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2006 Faculty Awards: Reaching Out Allows Naveh to Get Inside Students' Heads (and Hearts)

Her students will tell you -- Gila Naveh runs a unique classroom built around her passion for teaching, and the impact of that approach often surprises students with its power. Learn more about the heartfelt style that earned Naveh the 2006 George C. Barbour Award for Promoting Good Faculty-Student Relations.

Date: 5/4/2006 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Andrew Higley

UC ingot   Sometimes the vehicle for learning in a college classroom is the traditional model where the professor lectures and the student takes notes and hopefully absorbs the lesson.

And then there are courses and subject matter and, most importantly, professors who lend themselves to a kind of learning that defies easy description.

Gila Safran Naveh, professor of Judaic Studies and Comparative Literature and the 2006 winner of UC’s George C. Barbour Award for Promoting Good Student-Faculty Relations, fits into the second category.

Gila Naveh in the classroom
Gila Naveh brings an energetic presence to her classes.

On her final day as a student at CCM, UC grad Wendi Rohan felt compelled to write: "I have to explain what at extraordinary time I had in Dr. Naveh’s class. It was nice to be in a community were it was plausible to discuss difficult subjects. Maybe I did not come out with the perfect answer to life, but I left with a better insight on the kind of life I will pursue."

Could a teacher ask for a more gratifying evaluation?

Such reverence from Naveh’s students does not come by accident. Naveh has worked diligently to identify with her students in her 20 years on the faculty at UC.

When she noticed a recent trend of more students from China showing up in her classes, she challenged herself to start lessons in Chinese as a way of better understanding these students.

That would be in addition to her fluency in Hebrew, French, Russian and Romanian, proficiency in Spanish, Arabic and Yiddish, and her ability to read Greek and Latin and converse in Hopi and Lakota Sioux Indian languages. ("After you pick up the third or fourth one, it’s not that hard to add others," Naveh reassures us.)

In several cases, it has been interest in her students that has prompted her to add another language as a skill to use in her tool set.

Gila Naveh
Gila Naveh

"My trouble is always rewarded," she says. "It allows me to enter a little more deeply into the mind of the student."

You could call Naveh ‘old school,’ in the sense that she doesn’t just see education as a transaction where knowledge is passed from professor to student. To her, it is much more personal, and she finds both her challenges and her rewards in creating the kind of environment in her classes where students learn by being challenged and immersed in a positive experience.

"It comes from a culture almost six millennia old," she says of her views. "From my students, I have increased in wisdom. I learn from them what life is all about."

She draws upon philosophies offered in the ancient Jewish scripture including the Talmud: "A good teacher is not necessarily the one who knows the material by heart, but is the one who can convey the light," Naveh says.

‘Enlightened’ often describes how her students feel.

Biology major Michelle Becker says Naveh’s obvious commitment to her students lessons the stress involved in her classes. "The student realizes that the importance of learning transcends a good grade on a quarterly report card, and learning begins to exist on a higher plane," Becker says. "Learning becomes play – serious and personally important play. Because Dr. Naveh respects this process and attends to it so very seriously, I have seen even the most stubborn and resistant students yield and become excellent learners."

Gila Naveh and student Brian Beeler
Naveh meets in her office with student Brian Beeler.

Non-traditional student Matt Chimsky wasn’t sure what his experience was going to be like as a 66-year-old student. "With some trepidation, I entered her crowded classroom, and soon discovered her remarkable ability to bring past worlds to life, giving us fresh insights and sparking our minds to think more deeply about concepts we had perhaps taken for granted," he says.

Adds CCM student Joshua Prince: "I am the son of a teacher who is listed in Who’s Who in America Education and I grew up receiving the finest instruction a child could ask for. I am not easy to please. Dr. Naveh took me beyond the limits of my imagination and elevated my thinking process to a point where it changed my entire weltanschauung."

Naveh herself is the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. She moved from Russia to the Balkans to Cypress and then to Israel as a youngster before coming to the United States 37 years ago and ending up studying at the University of California.

She maintains an immigrant’s humility, as well as appreciation for the opportunities she has found as a professor, including a sense of commitment to the many international students she sees at the university.

A teaching award "always sort of leaves me speechless," says Naveh, who also won UC’s other major teaching award, the Mrs. A.B. Dolly Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching, back in 1996. "There’s a sense of enormous gratitude to know that students feel that way. Without students, who are you as a teacher?"

This quarter, she is teaching "Gender and Judaism" and "American Jewish Fiction." Naveh has helped develop and teach more than 20 courses in her career at UC, and has become very popular for her courses on Jewish humor.

The foundation for her award-winning teaching, though, has been her willingness to reach out and engage students beyond the boundaries of the subject matter she knows so well.

She always greets students at the beginning of the quarter with the line, "Hello, future colleagues," and, in some cases, that has come to pass.

A decade ago, Naveh had a meeting with a struggling Hispanic graduate student in her "Introduction to Critical Theory" class. Slowly, Naveh found common ground through Hispanic literature with the student where they could talk about the concepts being taught in class. Eventually, Naveh even took up Spanish to better relate to the student’s experience, and eventually served on her dissertation committee.

Naveh in her classroom
Naveh's enthusiasm for teaching is obvious.

Today, Naveh continues to serve in a mentor’s role, and Lydia Rodriguez is an associate professor in the Department of Spanish at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

"I owe my success in academia to Gila," Rodriguez says. "She believed in me at a time that others did not. She pushed me to see other points of view, she was an unofficial advisor that worked with me and to this date extends her help. I feel honored to have met Gila and can only wish that I am representing her proudly as a former student."

"I have had frequent occasions to speak with former students," adds Michele Vialet, professor of Romance Languages and Literature at UC. "In each case, merely the mention of her name brought forward the students’ heartfelt feelings for what they had learned and experienced in Gila’s classes, whether introductory language or upper level civilization and literature courses."

Brought back to the subject of how students respond to the extraordinary experiences created in her classes, Naveh brings up an experience from earlier the same day.

The subject was the book "Enemies: A Love Story" and the discussion moved to what it was to be a survivor.

One student then quieted the class by relating her feelings of what is was to be a survivor of a friend who had committed suicide.

After class, she told Naveh, "You know, I don’t think I could speak like that in my other classes. The reason I felt like I could talk like that about my friend was because I felt safe in this class."

To Naveh, the statement produced goosebumps. "It’s beyond my directorship, but I’m touched that a student feels that kind of safety. Students need a safe place to get in touch with their own deep feelings, their sense of who they really are. In many cases, students who are very bright and who read a lot do not get in touch with how they feel about something. I’m not always asking them what they think. I also try and ask them how they feel."

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