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Grossmont English professor fuels inter-campus study projects

Tate Hurvitz at Grossmont College office


By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

EL CAJON, California — An English professor of mixed religious background has become a leading proponent of interdisciplinary studies not only at Grossmont College, where he teaches, but throughout San Diego’s higher education community.

Tate Hurvitz, whose father is Jewish and mother is Lutheran, grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles with the advice that when it comes to religious issues it would be best if he examined them for himself.  When such issues came up, he reported, his parents would say, “here is what Christianity says, and here is what Judaism says.”

Hurvitz attended Lutheran Elementary School and grew up in what he described as a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Sherman Oaks.  Later, when he attended public school one Rosh Hashanah, he said, he was one of only four students who showed up for class.

He told an interviewer that he always felt like an outsider: when he was with Jewish friends, he was the one who was “half-Christian,” and when he was with Christian friends, he was the one who was “half-Jewish.”

He said such experiences gave him a sense of empathy.  “Having that type of difference, I can see beyond my own perspective into someone else’s, both on an interpersonal level and in reading literature.”

Hurvitz received his bachelor’s degree in English from UC Santa Barbara, and was awarded a master’s degree and a doctorate in  the same field from UC Riverside.   His wife, civil attorney Carree Nehama,  also has one Jewish parent and one Christian one.

The English professor said that in many colleges and universities, specialization has become so prevalent that faculty and students tend to focus on seemingly  discrete areas of study, perhaps not realizing that there is an inter-connectedness with other disciplines.

He said his appreciation of this was heightened while volunteering as an educator for the San Diego Center for Ethics, Science and Technology.  Ethical questions could engage scholars in all disciplines, with educators in each discipline bringing their own perspectives and knowledge bases to the discussion, he said.  If such interactions could be more regularized, he postulated, society would benefit.

Meanwhile, at Grossmont College, English Prof. Joan Ahrens had decided to use Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  as a teaching tool in a class for students focusing on the health professions.  Intrigued, Hurvitz reported this to Mike Kalichman, director of the ethics center, and Kalichman commented that quite coincidentally faculty at San Diego State University also had seized upon the book as a teaching tool.

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman from whom cancerous cells of the cervix were taken and replicated in laboratories for many decades for various kinds of profit-making medical research.  This was done without the knowledge of Lacks, who died within a short time after the procedure, or her family.  Kalichman and Hurvitz discussed the many kinds of issues that could be explored from this episode, including medical ethics, American racism, Skloot’s historic and journalistic methods, and cell biology.

Kalichman suggested that perhaps the five universities in San Diego, plus Grossmont, a two-year community college, could agree to a common study of these issues, and to share their findings.  A Fall 2011 lecture series subsequently was sponsored at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center by the ethics center,  with professors from various fields from Grossmont College, San Diego State University, UCSD, Cal State San Marcos, University of San Diego, and Point Loma Nazarene College  participating.  Ahrens supported the idea, but said her schedule was too full to allow her to serve as Grossmont’s coordinator.  Hurvitz volunteered.

Pleased at being permitted to “play with the big boys,” Grossmont College faculty in various departments got involved with the project, their disciplines ranging from art to biology to debate to English to mass communications to theatre.  Each brought a different perspective to the Lacks controversy.

The campus sponsored  its own interdisciplinary lecture series, with attendance averaging about 200 students per lecture, Hurvitz reported.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was taught in numerous English and science classes.  Some 1,500 Grossmont students participated in an ethical opinion survey about issues raised in the book.

The six San Diego institutions of higher learning took a break from interdisciplinary, inter-campus projects this semester, Spring 2012, but plan another joint study program next Fall, with Hurvitz again coordinating at Grossmont and serving as the college’s representative in the regional study group.

It will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which many people have credited with jump-starting the environmental movement in the United States.  The book warned especially against the seepage of DDT into ground water.

Today, with global warming an issue, Carson’s book may be more intelligently debated than it was back in 1962, when “she was demonized as a lesbian Communist and anti-American,” Hurvitz said.

The book can engender “great conversations about gender, history, the  Cold War, Communism” as well as about the effects of chemicals in the water and Carson’s own battle against cancer.

Hurvitz said he is consulting with other scholars about who should be a keynote speaker for a Fall 2012 lecture series, while soliciting ideas on his campus about how more students can be involved in this growing intellectual movement.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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