Gender and Teaching in Higher Education by Margaret Miles


First thing to say is that your experience in teaching will be different than mine. Then was then (1978); now is now.

My first position (GTU doctorate in history; assistant professor, tenure track) was at the Harvard University Divinity School. My starting pay was 15k and I felt rich because I’d been a grad student! The first thing I needed to know – and didn’t – was that everyone at HDS, students and faculty alike was sure that he/she, but especially she, was an imposter, the one that the search committee or admissions committee had made a mistake in inviting them. I became the first tenured woman at HDS in 1985. At the end of the 80s, still the only tenured woman, with a lot of help from my friends, I initiated a doctoral concentration in Religion, Gender, and Culture.

With a degree and dissertation specializing on Augustine and 4th c. Mediterranean Cnty, I was hired to replace the illustrious (but alas, retired) George Hunston Williams teaching 1700 years of Christian history. I quickly learned not to present myself as an authority on these centuries. Of course I felt this as a terrible lack. But over almost 20 years of teaching at HDS I came to think of not posturing as an authority as a great pedagogical strategy. So even if I knew the answer to a question I learned to say, “Well, let’s see. Here’s how I would go about looking that up.” Then suggest that the student look it up. This helps the student both to get experience in scholarly research and to remember the answer!

The first evening I was in Cambridge a senior colleague visited to welcome me. His welcome included the exhortation that if I didn’t publish, I would not be at HDS long. He thought he was doing me a favor and the long term view suggests that perhaps he was. But. At the time I was terrified. I had not published a word and was not at all sure that I could. His words did have the effect of making me concentrate on writing and I learned how to do this in spite of a killer teaching schedule. When I began to write a book I offered a seminar in which we read the relevant primary texts (in original languages, if possible). The next term I gave a lecture course based on that study of primary texts. By then, with my notes from the seminar and texts of the lectures I was able to write the book in a summer. I still think of the actual writing stage as having two parts: first I write down what I want to say; then I write it up. I do not expect to sit down and write a finished and polished book as a first draft. This process – from seminar to lecture course to book – enabled me to combine teaching and writing. I never attempted to do the actual writing down and writing up during the teaching term. Thus I’m alive to tell the tale; I think the very heavy teaching, advising, and committee schedule would have killed me.

There were usually about 100 graduate students in my course, presumptuously named “The History of Christian Thought.” For several years I was terrified the first day of each course. Gradually experience taught me that these formidable-looking Harvard students were actually human beings – often suffering and struggling human beings (each one thinking, remember, that the admissions committee had made a mistake in granting them admission). As the term progressed and I got to know the students I heard from them about their troubles, anxieties, and feelings of inadequacy; they were, indeed, just folks. After awhile, looking out at a new class I could just tell myself that they were “just folks” before I actually had the data.

Things are different now than when I began teaching in 1978. For one thing, there are more women colleagues. Important not only for mutual support, advice, and necessary, serious laughter, but also because the one woman faculty member doesn’t need to try to be all things to all people. A couple of weeks into my first term someone told me that several women had dropped my course. I was horrified, and thought I couldn’t go back into the classroom. Why? Because I didn’t wear jeans and hiking boots in the classroom (having promised my mother I wouldn’t!). Instead I dressed in what I considered professional clothes, including the inevitable blazer, so students couldn’t stare at my breasts while I was lecturing! In fact, after a 1970s GTU education, I was entirely innocent of gender and feminist concerns. But I was a fast learner, and when students saw that I was willing and eager to learn, they were willing to accept me. From this experience a principle emerged: nothing endears one more to students than a teacher who is willing to learn. And after all, isn’t that what teaching is about? We become teachers because we love to learn, and there is no better impetus for learning than knowing that you will have to stand up in front of people in the next day or two, trying not to sound stupid for fifty minutes! A teacher/student among student/teachers.

After hearing about doctoral students’ experiences in job interviews, I became able to coach them. Here are a couple of examples:

Remember that you are also interviewing the members of the hiring institution who are interviewing you. You are endeavoring to ascertain whether that institution will suit and support you and the work you hope to do. It is not simply that you are more-or-less desperately trying to please so that you may be offered a job.

Yes, the hiring institution’s job description specifies that the school wants someone who can teach the entire history of Christianity, critical thinking, process theology, Buddhism, and ministry. But. More important to the people who interview you is the question of whether you will be a good colleague and conversation-partner. Will your work engage theirs in lively and fruitful ways?

