Cuttino Award honors historian Deborah Lipstadt for mentoring excellence

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 7, 2019

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Widely recognized for her public scholarship in antisemitism and Holocaust studies, including Holocaust denial, professor Deborah Lipstadt delights in engaging a diverse cross-section of students across all levels of curriculum.

How do you shine a new light on a very old problem?

When Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt launched her latest book project — an examination of the resurgence of antisemitism across Europe and the U.S. — her approach was shaped by a career spent in the classroom.

Antisemitism: Here and Now” (Penguin/Random House, 2018), an analysis of what she calls “the longest hatred,” unfolds as a series of conversational letters written by Lipstadt to two fictional acquaintances — an inquisitive college student and a campus colleague, composites of people she’s known across more than 40 years of teaching. 

Yet the questions they pose are quite real, concerns that have echoed against a rise in antisemitic violence around the globe. In fact, the sheer pace of those events made it almost impossible to finish the book, Lipstadt admits, with disturbing new incidents emerging almost daily.

That her exploration reads like a thoughtful classroom exchange — clear, logical, accessible — is no accident. 

“At first, I wasn’t sure how to write this book,” acknowledges Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies. 

“Suddenly, I realized that I was writing for students, among others. So presenting this in a way that can truly reach them became really important, because this is material of universal importance, especially now.”

Those who know her best aren’t surprised by Lipstadt’s resolve. Widely recognized for her public scholarship in antisemitism and Holocaust studies, including Holocaust denial, Lipstadt is considered an intellectual thought leader, known for seeking answers through facts, historical truth and open dialogue. 

Nowhere is that more evident than the classroom, where she delights in engaging a diverse cross-section of students with all levels of curriculum, from first-year introductory survey courses to graduate seminars — not just showing young minds the path of academic inquiry, but modeling it as a teacher, mentor and renowned public scholar.

It is in recognition of those enduring qualities, across decades of work with graduate and undergraduate students as well as faculty colleagues, that Lipstadt has been selected as the 2019 recipient of the George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring. 

Established in 1997 by John T. Glover 68C in honor of late Emory history professor George Peddy Cuttino, the award celebrates exemplary mentorship. 

Caring in the classroom and beyond

From the start, Lipstadt was drawn to the classroom.

Born in New York City to parents who valued books and learning, she eventually found her calling as an historian, with a focus on Holocaust and modern Jewish studies. Though research was a passion, she felt happily at home in the classroom. “I realized what I really wanted to do was teach,” she recalls. “Once I got up in front of a class, I just knew it was right.”

Her greatest pleasure was seeing minds open to new ideas. “Getting them to think, to question their preconceived ideas,” she says. “That’s very exciting to me.”

In the classroom, Lipstadt strives to nurture a teacher-student dynamic rooted in respect. There are no stupid questions, she tells them. If you have a question, ask it. Chances are, someone else is wondering too.

“She values inquisitiveness and is always open to new ideas of thought among new generations of students,” says Matthew Brittingham, a PhD candidate in the Laney Graduate School’s Graduate Division of Religion who serves as Lipstadt’s teaching assistant and has also taken classes with her. 

“And she clearly enjoys being with students, takes the time to get to know them and cares about them,” he adds. “In the classroom, she’s committed to hearing students tell their stories, relating to them and making sure their perspectives are heard.”

In fact, Lipstadt “has always impressed upon students the necessity of being engaged in the world around them, emphasizing how scholarly questions have profound implications for the most important issues they will face in the world beyond the classroom,” writes Eric Goldstein, Judith London Evans Director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, in nominating her for the Cuttino Award. 

It’s a quality praised in course evaluations and word-of-mouth endorsements from her students, who will show up at her speaking and reading engagements around the globe years after graduation — relationships held strong across the miles and years. 

To Lipstadt, teaching is a people-centered profession, and she simply loves people. “People are my hobby,” she laughs. “When I can sit and talk with students, well, that’s why we do what we do. It’s both a privilege and a responsibility.” 

Sharing a world of experiences

In 1992, Lipstadt came to Emory as an associate professor of religion, where she would eventually serve as the founding director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. 

The following year, she published her award-winning book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” the first full length study of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust. She identified the movement as arising from “antisemitic diatribe” and “pseudo-history,” and warned of its growth.

In 1996, Lipstadt was famously sued for libel in the United Kingdom by David Irving for identifying him as  a Holocaust denier in her book. Her landmark court battle — and eventual victory — was depicted in her 2005 book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” which was made into the 2016 film “Denial,” starring Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt. 

When Lipstadt teaches about depictions of the Holocaust in film and memoir, her students are sometimes taken aback to learn that her own life and scholarship have been portrayed on the big screen, Brittingham says.

“They’re filled with questions. ‘Did they get it right? What was it like to go to Auschwitz with the production company? What was it like to face David Irving?’” It all comes alive in a way far beyond just reading the book,” he says.

And though many public scholars of her stature would find it convenient to set aside teaching and mentoring duties, Lipstadt’s heightened public profile “has only made her understand more profoundly the importance of reaching students on an individual level,” writes Goldstein, an associate professor of history and Jewish studies.

“Despite her busy travel schedule, she takes the time to get to know her students individually, and considers the role of mentor to be among the most serious and consequential that she plays,” he writes. 

He notes that “students have resoundingly expressed their view that she is one of the best undergraduate teachers in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences” — a distinction recognized in 1997, when she received the Emory Williams Award for Distinguished Teaching, one of the university’s top faculty honors.

Strolling across campus alongside Lipstadt, her influence is obvious. “Students will stop her all the time, and she knows them by name, what they are up to and working on,” reflects Brittingham. “Her connections stretch far and wide.”

At a conference recently representing Holocaust Denial on Trial, a website created by Emory and Lipstadt to refute misleading claims by Holocaust deniers, “people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you work for Professor Lipstadt?” says Brittingham, who serves as project manager for the site. “So many people know and respect her work.”

But beyond the prestige of working for one of the nation’s foremost experts on Holocaust denial and antisemitism, his greatest lessons gleaned from Lipstadt come down to two things: humility and relationships.

“It’s just the way she interacts with students and cares about them on a personal level,” he says. “She’s reminded me that challenging students — even beyond their expectations — is a good thing, pushing them in ways that are thoughtful, nuanced and helpful.” 

Through her care and attention, Lipstadt “has been such an awesome mentor, to myself and so many other students,” he adds. “I know that she’s going to be deeply humbled by this award. But it will be great for her to realize how she’s helped us.”