Professor Henry Goldschmidt ’91 began teaching religion and anthropology on campus in the fall of 2004. In the interim 13 years he attended UC Santa Cruz for graduate school, worked an office job, and taught at Rutgers University and Dickinson College. He began studying Hasidic Judaism for his anthropology thesis and continues to focus on the subject today. We dropped by Professor Goldschmidt’s office to chat about his time as a student at Wesleyan.
Argus: What was the transition like from student to professor?
Professor Henry Goldschmidt: Most of it happened during the 13 years in between student and professor. I think in the first semester that I was back as a professor it would strike me pretty often. I would be walking around somewhere and realize, “Oh my goodness, that was where X happened.” Specific events and memories would jump out at me but that happens much less now. I’ve sort of gotten accustomed to being here more as faculty. I lived in WestCo. In my frosh year, I lived upstairs in Foss 1. My room was on that balcony between Foss 1 and Clark and we would hang out on that balcony a lot in the nice weather. So now, walking in between Foss 1 and Clark is one of those spots that I still think, “Oh my goodness, that was my balcony from frosh year.”
A: You were an anthropology major. What drew you to the field?
HG: I’ve been in anthropology since day one. The stuff that I was working on as an undergraduate is a lot like what I do now. When students say that they are really concerned about what career they will have with X, Y, and Z major, I tell them that it doesn’t matter what your major is in college, but in my case it definitely did. During my first semester, I took an anthropology class and got really into it. I was anthropology major and already focusing on the anthropology of religion. I took a lot of religious studies, and Jewish studies courses. I wrote my senior thesis in anthropology about certain aspects of Hasidic Judaism. By my senior year, I was already writing about Hasidic peoples as an anthropologist. I’m still writing about Hasidic people as an anthropologist.
A: What were some of your favorite courses?
HG: In my freshman year, there was a big lecture class that made me an anthropologist. It was Link Keiser’s Intro to Anthropology course. I also remember in my junior year, I took an Advanced Seminar in Anthropology with Betsy Traube. It was definitely the first time that I ever really read contemporary anthropology. It totally blew me away. I wrote a terrible paper in that class so I think that Betsy was not that impressed. But despite my terrible final paper that class blew me away intellectually, and helped send me to graduate school. I took quite a few Religion courses. I took a really good African American music class, too.
A: You lived in WestCo for three years. How did that happen?
HG: I was in WestCo for my frosh year and the first half of my sophomore year, and then I was abroad in Jerusalem. I was back in WestCo my junior year even though I didn’t want to be. It was the typical story that if you go abroad, then you get screwed. You have friends who were supposed to be looking out for your interests, but don’t exactly, and then you come back and are in WestCo. My senior year I lived on Vine St.
A: How has Wesleyan changed since you were here as a student?
HG: I can still spot some of the same cliques. I can still see who are the WestCo kids, who are the Eclectic kids, the frat kids, and the Butterfields kids; they still have the same sort of character. More often then not, those are based on stereotypes that are not quite true, but, on a superficial level, I can still spot some of the same types.
In 1991, people had just started using the words “queer” in its current valorized, positive sense. Transgender issues were not a dominant concern. To come back to Wesleyan in 2004, I thought, “Gee, everyone is talking about gender binaries and transgender issues.” It was a variation on a familiar theme of lefty, campus identity politics.
A: Did you think you would come back as a professor, while you were studying at Wesleyan?
HG: Not in my first year or two here, but certainly by my senior year. By my senior year when I was working on a thesis and getting very serious in anthropology, I was already kind of starting to think about graduate programs for a Ph.D. and talking with faculty here about their advice for graduate school. I ended up taking a couple of years off before graduate school, and I think that if I had found the perfect job that I was thrilled to be doing, then I could have changed course entirely. I never felt, like, oh my goodness, I need to be an academic or that is it for my life, but I didn’t find the perfect job. I wasn’t set on it, but I was thinking about it very seriously by senior year.
A: Can you still relate to Wesleyan students as an alumnus?
HG: I try not to talk about it much in class. I don’t go out of my way to highlight that, although I’m very proud of it. It gives me a better understanding of where the students are at. This will sound kind of smug, but I think that it does allow me to be a different kind of a role model. Students know that I was sitting in their seat 20 years ago, and now I’m sitting in my seat. If you don’t want to be an academic you can ignore that fact, but if you are interested in academia, you can see how that happens. I’m still thinking about a lot of the same things that I was thinking about when I was a student here. I’ve made a successful career in doing that. It helps to sort of bridge that difference a little bit, but at the same time I don’t want to harp on it. The last thing most 18 through 21 year olds want to hear is some 40-year-old talking about what he did in college. I understand that for some students it may be interesting to hear that memory and to see me as a former Wesleyan student who is now faculty, but I also completely respect students who say give me a break.