Will you help them think? After all, scholars are only as good as the conversations we participate in. Do some research in advance on the faculty members who will interview you so that you can begin, even in the interview, to suggest how such a conversation could be generated. The school website often offers information on the specialized work of faculty members. But if you’ve actually read one of their books, find a way to subtly insert this into the conversation – absolutely guaranteed to win you points.

How to respond to illegitimate questions: Asked, for example, if you plan to have children, have a sex-change operation, or whatever, say pleasantly: “Whatever occurs in my personal life, I expect to do my job in a fully professional manner.

In my view, scholarship and graduate school teaching is one of the most privileged careers of our society. To get a sense of this you need only to ask yourself the following question. If a society or community could only afford its scholars or its garbage collectors, which would it retain?

Margaret R. Miles is Emerita Professor of Historical Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. She was Bussey Professor of Theology at the Harvard University Divinity School from 1978 -1996, and Dean of the Graduate Theological Union from 1996 until her retirement in 2002. Her most recent books are The Wendell Cocktail: Depression, Addiction, and Beauty, 2012; Getting Here from There: Conversations on Life and Work (with Hiroko Sakomura, 2011); Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (2011); and A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750 (2008).

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Categories: Academy, Feminism

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5 replies

  1. Thank you for your insights. I was especially appreciative of the fact that you pointed out that many (if not most!) grad students have this feeling that the admissions department has made a mistake and they don’t really belong here. As an older grad student, I find myself surrounded by the most astoundingly intelligent and talented people, many of which feel completely inadequate to the challenge. I am also appreciative that you brought up the gender issues. Again, as an older student, I am very aware of how different my experience in the 21st century is as a woman at a religious educational institution than it would have been had I gone to university right out of high school in 1974 and then went right into grad school in 1978. Thank you for being a trailblazer!

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  2. As an undergrad college student that is caught in between liberating myself and communities that I am a part of through the privileged education I am receiving, while simultaneously navigating and constantly negotiating but really wanting to vomit at the bureaucratic and administrative policy making that is the academic industrial complex-I am thankful for your post for many reasons. The first of which at your ability to actively choose to not be an authoritarian, though your level of education and efforts to claim that position and the institutions you are a part of may encourage you to engage with students in that form. Secondly, I am humbled by the vulnerability you have shown to your students, and the acknowledgement of their stories, experiences and humanity. As a student it’s nice to feel like your professors are “just folk” as well. Third, the elimination of the student/ teacher dichotomy and power structure that so terrifyingly polices classrooms is so detrimental to real live learning experiences. As one who associates myself with the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Frere, I am a in agreement that when teachers and students express an openness and willingness to learn from one another, it creates dynamic conversations that create change and begin to dismantle the rigid power structures that are in place. What struck me the most in this piece was the fact that your students were distancing themselves from you by dropping your class, and instead of pinning the blame on them, you reflected on yourself as well and negotiated the learning process. In this way you were staying present with your students, instead of taking it personally you were able to adapt and realize that as society changes, technology enhances, discourses, language, and dialogue all mobilize, learning and teaching practices must as well. I think it’s really important that you state and acknowledge your own privilege as well as you did, because it establishes the foundations on which we need to reimagine work, education, and relationships with one another. As a queer woman of color coming from immigrant parents, I have accumulated privileges of being able to attend a university system by those communities that have opened doors for me and made my own education more accessible. I believe part of my own navigation in the academic-industrial-complex involves my own negotiation, and fight to change systems of education that have remained unchanged, inaccessible, authoritarian, punitive, and unwilling to participate in the healing process of decolonization and liberation within the university system.

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  3. I am so grateful for your post – when I read it yesterday it helped bring a little bit of peace and affirmation to my soul. I am in the prospectus writing process of the PhD and it’s been a shock to my system. I am grateful for your wisdom and grateful to know there are amazing women like you in the academy. Thank you!

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  4. Margaret:
    I began my PhD in the Committee on the Study of Religion (at Harvard) in 1997. Your absence was duly noted among my fellow classmates; I was sorry to never have had the opportunity to learn from you.

    Thanks for talking about the imposter syndrome. In my own experiences mentoring grad students, I’ve seen it at work and have seen how it can be even more pronounced for students who have some sort of background that distinguishes them from what is considered the norm (e.g., if they are women, members from certain racial-ethnic minority groups, or were first-generation college students of any race, etc.).

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  1. Margaret R. Miles: Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West

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