No Laughing Matter

Josh Lambert, the Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

Where many professors would see a challenge—a compressed seven-week term, taught both in person and online, in the midst of a pandemic—Josh Lambert saw an opportunity.

Lambert, the new Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English, had long wanted to teach a course about comics—from the Sunday morning “funnies” of yesteryear to contemporary graphic novels—paying particular attention to representations of minorities. “The ‘funny pages’ feels like an absolute misnomer for them,” he says of those early comic strips. “The actual jokes don’t land, ever, and they’re not funny at all. In fact, they are racist and misogynist.”

But teaching the interplay of text and graphics posed some logistical problems. How to get everyone on the same page, literally, when talking about comic frames? Coincidentally, the technology faculty relied upon to teach remotely during the pandemic provided a solution. Using Sakai, the College’s learning management system, and Perusall, a “social e-reader” platform, Lambert was able to make available all the visual content for the course in a way that could be easily bookmarked, annotated, queried, and responded to by everyone in the class. “In a normal semester I would feel weird having my students do all of their reading in an online system, but because of the pandemic, I thought we could use these digital materials … to do an intense close reading.”

For one assignment, he had the students comb through editions of two popular late-19th century humor magazines, Puck and Judge, and comment on the representations of minorities.

“What we have now is 20 posts and many, many responses that are just a museum of atrocious representations that really make the point,” he says.

Although new to campus this fall, Lambert is no stranger to experiments in teaching. For nearly a decade, he was the educational director at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., where he developed courses in Yiddish language and literature that ranged in length from three to seven weeks. He also kept busy with research, publishing a book on Jews, sexuality, and sexual freedom of expression. He is currently finishing up another book about the influence of Jews in the American publishing industry. “Anyone who cares about 20th-century American literature, whether you particularly care about Jewish writers [or not] … you need to pay attention to the role of Jews in the publishing system because they were so influential in creating the formats for literature and possibilities for what literary culture could be in America,” he says.

That wide-ranging perspective informs how he envisions leading the Jewish Studies program. (Lambert replaces Fran Malino the program’s inaugural chair, who retired in 2018.) “The main role that I see for Jewish Studies is to make the study of Jews and Jewishness relevant, as widely as possible, across the curriculum and to as many students as possible,” he explains. “Whatever you end up studying, it’s important to think in an informed way about the role of Jews in that culture throughout history.”

ENG 290/JWST 290: Jews, African-Americans, And Other Minorities in U.S. Comics and Graphic Novels

Comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels have had a complex relationship with minority groups, who have often been depicted in racist and dehumanizing ways. Students will survey the history of comics in the U.S.—from minstrels, to Mickey Mouse, to the Pulitzer Prize-winning, post-modern memoir Maus. What are the problems and opportunities for representation of racial, ethnic, and sexual difference? What role have American Jews—and, more recently, African American, Latinx, Asian American, and LGBTQ artists—played in the development of comics?


The Complete Maus, Art Spiegelman; A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, Will Eisner; Fun Home, Alison Bechdel; Good Talk, Mira Jacob; American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang; Hot Comb, Ebony Flowers


Make a close-reading of a minority representation in one of the following comic strips: Superman, Krazy Kat, Torchy Brown, or Tempus Todd. Responses may be written as a traditional essay of literary or cultural criticism or an analytical work in comic book form.

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