Interview with Dr. Yitzhak Sharon

By Gabrielle Bibus

Yitzhak Sharon is a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Weinstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Stockton University, where he has taught for nearly 47 years. In this impressive length of time, he has impacted the lives of thousands of students and made a significant mark on Stockton. Professor Sharon agreed to talk with me about his experiences at Stockton and ways that the school and its students have changed over the years.

Here are some highlights from the interview; the full audio is above.

Q: When exactly did you arrive at Stockton? How long have you been here? [0:02:16]

A: I came to Stockton in September 1972. The college began admitting students for the class that started in September 1971. So while different people, for example Ken Tompkins, came at least a year before me or even more, I came in with the second Stockton class.

Q: How would you compare the original Stockton students to now, in terms of work ethic and general "vibe" you got from them? [0:08:10]

A: In the original Stockton student body, there were more non-traditional students; there was a larger percent of non-traditional students. Gabby, there was, suddenly in 1971, a new college opened right in our area, and there were many residents of Atlantic County, Cape May County, who wanted to go to college at a complete college, but for one reason or another were not in a position to travel, for example, to what used to be Glassboro then, or Rutgers Camden, and so forth. And now, suddenly there’s a nice new college in their backyard! So there were more non-traditional students. They were very serious, they were very dedicated, many of them were quite talented. I remember that when I came at maybe the age of 36, there were students in my classes who were older than I was. Now, age-wise, I believe the large majority of the students come to Stockton either right after they finished high school, or two years after they finished high school because they went to community college. So there were more non-traditional students in the past. 

When I talk about original students, we talk about the first few years. The students often were not necessarily overwhelmingly interested and dedicated to their future careers. They were more, many students, were just free spirits, they wanted to learn, some of them did not take college too seriously, and probably the student-faculty relations were closer. Then and now, students and faculty are on a first name basis, which I consider very nice. And we had an unusual grading system: instead of A-F, we had H for Honors, S for Satisfactory, and N for No Credit. What happened is that eventually, as more people began applying to graduate school, each student who applied had to get a letter from his professors saying that “Tom got an S in my class and this was equivalent to a B+.” And so forth. There was no Honors system, we now have an Honors system, both in terms of the system and honors at graduation. Students had a greater say in what happened in the college. For example, in the very early days, when faculty came up for retention, or promotion, or tenure, there was a committee that consisted of both students and faculty.

I would say that now, most of the students are very career-oriented. Both then and now, many students were the first generation in their family to go to college. Probably students are now more grade-conscious than they were then. I think that, overall, the skills with which students come to Stockton are now stronger.

Dr. Yitzhak Sharon

Dr. Yitzhak Sharon

Q: Do you feel like the older students, since Stockton was brand new and it was exciting to have a school they could go to, do you think they had more pride in the school than they do now? Or do you feel like school spirit is still high for the school? [0:15:01]

A: I would say that school spirit is still high, and one thing that I want to emphasize is that Stockton puts important weight on excellence in teaching. This was always true and is still true now. There’s some other universities where, in addition to teaching, research is evaluated very seriously. At Stockton in the early days, teaching was very much paramount, and faculty were hired on the basis of their excellence as teachers. And this has still continued to be typical at Stockton, and, sometimes, students who come to Stockton from other colleges or community colleges, or are at Stockton and then transfer to other colleges, realize that the teaching at Stockton, overall, is excellent. 

Also, I should note, at the very beginning, Stockton was very innovative. There was heavy emphasis (more than now) on multidisciplinary teaching, for example. There was more emphasis on experimenting in the pedagogy of teaching. And this was very exciting, because one feels as a teacher that one could experiment more. There was also freedom, which still exists but perhaps to a lesser degree, to teach courses that you wanted to teach. The General Studies curriculum is a wonderful aspect of the Stockton curriculum and gives people a chance to teach in other areas where they have expertise in addition to the area where they got their PhD. And I think the General Studies curriculum has been wonderful. For example, I have taught courses like Space Travel and Extraterrestrial Life, I’ve taught Hebrew, I’ve taught Heritage, Civilization, and the Jews, I’ve taught a chess course, I’ve taught Oceanography, I’ve taught Pre-Calculus, I’ve taught Differential Equations, in addition to teaching almost all the physics courses and the physics labs.

Q: On that topic, I noticed that your classes always fill up the first day of registration. How does that feel for you? You said you’re used to teaching large classes? [0:20:30]

A: Thank you for asking: it makes me feel good, and I appreciate it. I enjoy teaching and I enjoy having a large audience, and also one of my hopes is that if I do a good job, and I interest the students and excite them, then non-science majors would have a more positive attitude towards science, more interest in science, more desire to learn more about science when they read in the newspapers or hear on television about science. Maybe they will, instead of saying “It’s science,” they will be very interested. It will also make them have a richer life in a technological society.

