Profile: David Wacks

Photograph by John Bauguess

For David Wacks, teaching isn’t all that different from scattering seeds in a freshly plowed field.

“Some of them sprout, some of them don’t,” he says, “but when one does, it’s really great.”

One good seed, Katelyn Mason ’09, worked with Wacks on her undergraduate thesis for the Robert Donald Clark Honors College. Intrigued by Wacks’s course Islam in Spain, Mason asked about potential thesis topics. He suggested she look at a story on Christ’s birth as recorded by seventeenth-century Spanish Muslims. 

He told her, “You know, none of this stuff has ever been translated into English. Why don’t you try to do this?”

Mason did and, with Wacks’s guidance, conducted the trailblazing work. The result impressed Wacks who, at an international conference, shared the project with Mercedes García-Arenal, a professor at Spain’s national research institute in Madrid. García-Arenal was, Wacks recalls, “all excited because there hadn’t really ever been interest in that [narrative] before.”

Mason, now a student in the UO School of Law, was similarly thrilled: “Professor Wacks challenged me to do something I didn’t even realize at the time was cutting edge. When I found out that he shared my thesis with the leading scholar in the field, I was completely floored. It’s such an honor.”

Wacks tries to inspire that sort of enthusiasm for research in every class he teaches. His next plan is to build a graduate seminar around a rare collection of approximately 1,000 texts published by Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam and now housed at Knight Library.

“None of these books has been edited since the seventeenth century,” Wacks says. “You ask any specialist [in the field], they’ve never heard of this stuff.”

In the graduate seminar, Wacks will have each student adopt one book to translate into English.

“I want to get them to jump into the trenches with me, recovering this type of literature that’s been completely overlooked for hundreds of years,” he says. “I want to bring it back into the discussion of what we talk about when we talk about Spanish books.”

Talking about books isn’t hard for Wacks; stacks of them surround him in his Friendly Hall office. A 1606 Spanish version of the Koran rests on the far left corner of his desk; a recent translation of Don Quixote claims a spot closer to the computer. As for his future book project with graduate students, Wacks, like any avid reader, “can’t wait to dig in.”

Name: David Wacks

Education: AB ’91, Columbia University; MA ’97, Boston College; PhD ’03, University of California at Berkeley.

Teaching Experience: Joined the UO faculty as an assistant professor in 2003.

Awards: Summer Research Award from the College of Arts and Sciences, 2010; Ernest G. Moll Fellowship in Literary Studies from the Oregon Humanities Center, 2010; Harry Starr Fellowship in Judaica at the Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2006.

Off-Campus: When not teaching or researching, Wacks spends time with his two children, ages five and seven.

Last Word: “If I had students who could talk for an hour, I would listen to them talk for an hour. I really like listening to them react to the text.”

By Elisabeth Kramer '12