Featured Faculty: Professor David Lavinsky
AS: Can you tell us a bit about your life story/background? Where are you from originally? What influenced your decision to attend a small liberal-arts college?
DL: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where I never learned to ski, and where I attended a public high school with an extremely limited humanities curriculum. The idea was to go on to the big state university and then get a job at one of the tech companies dotting the western landscape. But when I started to look more closely at my college options, I realized that the prospect of a curriculum with small classes and accessible professors appealed to me. I eventually found myself at a small liberal arts college with a robust humanities program, innovative courses, and absolutely dedicated faculty. Even then, in the late nineties, the humanities were in decline, but you wouldn’t know it looking around campus, where the most popular majors were English, Art History, and maybe Philosophy. Despite how long it took me to pay back my student loans, there was never any sense, as there is now among many US undergraduates, that a degree in the humanities was a form of conspicuous consumption. I’ll add that when I found a job after college, as an investigator of police misconduct allegations for the city of New York, what mattered most in making sense of any case was critical thinking and the ability to write well. I think those skills continue to make humanities majors highly employable.
AS: Can you please elaborate on your time spent as an investigator of police misconduct allegations for the city of New York? How did you get that job? What specifically did you do in that role? Who were you working for? NYPD? The city? How long did you do that for and how did you decide to return to academia?
DL: After college, I worked in New York for a city agency that investigated allegations of police misconduct. This was a civilian agency, not part of the NYPD, and involved investigation rather than law enforcement. I had spent only a little time in NYC prior to accepting the job, and had never been to many of the neighborhoods, including Washington Heights, where my cases were typically located. I got to know NYC very well while also learning a lot about the NYPD and policing. But it was hard to feel effective when credible allegations of misconduct, especially those involving excessive force, did not always result in disciplinary action against police officers. With this kind of experience, I assumed I would eventually go to law school, but the more I interviewed victims, witnesses, and especially police officers, the more I started to think about narrativity itself, especially as an epistemological problem. Suddenly literature promised a broader intellectual context, and it was that idea, along with my terrible LSAT practice scores, that put me on a different path. No one who chooses academia hasn't experienced the transformative power of good teaching and compelling scholarship. But in my case, it was experience in the “real world” as much as anything else that led me to contemplate a Ph.D. program.
AS: What was the focus of your graduate studies in Michigan? Can you please tell us a bit about your dissertation?
DL: I entered grad school as an early modernist, with an interest in the literary contexts of Reformation England, but then gravitated towards medieval studies for a number of reasons. For me, it was the pleasurable disorientation that comes with studying a period which is both culturally distant and uncannily relevant in all kinds of ways. I also found that I enjoyed encountering material that had not yet been packaged up into anthologies and edited volumes—though as a teacher I’m also very grateful for the painstaking efforts of editors and textual scholars who make difficult material accessible to undergraduates and non-specialists. One of the best things about working on the era before print is that you get to spend a lot of time in archives looking at handmade books and manuscripts, often in ornate and beautiful medieval libraries such as those at Oxford and Cambridge. So in turning to earlier contexts there was the promise of discovery as well as a special kind of proximity to the past, its artifacts, even to a certain extent its physical settings. I sort of stumbled on my dissertation topic when I became curious about English biblical translation before the so-called King James Version of 1611, which I had always assumed was the key text. But as I soon realized, a lot of complex and interesting questions about English as a literary and theological language converged in the 1380s and 1390s. I eventually settled on a project concerned with heresy, censorship, and the first full translation of Latin scripture into English, writing a dissertation that very conveniently overlapped with the birth of my first child. Both the child and the dissertation have grown into much larger projects; the latter is now a book, to be published later this year by Boydell & Brewer press.
AS: Outside of your teaching duties, are you working on (or have you recently worked on/been involved with) any interesting projects (research, articles, books, etc.)?
DL: I’ve had to focus a lot on polishing the book manuscript, but I’ve found time to publish articles on other topics as well, including clandestine printing in sixteenth-century Antwerp and, more recently, an eleventh-century adaptation of Exodus edited by J. R. R. Tolkien. The latter project had its genesis in a class I taught for the first time last semester called Tolkien: Fantasy, Scholarship, and Popular Culture. Allow me a brief, hopefully not too polemical digression here: when I started at Yeshiva, I worried that the teaching load would mean losing touch with my research. That’s something every scholar with an active research agenda thinks about to some extent. But instead I’ve found that certain courses—those, for instance, where there is a lot of group discussion, a lot of vigorous engagement and restless debate—also shape the intellectual work I do beyond the classroom. Perhaps in part because of their immersion in Talmudic study and analysis, students here are good at asking counterintuitive questions, the ones I myself would not have thought to ask, and I think this is often where interesting research projects begin.
AS: What are some of your extracurricular interests?
