Get to Know HFC: Dr. Joel Geffen helps students navigate differences

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Headshot of Joen Geffen in thinker pose with black background. Joel has short white hair, wearing glasses, and a light blue shirt.

Teaching religious studies at HFC can be a delicate proposition.

Dr. Joel Geffen loves the challenge and the rewards of teaching in this complex, expansive discipline.

“Of all the academic and vocational disciplines offered at our College, religious studies has perhaps the greatest potential for triggering powerful emotional responses in students. While such responses may also exist in sociology, psychology, political science, and other disciplines, religious studies, by its very nature, engages with one of the three topics we are told to avoid in polite conversation: sex, religion, and politics,” he explained. “Religious and spiritual values often form the basis for core values regarding political and social ideas held by an individual or group. Conflicts over such values are splitting our country every day. And they are key factors in local, regional, and national conflicts all over the world.”

Geffen continued: “Here at HFC, we serve communities manifesting a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Some topics can be highly inflammatory due to their history and due to the histories of our students and their families: issues like abortion, book-banning, racial divides, gender-based power relationships, intense and ongoing tensions in the Middle East, and so much more. One of the greatest challenges of teaching at HFC is the need to find respectful ways to navigate historical matrices and sensitivities while seeking to engage with students and encourage them to open their minds to alternative perspectives.”

An academic and personal odyssey

The eldest of two, Geffen was born in Miami, FL and lives in Ann Arbor. Decades ago, he earned Level II Law Enforcement certification from the U.S. Forest Service. He has an associate degree in photography from Lansing Community College, which he earned in 2010. One of his final images was selected for the Zimmerman Award and purchased by LCC for its permanent art collection.

A graduate of Southwest Miami Senior High School, Geffen earned his bachelor’s degree in university studies with a double major in history and park management from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, NM.

“My goal was to work for the National Park Service as an interpreter. These individuals educate the visiting public about a park’s natural and human history, such as geology, Native-American history, agricultural or mining history, etc.,” he explained.

Geffen earned two master’s degrees from Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA. The first is a Master of Science in Resource Management. The second is a Master of Arts in Comparative Religion and Mythology.

“My thesis [for the first master’s degree], spurred by U.S. foreign policy crises in Central America, is entitled ‘The Evolution of Land-Use and Society in El Salvador.’ The work earned a Distinguished Thesis of the Year Award from the university,” recalled Geffen. “In addition to completing standard religious studies courses [for the second master’s degree], I also completed extensive readings of well-known mythologist and author Joseph Campbell and by well-known psychologist Carl Jung. My thesis, motivated by a growing interest in the religious feelings experienced by people at certain places, was entitled ‘Landscapes of the Sacred.’”

Geffen completed doctoral coursework in cultural geography at the University of California, Los Angeles where he was ABD (all but dissertation). He completed all of his coursework, doctoral committee examinations, and had his doctoral dissertation topic approved. However, his committee chair, the late Dr. Denis Cosgrove, an internationally respected scholar who was educated at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, passed away before Geffen could finish his dissertation.

“He was a top-flight scholar and a magnificently kind human being. No pretentiousness whatsoever, despite his incredible academic accomplishments,” recalled Geffen. “In the aftermath of his death, I left the program and sought full-time employment in religious studies.”

Interest in religious studies motivated by heated arguments over logging

Geffen earned his Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His major fields of study were Native-American religious traditions and American ideas of wilderness. His doctoral dissertation was entitled “Fighting for Life: Religion and Science in the Work of Fish and Wildlife Biologists.” He was highly influenced by his mentor and dissertation advisor, the late Dr. Inés Talamantez.

"She was an Apache-Latina scholar who was largely responsible for bringing many students of varying cultural backgrounds and ethnicities into what was, until then, the overwhelmingly White field of religious studies," he said.

His dissertation was motivated by intense and even heated arguments at his workplace over logging. At the time, Geffen was employed as a forest archaeologist and land-use historian by the Yakama Nation, a Native American group in Washington.

“The Yakama earn their primary income from logging,” he explained. “They have no other significant resources from which to draw financial support. Arguments over whether to log, how much to log, and impacts and archaeological sites and traditional food and medicine gathering areas were very heated – almost to the point of physical blows at times – and motivated by a growing curiosity about the ways those values affected land use.”

This experience in this conflict-laden environment had a great impact on Geffen.

“An important aspect of my job was negotiating resource protection among competing interests,” he said. “The difficulty of negotiations motivated me to learn more about the value systems behind the frequent, heated arguments. I enrolled in a religious studies course. The professor was excellent. He caught my attention immediately. I found some of the answers I was looking for. From that point forward, my intellectual focus revolved around the search to understand the roots of conflict by investigating the values derived from religious beliefs.”

