Susan Marks is beginning her third decade at New College. She was hired as the Klingenstein Chair in 2003 after receiving her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. The late Selma and Paul Klingenstein along with local donors from Temple Beth Israel on Longboat Key, provided the money for the Chair position.
Susan had the enviable job of creating the department from scratch. “What would Judaic Studies look like at New College? How would that be part of the religion department?” Susan also debated whether it should be an AOC (area of concentration) and decided the answer was no. “Since it’s only me teaching these classes, we can’t have a Judaic Studies AOC. But we can have a Judaic Studies focus in religion, the same way you can have a Buddhist focus or a Christian focus.”
Over the years, Susan has taught both Jewish and non-Jewish students. She says usually only 20-30% of those taking her classes are Jewish. “I think people want to learn about the world, learn about different traditions. You don’t have to be Jewish to study Judaic studies.”
Susan also teaches courses about Christian scriptures. She says, “As Jews teach Christian scriptures, you have a different focus, not only because they are Jewish but because you have people look at Judaic Studies and early Christianity together. The emphasis is more clear about how Jewish early Christianity was.”
Since 2004, Susan has been bringing in a speaker each year for the Klingenstein Lecture series. Funds are also available from the Jay Rudolph book fund for students to read a speaker’s work prior to their lecture. Susan works hard to mix it up. “If we had someone who did antiquity, I try to do someone modern the next year. I offer a group ISP (independent study project) so the students can read the person’s work and take advantage of it at the lecture. Then, the next morning, they get the rock star coming to their class. It’s nice for me too because I get a colleague I can talk about the world with.”
Susan has mentored many New College students in the last twenty years. She believes her greatest impact has been being a good listener. She compares listening to the process of writing. “I really emphasize that you work with drafts. Get something down on paper, discuss with a peer who can give you feedback and then you can revise it, so nothing you are doing is ever a first draft. The person that is the hardest, most critical of one’s writing, is themselves. So, people really stifle themselves by second guessing themselves and not letting anything else to be written. One of the things that is so important is to listen to what others are doing, to get feedback other than their own negative voice, to build on their strengths.”
She points to the senior thesis as an important learning experience for her students. “The brilliance of it is the chance to do something over the long term. To know you can do a big project, you can draw on those skills and know you can do a big project again. That’s huge!”
Susan has just begun the first year of a three-year phased retirement. New College will miss her!