Amid the Uncertainty, Valuing the Joy

Miles-News
Margaret Miles. Photo: Steve Gilbert

The following words are the first portion of the Alumni/ae Day Address presented at Harvard Divinity School on June 7, 2006, by Margaret R. Miles, Emeritus Professor of Historical Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and a former tenured faculty member at HDS.

On the day in 1978 that I arrived at HDS to begin my position as an assistant professor, a senior colleague greeted me with the news that if I didn’t publish I wouldn’t be there long. I had never published a word, and I was scared. Scared enough to put a great deal of energy into writing.

I got that energy from HDS students, to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude. I am sure that you taught me much more, in those first years, than I taught you.

For example, I came to HDS with no inkling of feminist awareness, no training in what has come to be called “gender studies.” Students “prompted” me to learn and to keep learning.

But, after all, teaching is all about learning. It’s not rewarding unless one is learning. Teachers enter the profession because we have become addicted to learning, and, once we finish graduate school, teaching is a way to keep learning. But then, as you may have noticed, some of us get stuck in a sub-field, under the impression that it is “mastery” that counts as learning, not excitement and pleasure.

To be sure, excitement and pleasure need to be continually informed and refined—but never, never eliminated. It is probably only honest to say that I began with fear, but it was not long before gratitude kicked in for the immense privilege of studying and endeavoring to communicate something of the simultaneously wonderful and frustrating historical authors of the history of Christian thought. Reading old texts with eyes informed by current sensitivities, sensibilities, and scholarly methods has been my lifelong delight.

On the day in 1985 on which I got the news that I had been awarded tenure at HDS, my car was towed from Francis Avenue. That incident is a pretty accurate metaphor for the combination of opportunity and difficulty I experienced as the first tenured woman.

I was, of course, overjoyed to be granted tenure, but I also felt that it wasn’t so much about me and my work, as about a particular historical moment in which it was finally all right to appoint a woman to a tenured position. I thought with sadness of the women slightly before me for whom that historical moment had not yet arrived.

Colleagues’ expectations were high. And so were students’. If there is only one tenured woman, everyone wants that woman to be the kind of model for which they yearn. No one woman can be “all things to all women (and men).” That is why the token strategy does not work.

There need to be many—as indeed there are presently.

Then was then; now is now. At present, I am chair of the Visiting Committee that comes to HDS once a year to talk with students, faculty, staff, and administrators about current initiatives and concerns—an opportunity to keep in touch with a school about which I care deeply. And this is what I see: the present HDS is a different place than the HDS I came to in 1978.

Incredibly different. I am amazed at the progress made by the present Dean in a relatively short period of time. And, of course, there is more to do.

In Donna Haraway’s apt phrase, “We are responsible for what we learn how to see.” Our perspectives direct what we see.

To become self-critical, scholars need to be in conversation with colleagues of diverse races, sexes, ethnicities and sexual orientations so that we can show one another what we see. Harvard Divinity School has recognized that it is not simply pleasant and invigorating for scholars to have these conversations, it is an intellectual necessity.

As scholars, we are only as good as the conversations in which we participate.