Lipstadt receives Exemplary Teacher Award for transformational teaching and public scholarship

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 5, 2020

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Widely known for her public scholarship in antisemitism and Holocaust studies, professor Deborah Lipstadt has a passion for shaping students’ lives by helping them connect history with modern-day experiences.

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After 46 years of teaching in university classrooms and across the globe as a public scholar, you might forgive Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt if she decided to dial back the harried pace of her life’s work just a bit. 

But that is not her style. A passion for people and research and an unrelenting fascination with the excavation, careful examination and sharing of knowledge simply prevents her from staying still for any substantial length of time. 

Catch up with her —  if you can —and you’ll find Lipstadt wrapping up a year-long fellowship as the Iva Levine Invitational Scholar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where she’s been busy creating online teaching materials to accompany her award-winning book “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” while also researching two new projects: a biography of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and a book that explores forgiveness.

Before the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, Lipstadt had every expectation of hurrying back to Emory this month to participate in Commencement exercises, one of her most cherished moments throughout the academic year, she confides. 

Instead, she’ll watch online as she is honored by video as the recipient of Emory’s 2020 Exemplary Teacher Award (formerly known as the Scholar/Teacher Award), chosen for her dedication to transformational teaching, her demonstrated compassion for students and colleagues alike, and the vast scope of her contributions as a public scholar. 

Supported by the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the award represents one of the university’s top honors and will be presented on May 11 during Emory Commencement exercises, which will be presented here.

 After Commencement, Lipstadt will continue planning to resume her role as the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies in the Department of Religion and The Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, where she has won acclaim for her scholarship and teaching in the field of Holocaust studies. 

Regardless of what format the classroom will take this fall, Lipstadt welcomes the chance to  return to the business of teaching, where she’s always found her greatest joy and professional satisfaction.

“The students — that’s really what it’s all about,” she says. “It’s such an amazing job, in that you get to help young people shape their lives, to challenge them, expose them to new ideas and learn from them in return. And then you get to do your own scholarship, engage in what you want to study. It doesn’t get better.”

Feeding the hunger to learn

As one of Emory’s most distinguished scholars and public intellectuals, Lipstadt represents “the very embodiment of the scholar-teacher,” says Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Charles Howard Candler Professor of English.

“Her rigorous and unflinching approach to research permeates her pedagogy, just as her passionate humanity underpins her meticulous scholarship,” says Elliott, who nominated Lipstadt for this year’s Exemplary Teacher honors.

“As an historian, public intellectual, teacher and mentor, her tireless commitment to scholarly rigor and to social justice are expressed in her astonishing level of service to the university, and to the broader community, all of which she models to her students,” he writes in his nominating letter.

Elliott praises Lipstadt for her commitment to actively engaging her students in every step of the academic journey, from introducing them to primary evidence in the classroom and mentoring their original research, to inviting them to Washington, D.C., as she presents testimony before Congressional committees. 

Whether teaching large lecture courses on the history of the Holocaust, introductory survey classes for first-year students or graduate reading courses, Lipstadt is known for her willingness and capacity to teach on all levels. And she enjoys classrooms that bring together students from a rich mixture of backgrounds and faiths.

“Differences in religion, ethnicities, life experiences — we are all learning from each other,” she says. “One of first things I tell my students is please don’t be afraid to ask a question, because if you have a question, chances are there is probably someone else here who doesn’t understand it either.” 

Lipstadt especially values getting to know her students – relationships that frequently last long after graduation. Until recently, any week could find her traveling the world for public speaking engagements, lectures or book readings, where it’s not uncommon to find former students popping up in the crowds, eager to greet her. 

“When attending alumni events, I am frequently approached by former students, who talk about the indelible impact she has made upon their lives,” Elliott acknowledges.

Beyond the strength of those bonds, Lipstadt measures how well she’s done her job by the quality of the questions that arise in her classrooms. “It’s the good questions, the unexpected questions, those moments of insight — something maybe I’d never thought about,” she says. “When I first started teaching, I would panic when I got questions. Now, I just say, ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer, but I promise you, I will find out.’”

These days, you can find her moderating worldwide Facebook Live discussions on contemporary antisemitism, hosting Google Hangout chats, webinars or Zoom meetings. Lipstadt insists the drive to share ideas remains strong — even amid a pandemic — “because people are still so hungry to learn.” 

Teaching and making history

Arriving at Emory to teach in 1992, Lipstadt would go on to serve as founding director of The Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, devoting countless hours to creating undergraduate and graduate curricula focused on the interdisciplinary study of Jewish civilization and culture. 

“She has challenged students to think about the meaning of the Holocaust as an historical event, and has also guided them in thinking about how it has been represented in film and in works of art and literature, along with a host of broader courses examining the history of antisemitism,” writes Eric Goldstein, Judith London Evans Director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, who nominated her for the distinguished George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring, which was presented to her last year.

Lipstadt is particularly talented at helping students to “see the big picture — always emphasizing how the course material resonates with and informs the urgent moral and ethical questions of the day,” he notes. 

Beyond the classroom, Lipstadt may be best known for making history in her own right when she was sued for libel by David Irving, a Holocaust denier from Britain. The case, which was filed in England and lasted six years, resulted in a 12-week trial, in which Lipstadt and her legal team won, proving her accusations against Irving were substantially true.

When Lipstadt had to take up temporary residence in England during the trial, it was with Emory’s support and reassurance that “the courtroom will be your classroom.” Two decades later, her landmark stand for historic truth inspired the 2017 motion picture “Denial,” which documented Lipstadt’s courtroom experiences.

It is little surprise that those lessons would also find their way into her classrooms and public forums – lived experiences that continue to inform her global advocacy against antisemitism, racism and genocide.

Her best teaching advice? It’s simple, Lipstadt says. “Try teaching something you really care about. And try telling a good story, one that adheres strictly to the facts, but is told in a compelling fashion. Teach it in a way that you are bringing something to your students, you are painting a picture for them.”

“Give it depth,” she adds. “And leave them with more questions than they came in with.”