When I visited HDS as a prospective student, I was surprised by what Dr. Emily Click said from the podium. I’d brought some assumptions with me, across the country to Cambridge. I mean, it was Harvard. I figured they’d be snobby. Especially the faculty, with all their accomplishments and accolades. But Emily Click emanated warmth, her words were heartfelt, and she was so down to earth, I thought, wow, this is like my small liberal arts college, but even more so: nurturing, holistic, inspiring.
The first class I took at HDS—an interfaith seminar over the summer—was with Dr. Diana Eck, a pioneering scholar of religious pluralism and former President of the American Academy of Religion who was awarded the National Humanities Award by Bill Clinton and recently appeared on the Huffington Post’s list of “50 Powerful Women Religious Leaders,” who also happens to be the first openly gay House Master of a Harvard residence (along with her wife, the Reverend Dorothy Austin, Lecturer on Psychology & Religion). She’s also the best facilitator of classroom discussion, and she genuinely values students’ opinions and believes in our ability to change the world. Her question for us in the second class I took with her—her famous case studies class—was always some variant of “What would you do in this situation? What will you do, when you’re a minister, or politician, or policymaker, or if this happens in your town?” As a Research Associate for The Pluralism Project, I also worked for Dr. Eck for a year. At our staff meetings, she was always eager to hear about my contributions and conveyed I was a valued member of her team. A decorated scholar, she’s always communicated she’s invested in me.
My advisor, Dr. Dan McKanan, and his family host a monthly potluck for students. They prepare a vegetarian meal and a dozen of us or so, maybe even 20, sit in the parlor and chat for a while—I get to know fellow students and hear what his daughter’s been up to—and then we usually play a cooperative (rather than competitive) board game, where we all work together toward a collective win. A scholar of the religious left and alternative spirituality, Dr. McKanan recently came out with a book on radical religious leaders, teaches the well-regarded “Liberal and Liberation Theologies” course, and encouraged me to pursue my interest in feminist, queer, & trans* theology.
Last semester, I took “Religion, Politics, & Public Policy” with Dr. Richard Parker, whose lectures were so fantastic, we applauded at the end of every class. Before taking the course, I had the pleasure of MC’ing “One Harvard: Lectures That Last,” where one professor from each of the 12 Harvard graduate schools gives a 10-minute Ted Talk style lecture, so you can see what’s happening across the University. So in preparing my remarks to introduce Dr. Parker, I learned that he grew Greenpeace from 2,000 to 600,000 supporters, helped launch People for the American Way, was an advisor to Senator Ted Kennedy, and is the co-founder of Mother Jones and editor of The Nation. That’s when I started choosing my classes based on who teaches them as much as the content: I wanted to learn from a guy like that! The course was one of my all-time favorites. It was astounding how well-prepared every lecture was, and how available Dr. Parker made himself after class. He would regularly hang out for a half hour or so with a cluster of students who wanted to ask questions and hear more, and said if we wanted to make an individual appointment with him he would find time for us within 48 hours. One-on-one or in group discussions, he’d affirm our insights, challenge us to consider other points of view, and joke with us. He also gave everyone the most detailed, supportive, & thought-provoking comments on all of our papers. On the last day of class, his concluding words were: “Now go and transform the world!” To that, we rose and gave him a standing ovation. After the class ended, some of us chipped in to give him a gift certificate to his favorite restaurant and a few bottles of wine as a thank-you for a job well done. Four months later, he invited the entire class to dinner at his home to continue the conversation about faith and public life.
Since I’d quoted Dr. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in my final papers for two other classes, I decided to take the opportunity to study with this pioneering feminist Biblical scholar herself. Now that I’m taking a class with ESF, as we affectionately call her, one of our projects is to interview a senior scholar in the field of feminist Biblical interpretation. So I emailed Dr. Karen King, who discovered The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife in my first semester at HDS (which I heard about at Community Tea, as it hit the presses and went viral around the world), and asked if I could talk to her about her life’s work. She messaged me back within a day, saying she was happy to meet with me. The faculty access here is simply mind-boggling, considering the faculty to whom we have access and how available they make themselves.
These student-faculty relationships have meaningful personal and professional dimensions. Yesterday, I went to an event at the CSWR to hear Dr. Stephanie Paulsell share her spiritual autobiography, which she had asked us to do as students in “Introduction to Ministry Studies.” Hearing about her journey caused me to reflect on the history of the church and the academy and how these histories have influenced my life and the lives of others. She’s also the faculty member I reached out to with life-changing news, when navigating a personal crisis. On Mondays, Rev. Dan Smith gives me advice in “Introduction to Public Preaching.” On Sunday, when I went to his church, he gave me a blessing. My “Unitarian Universalist Polity” professor and Denominational Counselor, Rev. Sue Phillips, the District Executive for my region (sort of like a “Bishop”), both instructed me in our Congregational governance structure and gave me excellent pastoral care in the moment when I most needed it. These faculty relationships—what I’m learning from professors and their sincere interest in my growth—are invaluable and deeply formative, shaping my studies and who I will become. So I’m grateful my professors are so insightful, inspiring, humble, and supportive of me.