It was a painful question because, while I was passionately convinced it was important for future rabbis to immerse themselves in Talmud study, I had trouble articulating (to myself and others) why I thought it was so important.
The problem with polling is that it doesn't really get at what is happening in an in-depth way and, therefore, is especially weak in discovering something new that is developing or that has not been identified before by researchers. The strength of ethnography, on the other hand, is in its ability to get at depth. It involves a researcher, often for a year or more, immersing his or herself full-time in an institution like a school or a hospital and trying to watch what happens both with an open mind -- a mind open to discovering new things -- and a skilled mind -- one trained to look for how the people in the setting are making meaning of what is happening to them. Although sometimes this means just observing, it often means becoming a "participant-observer."
There is a great connection between these two new emphases -- spirituality and pastoral care. I know from my own learning journey that pastoral care training (clinical pastoral education) has brought greater and deeper spirituality into my life -- especially in terms of an ability and comfort around talking about the role of God and faith in my life -- than I ever would have expected. But I can only say so much from my own journey. How do others make the link between these two trends? Are they mostly manifestations of the same thing or are they two separate, but parallel, trends? How are these trends affecting the formation of the rabbis being trained amid them? Are they more likely to become the "good rabbi" I talked about above than the students of a previous generation? And what about questions of admissions? How do administrators understand how they are assessing whether a candidate will be a successful rabbi or a successful rabbinical student (not necessarily the same thing)? [Wendy Rosov's dissertation on pastoral formation at an American rabbinical school suggests that rabbinical schools had traditionally expected candidates to be fully formed before rabbinical school, but that this may be changing.] And what are the ethical issues around teaching students who are themselves at such a liminal moment in their lives?
Ethnography is one way I could get at these questions, and I am starting to dream about spending a year at a rabbinical school studying this kind of formation. Another thing from the My freshman year book is helping me with these "dreams." The author talks about how she focused her work. She could have gone out in search of the kind of "sexy dirt" of college life -- the "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll," if you will. But that's not what interested her. Rather, she writes:
I highlight topics that engage the classic notions we have of "the university" as a world of ideas, as a residential place where diversity and community and integrity are nurtured. I wanted to see how student culture articulates with the institution of the American university, including the vision we have of it, its mission and its future. (5; bolding, mine)