Excerpts from the book,
Signals from Mars is a blog where I write about controversial issues. Final Exam Jihad is a heartfelt attempt to explain what it was like to work as a female professor in the male professions of Religious Studies and Biblical Studies. I was always breaking down doors, crawling around them, negotiating a key, wedging them open, tunneling under them, painting them, or sitting in the dark waiting for them to open. Sometimes there was no door to open and I fell down the well!
Someone said after reading the above book, “You would never believe that these things happened to someone.” Or, as another person exclaimed, “She is exactly right. This is the way it is.” For the next few months in this blog, I will publish excerpts from Final Exam Jihad, a book published in 2017.
My jobs were dynamic. I loved curriculum development, marketing the major and minor, taking students around the world, creating edgy classes like “Elvis Memphis Messiah,” and inviting guest speakers to lead us to the promised land of their religions. Every moment was fraught with controversy. Every moment required a encyclopedic imagination. Every moment required full throttle energy. I chose it. I did it. And I am so happy that I survived until retirement.
Each time I release an excerpt, I will email you. If you would prefer not receiving this blog, please notify me. My blog http://www.motoringwithmarla.com is fun and exciting and full of wonderment. The trails are stocked full of adventure. Final Exam Jihad will challenge you to see through the idealistic rhetoric of higher education to its often shady corps. Even to this day, as much as I believe in education as a path to happiness and economic security, I am stunned by my own experiences and the types of peoples that surrounded me. The #MeToo! movement could never unearth all the the abuse and cultural bias toward females in our country. So here goes!
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Vivian Greene1
The mid-twentieth century was not kind to females seeking to enter graduate schools with Ph.D. degrees in Religious Studies. (Mine was in Biblical Languages and Literatures.) Federal civil rights laws gave women a chance at entering some of those graduate schools but it did not guarantee that they would graduate. If the divine was a male then surely only a man could represent the divine or even discuss the divine.
Women had no place in that hierarchy. In fact, the only other female in my graduate program told me that she thought that females were not created in the image of the divine. They are tainted and should never assume a leadership position in a religious organization. Why was she in graduate school?
In the 1970’s I was the first (or second female?) to be admitted into a Ph.D. program in the historically all-male school where I studied. I was the first female to teach at a small college in Wisconsin and the second female (first lay woman) in a religious school in Ohio. Ironically I was the first woman to teach Religious Studies at a women’s college in the South and another religious school in the North. In my final job, I created a program in Religious Studies where there had not been one for more than a hundred and fifty years.
Other jobs in the fields of religion were equally challenging for females, except for missionaries. It seemed as if religious organizations did not mind sending women to underdeveloped and under-supported countries. The hoops that women had to jump through in the twentieth century are evidenced in the titles of books that were published during this time period. Women were changing traditional ideas about religions.
Lethal Love. Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories
Sexism and the War System
Changing of the Gods
After Patriarchy. Feminist Transformations of World Religions
Her Story. Women In Christian Tradition
A Lesser Life
You Just Don’t Understand
Sexism and God-Talk
And there were hundreds and hundreds of other books published as women broke down the doors to the graduate schools and helped us to think differently about the male interpretation and domination of the Bible and world religions.
Phyllis Trible was one of those scholars who broke through the barriers and opened the doors to give us insight into the kind of life a woman has if she chooses a career in a field of Religious Studies. I will never forget her short piece entitled “The Opportunity of Loneliness. The Ordination of Mary Beale,” published in 1978.
“Mary Beale is set apart for the ministry in an age when the church stands on the boundary…. And she will know the loneliness of being set apart, ‘ Why, Mary, you don’t look old enough to be a minister,’ some will say. And Mary will know the loneliness of age. ‘Why, Mary, you’re too pretty to be a clergyman!’ So runs the ugly compliment which isolates, alienates, and objectifies a human being; the loneliness of beauty intertwined with the loneliness of sex.”
