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).