I came from a background where I did teach large lectures at Northeastern University where I was for five years, and at Temple where I was for a year. So when I came to Stockton, I taught initially some large classes, and then I didn’t for a few years, and then I started again. 

I tried to involve the students and interest them and change the pace. I’m fortunate that students felt that they not only learned, but they also had fun. What happened, however, starting this semester, my large classes were related to science, especially to Physics, my area, but we now have this beautiful new science building, and the auditorium in which I used to teach my large classes, the Alton Auditorium, is far away, and for my teaching I heavily use demonstrations. And now the demonstration equipment is here and the auditorium is over there. It's really just about impossible to bring carts with demonstration through this beautiful landscape and so forth. So I’ve started just this semester no longer to teach large classes. So what used to be a class of Atom, Man, Universe, taught every spring, of 250 students, is now taught as two 35-person sections.

Q: How do you feel about having this career for so long? Because not many people can say they got a job and they stayed for so long. [0:38:30]

A: I think that I feel very happy and very fulfilled. It’s wonderful when occasionally you get emails from students that you had 40 years ago, and 30 years ago, and they say things like, “Well I’m surprised to see that you’re still at Stockton, and I’m happy to hear that,” and, “I had you for this and this, so you may remember me from there.” And they tell you what you have done, and you feel that you have helped them. This is very, very satisfying. Teaching is demanding: I spend lots of time here, every week, but there is the satisfaction that for some students, hopefully many students, you have contributed to their education, you have helped them to move with their lives in directions that they want to, and I’ve had two experiences that I—obviously I enjoy talking about this—I’ve had two experiences that I wanted to share with you; three experiences. 

First experience: I, my wife, and my daughter, Dina—Dina’s now 26 and she’s a chemist—get on the elevator at the Port Authority in New York, and someone looks at me and says, “Yitzhak!” I have many such experiences, which are related to the fact that I taught many students. I said “Oh, hello,” and he said, “I was your student at Stockton many years ago, and I’m now a police officer.” This is one. 

A second experience is I needed to have a medical procedure in Princeton, where I used to live, I think it was some imaging, and the technician reminded me that he used to be my student years before. [The third:] My father-in-law was in the hospital, and the physical therapist knew me because she was my student.

Q: What hopes or expectations do you have for the future of Stockton? [0:45:25]

A: That’s a great question, and I think one hope is that Stockton will continue to be very much student-oriented. Stockton has been, is now, and hopefully will continue to be, very student-oriented. We are here for the students, we want to help them, we want to help them academically, we want them to develop their personalities, we want them to dream and to realize their dreams. For example, our president, Harvey Kesselmanwho’s been at Stockton even longer than I haveis very, very student-oriented. And I think that’s so good for the university. I also hope that Stockton would emphasize outstanding teaching. Because in every university there are many excellent teachers, but at Stockton, the importance that is attached to excellent teaching is more than is usual. 

I hope that Stockton will move with the times and in terms of research, students here will be exposed to the latest knowledge and development, and also to the latest developments in educational psychology and learning investigations.

I hope that future students will love coming to Stockton, and then will love Stockton, and consider Stockton their home, widen their horizons, and their interests, and that they will keep in touch with Stockton. 

So, we know that Stockton has established a new campus in Atlantic City. I hope that this thrust will be very successful. I hope that—and this is something Bill Daly used to emphasize—that Stockton will provide opportunities to underserved minorities and women, maybe that Stockton would continue to globalize and internationalize its curriculum and that students at Stockton will get a global and international perspective. But very important also: that students will come out of Stockton with some of the key values that are so important in our lives and in our societies of caring for others, of working with others, of helping others, achieve, and advance, and overcome obstacles, and to realize their hopes and their dreams. 

I’ve been involved, for example, for many years with the Holocaust and Genocide program. It began as part of Jewish Studies, and then we got our Master’s degree, and then we got a minor, and we got the Holocaust Resource Center. And again, that’s another amazing fact you may even want to comment on: it is claimed and is probably true, that of all the universities in the United States—and I’m being careful because I don’t have the numbers in front of me—but it’s claimed that we have more students taking Holocaust courses or Holocaust related courses than any university in the United States, and this includes universities that have 30,000 and 50,000 students. And you know, this is wonderful because exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust and genocides will hopefully make it certain that they will not occur again. So this is also something quite unique.