I spent this past year teaching the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to high school freshmen. When I set out on the graduate school journey in theology – oh so many moons ago – this was not exactly what I had envisioned. When I interviewed for the job, I made clear: my only experience with teens was being a teen myself (now 2+ decades ago) and currently raising two teens of my own. What’s more, I wasn’t even hired to teach theology! Half the job – teaching Spanish – felt very much in my wheelhouse. But freshman humanities? Well, I hadn’t studied English grammar since I was a high school freshman, and all of my college literature and history experience had been done in Spanish.
To say this past year felt like a vocational crisis would be an understatement. I had an on-campus interview for my dream job at a university the previous spring and was rejected. I couldn’t do the big academic job push that most candidates do, thanks to those two teens I’m raising who don’t want to move right before they finish high school. The humanities/Spanish teaching job was so all-consuming I couldn’t even stay connected to the academic life at my home institution (Duke). I went months without seeing or talking to my mentor and advisor, even as I was (supposed to be) finishing my dissertation. Conversations with doctoral or post-doc colleagues were few and far between.
And for more than a year I wrote nothing for Women in Theology.
While the busyness of teaching served as an easy excuse, underlying that busyness flowed a steady stream of questions: Could I still call myself a theologian? Was I engaged enough with the discipline to even be able to write anything substantive or interesting? Shouldn’t I devote every spare minute outside of teaching to work on my dissertation?
At my lowest points this past year, I despaired completely of my future in academic theology: no time to finish my dissertation, no clear path to a job in higher ed, convinced the universe (God?) was giving me the signs that I needed to resign myself to a future different than the one I had imagined.
It wasn’t difficult to let these thoughts take hold, given the uneasy fit I often felt with academia, especially the past few years. The further along I went, the more I felt like an imposter. While my friends and colleagues seemed to thrive under the constant pressures of networking, publishing, and moving forward – always forward! and up! – I found myself tempted to retreat and withdraw in the face of them. I felt constantly divided between two warring desires: my ongoing desire to study theology – and to end up in a space where I could dive deep into christology and the Latin American church and all the things I love – and my desire for a simple, slow-paced life (i.e., a life that would be manageable for my particular personality and limitations).
In many ways, the teaching job was more fulfilling than I expected. What I love most in this world are people. I love hearing their stories, getting to know them in all their unique qualities and eccentricities. I have always loved toddlers and preschoolers and have felt at home with them, in part because they don’t put up barriers or facades: what you see is what you get. They’re not afraid to be vulnerable. While teenagers are certainly more complicated than toddlers, some of these same qualities apply: there is a certain authenticity about teens that’s refreshing. I was particularly drawn to those who were struggling – whether socially or academically or spiritually – and found a place being a sounding board and support for such students. This piece of the experience was healing after years in an academic context where it is all-too-easy to feel like everyone has their s*** together except for you. Where authenticity and vulnerability are too often a liability rather than an asset.
The other piece of teaching I enjoyed is what I have also found fulfilling about writing for WIT: processing what I’ve learned in the academy to make it accessible to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise engage these topics or thinkers. At the end of the day, this is where I have always stood: at the intersection of academia and “real life.” I am most at home teaching accessible material to an everyday audience. I am most confident in my own voice when I am not speaking academese but rather writing for the curious layperson sitting next to me in the pew.
Writing for WIT helps me clarify my vocation in one final way: making sense of the world I’m living in. It is difficult if not impossible to discern your place in the world if that world itself feels like an obscure, confusing mess. The world feels often dark and messy to me these days. And that makes it harder to know how best to speak into and act in the world in faithful ways. WIT gives me the chance to bring some clarity to the chaos by writing through it. From that writing can spring a sense of the Holy Spirit’s leading on a faithful path of action and a better understanding of what role God is calling me to play.
This year the opportunity has arisen to teach part-time and have the space to (finally!) finish the dissertation. Along the way, I will be writing for Women in Theology. Wherever life takes me, I know that writing for a non-academic audience will always be a central part of my calling. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that here.