Yiddish Classroom: Reflections on Teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age.” In geveb, March 2017: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/the-digital-yiddish-classroom-reflections-on-teaching-yiddish-in-the-digital-age.
CHICAGO STYLE
Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. “The Digital Yiddish Classroom: Reflections on Teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age.” In geveb (March 2017): Accessed Nov 20, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Ellen Zarrow

Sarah Zarrow is on the editorial board of In geveb. She is the Jaffe Professor of Jewish History at Western Washington University, where she teaches courses in Jewish history and the Holocaust.