BU Humanists at Work: Meet Matthew Creighton
As the newest installment in our New to BU Series, Dr. Matthew Creighton provided the reflections below on his journey from growing up in Allston to teaching across multiple CAS programs.
For Matthew Creighton, who joined the CAS faculty over the summer as a lecturer in the College of Arts & Sciences, teaching at Boston University is nothing short of a homecoming. Born and raised in Allston, he spent a good part of his childhood on campus: watching hockey and basketball games at Walter Brown Arena, competing in sports at BU Academy and the Commonwealth Armory (now Agganis Arena), attending Professor Elie Wiesel’s annual lectures at a teeming Metcalf Hall, and wolfing down slices at T. Anthony’s.
Little surprise, then, that in 2007 he matriculated at BU’s College of General Studies, where he not only caught the bug for teaching in higher education but also learned the value of a generalist and comprehensive curriculum. “The two years I spent at CGS formed my entire outlook on what should constitute the substance and structure of a program of study in the liberal arts,” says Creighton, “the program nourished the conviction of the indivisibility of humanistic learning and of the need for an integrated and systematic approach to an undergraduate education in the humanities. It determined everything I did thereafter.” He studied widely in CAS, majoring in English Literature yet also taking courses in Philosophy, Religion, Classics, Jewish Studies, and Comparative Literature. At the University of Chicago Divinity School, he pursued master’s and doctoral work in Religion and Literature, a multi-disciplinary field that explores how religious traditions shape and are shaped by artistic expression.
In an age of increasing disciplinary specialization Creighton’s telescopic inclinations have enabled him to teach across CAS departments. Creighton is currently teaching “Modern Judaism” (JS 255) through the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, drawing on his training and teaching experience in Jewish culture. The course traces the profound changes wrought on traditional Jewish structures and self-understandings over the last four centuries, emphasizing that the process of modernization is driven as much by forces from within the Jewish community as by those from the world outside it. Using historical, theological, literary, and philosophical source material, students encounter the pressing questions Jews were compelled to ask: how can we maintain a distinct religious, cultural, and ethnic identity under the social pressure to assimilate? Does the rabbinic leadership still have sovereignty over our public and private lives? Should antisemitism change the way we think and behave? Should we let modes of thought from the outside world affect our own, or should we be using our spiritual insights to address the social ills of our shared world?
Creighton explains: “The challenge of teaching in Jewish Studies is twofold: into the classroom are brought not just varying levels of Jewish literacy, but a whole host of assumptions about both Judaism in particular and religion in general. My task, then, is to introduce students to what is in fact a rich panoply of Jewish thought and experience, to encourage them to appreciate the complex dilemmas a religious community confronts (even if they do not always agree with the solutions), and to identify if they face similar issues as individuals.”
Translating the unfamiliar into the familiar informs Creighton’s instruction in other classes. He currently leads a section of “Ancient Worlds,” the gateway humanities course in the Core Curriculum (CC 101), in which students are exposed to some of the greatest works of the Western literary imagination. In this course he teaches with the intention of arousing what Freud calls the “uncanny.” “By encountering the utter strangeness of the past, of different cultural forms and values,” Creighton says, “we also come to perceive the resemblances of their worlds to our own, and to recognize the perpetuity of fundamental human questions, issues, and aspirations.”
Creighton also teaches two sections of the Writing Program’s First-Year Writing Seminar (WR 120), focusing on the genre of the political essay. For him the choice of topic was at once obvious and urgent: if students are expected to develop their skills in argumentation, what better aids are available than exemplary instances of the craft? Yet the decision was also informed by what he regards as a troubling political and cultural development both within and outside the country’s elite institutions. “Students are maturing during a time in which Americans seem ever uninterested in convincing, and of being convinced,” Creighton notes, “reading these essays is an invaluable reminder that democracy is founded on, and requires a belief in the power of, persuasion, and that people need to effectively argue the change they wish to see in the world.”
During the spring semester Creighton will teach two classes offered through the Wiesel Center. “The Holocaust Through Film” will ask questions about the capacity of movies not only to faithfully reconstruct historical events, but also to adequately represent the incomprehensible. “Jewish Literature” will read texts by and about Jews from Biblical times to the present, attempting to determine what constitutes Jewish literature, and to what extent it can resound beyond the Jewish community.
Creighton looks forward to working on projects outside of teaching, as well. He hopes to resume his research projects and convert his dissertation into a book manuscript. His dissertation argues that the representation of father-son relations in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka show a surprising indebtedness to Martin Luther. In revising conventional understandings of the literary sources shaping Freud’s and Kafka’s writings, Creighton also hopes to tell a new story about diffusion across faith traditions: “The story of Jewish-Christian relations is, for good reason, often framed in agonistic, oppositional terms. To preserve their identity, Jews have had to differentiate themselves in various ways, often to their detriment. I, however, am interested in the ways in which Christian paradigms ever so subtly permeate Jewish texts. Such a possibility could only occur during the modern period, when people of various backgrounds inhabit the same spaces. If my intuition holds water, then Freud and Kafka serve as representatives for an alternative kind of intellectual sensibility, proving that identities can and should be nourished by diverse streams. This model has great power to address the challenges of coexistence today.”