Graduate Lectureship Spotlight: Anna Band

Anna Band walked into the first session for her course, Grey Zones: Ethics and Decision-Making in the Holocaust, unsure of what she would find. The course had been a late addition to the Autumn 2019 offerings; Anna, a Ph.D. candidate in History, didn’t know how many undergraduates would find their way to her classroom. 

“The first day of class, 15 people showed up,” she remembers. “On the second day, there were 25.” 

Anna taught her course as the recipient of a Pozen Center Lectureship, awarded to advanced doctoral students to teach an undergraduate Human Rights course of their own design. Grey Zones is loosely based on a course Anna took when she was a college student at Oberlin.   

“It’s the kind of course that I’ve always wanted to teach,” she says. 

While many Holocaust classes draw stark lines between good and evil, Anna wanted to complicate things—to design a course centered around the concept of agency. “Even those who are being persecuted maintain some level of agency,” she points out. “It may only be an ounce, but it’s there. We have to read the voices of the persecuted themselves, not just what historians have written about them.” 

Anna designed the course to rely heavily on primary sources, so students could learn about the Holocaust from the perspective of those who experienced it. This meant leaving space for the kind of source materials that often go overlooked—listening to songs and oral testimony, watching films, even analyzing poetry. 

Anna divided the course into six, sometimes overlapping groups of people: perpetrators, victims, bystanders, collaborators, resisters, and rescuers. She then guided students through the moral considerations and ethical dilemmas that influenced each group’s decision-making, as well as the ways in which gender, class, age, ethnicity, and political and religious ideology influenced these choices. 

Students worked on a literature review, historiography, primary source analysis, and a research paper that incorporated different types of primary source material. At every step, Anna urged students to be guided by the question, “What did these individuals know and when did they know it?”

Anna, whose grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, knew that the subject matter would be emotionally difficult for students and that the course wouldn’t yield easy answers. “Some classes got divisive,” she remembers, “but we worked through the complex material together.”

The wide variety of students who showed up for the class included second-, third-, and fourth-years. Anna had expected primarily History majors and Human Rights minors to register—the two departments under which the course was listed. “But I ended up with a very large range,” she says. “Psychology majors, Sociology, Economics, Philosophy. It was fascinating. The questions that students were asking about the sources were sometimes questions that I hadn’t even thought of.” 

Anna attributes much of the course’s success to the array of backgrounds in the room, as students from a variety of academic disciplines pushed each other to think in different ways about the material. “The interdisciplinary conversations we were able to have really made the course special,” she says. “The discussions that the students had were the most exciting aspect of the course.”

Once students turned in their final research papers, it was clear that Anna’s approach to the course material had paid dividends: “Some of the papers that they produced were incredibly creative,” she says. Student papers did everything from analyze suicide letters written in the Warsaw ghetto to study the plight of kindertransport refugees. 

Anna’s own dissertation is built on case studies much like the ones she put on her Grey Zones syllabus. In her eyes, the depth of students’ papers “confirmed that case studies are worth pursuing and can teach us a lot. They are in fact necessary in a context such as the Holocaust—an area where the availability of primary source material is sometimes limited, because much of it has been lost or destroyed.”

As she prepares to teach a course on Jewish migration and urbanization in the Spring Quarter, Anna says that designing and teaching her Pozen Lectureship course “was extremely helpful in planning for this future course” and that she hopes to teach Grey Zones again in the future. Most importantly, the experience reaffirmed why she’s pursuing a teaching career in the first place.

“My experience with this course definitely made me realize how much I love teaching,” Anna says. “I enjoy doing my own research and I enjoy scholarship. But at the end of the day, teaching is one of the cornerstones of what I love about academia. I’m so grateful for this lectureship, that it gave me the freedom to design my own course around case studies and try some new methods—to create a course that was experimental, both in terms of content and methodology.” 

And of course, like any good professor, Anna gives credit where credit is due.

“I’m really grateful to the students,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been what it was without them.”