Unpacking the Bookstore

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Laurence Roth in a new hybrid class that blends the print and digital worlds.

By Nick DiUlio

For Laurence Roth, professor of English and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Susquehanna University, the bookstore has always been about more than mere commerce. Growing up in Los Angeles, Roth’s father owned the largest Jewish bookstore in the country. And it was there—while sitting behind the counter and listening to customers’ conversations, or wandering the myriad aisles that overflowed with hundreds of books—that Roth came to see the bookstore as so much more.

“I like to say that I was raised in a Jewish household, but I really grew up in a Jewish bookstore,” says Roth, who, in addition to teaching courses on topics such as Jewish literature, contemporary American literature and literary theory, is also the author of Inspecting Jews: American Jewish Detective Stories and editor of Modern Language Studies, the scholarly journal of the Northeast Modern Language Association.

“That bookstore was not only my introduction to literature but also my introduction to the social world surrounding books,” says Roth, who is currently working on a memoir/critical study called Unpacking My Father’s Bookstore: Collection, Commerce, Literature. “For me it was all about the people you interacted with as well as the books themselves. Literature is an embodied experience that happens between the people you meet as well as between the brain and the page.”

Those formative experiences have been the catalyst for much of Roth’s work at Susquehanna, including the formation of a brand new course called Unpacking The Bookstore, which had its first run at the university last fall and will likely be back on the academic calendar in 2015. Combining online and traditional classroom work, the course required students to use digital technology to research five of the world’s most famous bookstores from both material culture and literary perspectives, making it the first publicly visible hybrid course at Susquehanna.

The idea first came to Roth a few years ago when he realized there wasn’t a single course offered by Susquehanna’s literature department that looked closely at bookstores, either as cultural hubs or economic enterprises. What’s more, Roth was already intrigued by the possibility of combining classroom instruction with student assignments generated entirely online.

Using his memoir project as a blueprint, Roth began designing the course in the spring of 2012. The initiative for the course grew out of a collaboration between Roth, the digital storytelling nonprofit Citizen Film, and the New Media in Jewish Studies Collaborative at Columbia University, an incubation tank for innovation following the new, visual turn in contemporary Judaic Studies scholarship. The work of the collaborative is made possible by the San Francisco–based Jim Joseph Foundation, building on an ignition grant awarded to Citizen Film by the Covenant Foundation.

“For some time now I’ve been keenly aware that the digital world is fast becoming a part of the educational environment,” says Roth. “This was my chance to show how Jewish Studies scholarship is responding to that, and to truly fuse the benefits of the classroom with new forms of writing. But it also meant that I had to rethink the way I taught a course. It was almost like starting from scratch as a teacher.”

A BRAVE NEW FORMAT

Sure, the idea sounds great on paper. Since students are increasingly engaging with content written for an online audience, why not give them an opportunity to generate that content themselves? The execution, however, was not nearly as simple.

When it comes to writing online as opposed to crafting a traditional academic paper, students are bound by a different set of rules. For one, their writing must be shorter since brevity is a key component to effectively capturing an online audience. Secondly, the style of the writing must change, evolving from the overly formal framework of academic essays into a more casual and conversational voice.

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