“He offers support without sacrificing academic rigor”

Geffen has worked in higher education since 1986. He has taught at CWU, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, Michigan State University, the University of Montana, and Heritage College in Toppenish, WA.

Geffen joined the faculty at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College) in 2003. He is the chair of the Humanities department and lead instructor for religious studies, reporting to Pamela Stewart, Associate Dean for the HFC School of Liberal Arts (SOLA).

“Dr. Geffen is a creative, kind instructor who meets students where they are and helps them understand how to think and learn at the college level,” said Stewart. “His classes are popular with students because he offers support without sacrificing academic rigor. As a colleague, Joel is collaborative, thoughtful, and willing to consider different perspectives to support HFC's mission, employees, and students. We are fortunate to have him on the SOLA team.”

Retired HFC instructor Bill Secrest, Geffen’s predecessor as lead instructor of religious studies, invited Geffen to teach at HFC.

“During my first semester, I became fascinated by the cultural diversity of the student body. I was excited to learn from them, based on their personal experiences with culture and religion,” recalled Geffen.

This semester, Geffen is teaching:

Geffen’s favorite class to teach is the intro course.

“I enjoy the depth of this course, an interdisciplinary investigation of the thoughts of various scholars who have contributed significantly to past and contemporary intellectual currents in religious studies,” he explained. “In addition to thinkers such as German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Rudolf Otto, students are introduced to Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx, both of whom challenged reigning ideas of religion; literary critic and professor Edward Said, who confronted stereotypes of Arab Muslims prevalent in Western societies; theorist and author bell hooks, who takes on issues of feminism and political power; and Charles Long, an African-American scholar who explores the intersection of Christian belief and racism in America.”

Serving our communities better than ever

In his 20 years at HFC, Geffen has witnessed many changes.

“I have seen increased educational opportunities extended at HFC to high school students in our communities,” he said. “While this leads to changes in our classrooms and even in the overall environment of the College, the opportunities are a benefit to the students and their families.”

Geffen has also seen an increased diversity of teaching modalities being embraced by faculty and administrators at HFC.

“While this shift was given an immense push by health necessities required by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that the diversity of pedagogical modalities benefits our students by providing them opportunities to learn in ways that best suit their needs. Some students prefer to learn in person. Others, sometimes with weighty occupational or family obligations, prefer online or hybrid classes. Through pedagogical and modal flexibility, we are serving our communities better than ever before,” explained Geffen.

There are benefits to teaching classes in-person and online.

“With in-person classes, the best part is the chance to develop relationships with students,” said Geffen. “We have opportunities to learn about their backgrounds, their hopes, and their worries. With that knowledge we see and interact with them not simply as vessels to be filled with information, but as human beings with feelings, as people who struggle through life as we struggle, and as individuals deserving of kindness and respect. In my experience, the rapport built through respectful and care-based interaction contributes greatly to increased student effort on assignments and to increased student participation in the classroom.”

He continued: “With online classes, the best part is that students seem to respond very positively to having course materials available in an electronic format, 24 hours a day. I find them to be much more open and willing to engage with internet-based class readings than I ever witnessed when relying on textbooks or hardcopy articles in the classroom. Also, students seem to feel more at ease to meeting via Zoom than they did with on-campus office hours.”

Meeting students where they are

“With any form of teaching, it’s most productive to meet students where they are – where they are intellectually in terms of the knowledge they already possess, where they are emotionally – for some are more shy or outgoing than others, and some, due to family or cultural influences, are more or less open to new ideas,” explained Geffen. “To the best of my ability, whether in an in-person or online teaching environment, I try to meet my students where they are. This is an expression of respect. It is also an excellent place from which to build bridges between us for exchanges of ideas and learning to occur.”

HFC psychology instructor Alison Buchanan has known Geffen since she joined the HFC faculty in 2007.

“Joel is a kind-hearted person who cares deeply about his students and colleagues,” said Buchanan. “He goes the extra mile to make everyone feel welcome and appreciated. He is sincere and hopeful, and I am truly grateful to call him my friend. HFC is lucky to have him.”

Geffen sees students as the heart of the College, and he has found a lot of like-minded, curious, caring people in all areas of the College.

“Our students are overwhelmingly goodhearted, kind, and sincere,” he said. “We also are fortunate to have so many faculty who truly care about their students and do their best to help them succeed, both academically and personally. Similarly, we have administrators working in a wide range of positions, from the visible and powerful to the relatively invisible and much less powerful, who do their best for faculty and students. I have great respect for those many hardworking and caring faculty, staff, and administrators who put students first and their career ambitions second, doing their best to make the world a kinder, more compassionate, and better place for all.”