Since joining the Frankel Center as a faculty member in 2017, Professor Bryan Roby has incorporated a new teaching tool into his classes, digital mapping. He had been using cartography in his own research when he realized that students could also make their own maps to learn about the environments they are studying.
“I was thinking about housing policies in Israel in the 1950s and I was just curious,” he explains. “There were these tent camp areas that ended up becoming small towns, and now they’re big towns. And I was wondering where were they initially? Where was the first encampment area? It was really hard figure it out, so I started mapping it and using a geo-spatial tool that actually gives you a way to figure out how to take something that’s historical, like 1950s Israel, and shows how that maps on to 2019.”
The websites created by Roby’s students are available to the public online. Through digital mapping, students are able to collaborate to create websites that incorporate video, photos, drawings and text to build the story of assigned subjects. Some examples of the projects are: Florentine, Tel Aviv, Blacks and Jews in the Arab World and LBGTQ Culture in Tel Aviv.
Roby first became interested in geographic space when writing his first book, The Mizrahi Era of Rebellion: Israel’s Forgotten Civil Rights Struggle, 1948-1966, which showed how the ma’abarot, the refugee absorption centers established by the Israeli state in the 1950s to accommodate immigrants from North Africa and Asia, fostered an awareness of civil rights issues among Mizrahi Jews.
Roby describes his current research project as a discussion around the construction of race in the Middle East: “the way that we think about the world, we have this map in our minds, and each country has images of certain people. I’m tracing it back to travel writers, as well as encyclopedias and thinking about how that stuff is actually very much connected to how we imagine different communities and different races in the world.”
In addition to his second book, he is also working on making Jewish literatures in lesser-known languages available to broader publics. This project involves digitizing two centuries worth of Jewish Literature written in Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, Marathi, and Hindi. The selected pieces stem from all over the world, from Morocco to Singapore, and include translations The Count of Monte Cristo and 1001 Nights; rare Holocaust testimonies and diaries from Tunisia; original 20th century novels produced by North African and Middle Eastern Jews; translations of Islamic philosophy; and Jewish poetry from Africa and Asia.
Roby emphasizes the importance of studying this literature because of its ability to help students think critically and creatively: “Taking a society or history that is foreign to us and being able to see how close it is to our society helps us better understand ourselves and the issues in our society,” he explains. Roby recalls how one of his students was able to develop humanistic skills through his class: “He was an engineering student and it dawned on him how important humanities are because in engineering you’re taught what to do and it’s a very set thing, but in order to be more creative and more successful, you need to think about how it is applicable to our own society.”
One of the courses Roby will be teaching this Fall is “Blacks and Jews in the Arab World.” Roby commented that he wants his students’ main take way to be an understanding of how Identity changes over time and space. “Our concept of who is black and what is blackness does not mean the same thing in different countries and definitely didn’t mean the same thing in the past. And the same thing goes for Jewishness in terms of how we understand Jewishness in the US is very different from that in France, or in the UK or Israel.”
Roby is also developing a new course for the Fall of 2019 about policing and civil rights. The class will center on the police in Israel and America and how attitudes towards the police are reflections of society. “Since the early 20th century, people have been trying to imagine alternatives to policing, possible reforms, even the possibility of getting rid of them all together,” explains Roby. “This class will focus on those kinds of issues, the different kinds of policing modes, and how these interact with our individual rights.”