DL: Being an English professor and utterly predictable, I’ll say reading. Texts holding my attention at the moment include Philip Roth, The Human Stain; Ron Chernow’s new Hamilton biography; poetry by Wallace Stevens; Dante’s Divine Comedy; memoirs by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Gary Shteyngart; and whatever strange or neglected item I can find in the rare books room at the Strand. I’ve come to enjoy film more in recent years and the classic old NYC venues like Film Forum, where I just saw Orson Welles’ version of Othello. My curricular life unfolds uptown; my extracurricular one, downtown.
AS: Who are some of your favorite authors and thinkers? What are some of your favorite books?
DL: Well, some titles immediately come to mind: Tristram Shandy, Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, The Mill on the Floss, Blood Meridian, The Sound and the Fury—I could go on. One of the few books I was actually required to read in high school was, appropriately enough, Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky; that may have been the text which first prompted me to hold religion and literature together within the same interpretive scope. There are also those books that have influenced to varying degrees my intellectual sensibilities and style. Favorites here include The Making of the English Working Class, by E. P. Thompson; Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas; and basically everything by Patrick Collinson and Roy Porter. These are all historians, mostly of early modern England, and yet they also seem relevant to me as a medievalist and a humanities scholar with a decidedly historicist orientation. Erich Auerbach and Marc Bloch are also favorites in this sense, especially the latter, a French historian and member of the Resistance whose work focused on feudalism but extended to a wide range of topics in medieval intellectual and social history.
AS: How (if at all) does your interest in ancient/classical texts relate to your interest in the works of Tolkien and Augustine?
DL: Tolkien might be a special case insofar as he was also a medievalist, having taught first at Leeds and then Oxford, and someone whose fiction was deeply intertwined with his philological scholarship. So he makes it necessary to span contexts and to think about how his work was in dialogue with much earlier traditions of English literature, such as those centered on Beowulf. Many students who have taken English 2010 or an INTC class with me have read something from Augustine, most often excerpts from his Confessions, a wide-ranging spiritual autobiography, or his writings on biblical interpretation. This also gives you some idea about the breadth of the Middle Ages as a concept and a methodological field: from fifth-century Latin theology and exegesis to twentieth-century fiction and fantasy.
AS: One of the classes you offer in YC is “The Monstrous.” Could you briefly describe that class for the benefit of curious readers who might have noticed it in the course catalogue and wondered what “The Monstrous” was all about?
DL: This class began as a kind of trial run for the category of the core curriculum we refer to as Cultures over Time. It explores representations of monsters and the monstrous across different contexts, drawing on methods from literary and historical scholarship. The idea is that such representations reveal a lot about the cultures which produced them. We take an interdisciplinary approach to much of the material, which includes early historical writing from classical Greece and Rome, medieval werewolf stories, world maps depicting strange creatures at their edges, and first-hand accounts of witchcraft investigations. There’s also a film component to the class; we kick off each semester with the famous “chestburster” scene at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror/sci-fi film “Alien,” and end the term with clips from David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of the “The Fly.”
AS: What led you to come to YU? How has your experience teaching in YU differed from what you expected coming in?
DL: Well, I didn’t quite know what to expect, to be honest with you. But while I had no personal connection to the school, I knew something about its history, its significance, a little about its curriculum. Also, a family friend of many, many years had graduated from Yeshiva in 1960 and spoke often of his time here, so when the job was listed, it caught my eye. I also very much wanted to return to the NYC area after enduring grad school in Michigan and promising myself I would never again live somewhere that resembled Hoth eight months of the year. When I finally had a chance to visit the campus for interviews, I was intrigued at the idea of a dual curriculum, even if my own checkered Hebrew School attendance record precluded any informed ideas about the yeshiva itself. But I immediately noticed that the kind of work students did in the morning program prepared them to frame texts and criticism in interesting ways, and that as a result I could do things here as a teacher and as a medievalist that would be impossible elsewhere. Here my research topics—religious belief and practice, hermeneutics, translation, Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages, the history of the book—have a natural place in the undergraduate classroom. That would not be the case at most other colleges and universities.
AS: Many of your classes (e.g. Burning to Read; Literature, Morality, and Entertainment; The Monstrous) are organized around original questions and concerns. What inspires you to craft these kinds of creative courses?
DL: Well, I think first of all this is something that characterizes the core curriculum, where there are many examples of innovative and deliberate course design. In my case, electives like Burning to Read also reflect the priorities of a department that has largely moved away from traditional models of literary-historical “coverage”—the overarching Brit Lit I and II surveys taught at so many other colleges and universities. Such courses have their uses, to be sure, but they also reinforce longstanding assumptions about canonicity and literary value; I worry that they invite the passive consumption of great books, when my interest instead is to embolden students to become active producers of knowledge, even in the routine practices of essay writing and class discussion. Listen, if in some lapse of good judgement Norton asked me to edit one of their anthologies, I probably wouldn’t say no, but I think it’s more often the case that literary texts actually disrupt secure frames of reference, and this is one thing my classes are designed to model. And I would hope that a student studying in the YC English curriculum would likewise learn to see himself as taking part in this larger enterprise of critical consciousness.