Certainly I was not on a path to become a minister, but I was studying with priests who did not want to open any door for a woman. When Trible published this piece I was in the middle of my graduate studies and everything she observed was certainly true of my career from the beginning until the end.
On the pages of this book are chronicles of a few of my struggles while working as a professor in higher education. It is not a pretty story. Bullies and abusers dogged my trail and I soon learned to keep a written record of their attacks, and many of those notes are included in these pages. I wish I had documented more of the cruelty that I experienced while I was in college and graduate school.
During that forty-year relationship with higher education I was offered full-time contracts at approximately six colleges and universities. While working full-time at one institution, I often taught a class or two for other institutions. Pay was so low that you had to teach at other institutions to survive. So the number of colleges where I actually taught is far larger.
My long career covered many institutions because tenure-track (permanent) jobs were not always available. I obtained a one-year contract, a three-year contract, and finally I was offered tenure-track positions. I never really found an institution that I loved. There were people in those institutions that I cherished, but I kept searching for the best place for me.
So often I was competing with people from Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, or other top-notch schools. Sometimes I won the job and sometimes I did not. I always wondered if the Ivy League gang won better jobs (and environments) than I did? In the end, I began to grow older, and knew I had to settle somewhere. My utopia did not exist!
This collection of stories is taken from experiences in many institutions. Details have been omitted that could pinpoint which institution or person I am discussing, so the construction of occasional sentences might seem odd. The most vicious examples of hate mail are omitted because the letters are too painful to share. Also omitted are stories of some very difficult battles that are impossible to describe in a few pages because the documentation may be hundreds of pages, and so personal that I cannot share them. Sometimes I will refer to an issue but I will not go into detail about it. Some of my former colleagues or students might read this book and see themselves on the pages; this may or may not be correct because of the breadth of years this book spans.
One college where I taught was very different. I did not understand reasons for the hostility toward students and faculty that was so freely exhibited by bureaucrats. I did not understand why faculty would not return my phone calls or emails, or why I felt that people were just going through the motions in their jobs. Staff was anxious and moody and did not seem to get along with each other either.
I decided to read several textbooks on abnormal psychology. They helped me to identify the strange behaviors that I encountered. This was not the first time that I had experienced abnormal behavior, but I think it was more pronounced. And abnormal behavior comes in many forms. A disproportionate number of my stories come from this time in my career.
One job directive was to create a Center for Religious Studies where there had been no department. I did not know when I accepted the position that there would be little, if any, support for Religious Studies or me on campus. The bureaucrats would never authorize another full-time person to work with me. That first budget consisted of $100 which was not enough money to staff office supplies for a month let alone a year. It was a lonely and challenging job because, in the main, most people did not understand the academic study of religions. Anxiety gripped those on campus who were afraid of outsiders and their anger came running at me. They argued that their brand of Christianity was the only brand to teach!
The title of the book is unusual. Within Islam “jihad” is a term that refers not necessarily to a physical war but a war that is waged within a person to make herself better. I waged both a ceaseless internal and external war in higher education. “Final Exam” refers to the end of my war. I graduated to a new life outside the system. As you read this book you will begin to understand the subtitle, “An Opportunity for Loneliness.”
Critics might suggest that the prose in this memoir is simple, and it is. I consciously chose to use common language. I could have organized the book into highfalutin categories with opaque terms that other academics would appreciate, but then I would have left out the rest of the world.
There is a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that speaks to the pain in writing this book.
Solitude (1883 in the public domain.)
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.
Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all….
(1883 in the public domain)
I am hoping that this “woe” book about my life will not drive away readers. The life and career of a newly minted professor in the latter part of the twentieth century may shock you. Your first inclination will be to think, “I don’t believe her. This does not happen.” But it does happen and it is still happening every day to female professors (and other minorities) in the United States, in spite of all the laws on the books against it.
While editing this volume, we elected a new president. The bullying, emphasis on white male supremacy, hate, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and winning at all costs were something that I experienced throughout my career as a professor.
I remember discussing this type of environment with Canadian colleagues at a national meeting more than ten years ago, and they thought that I was out of my mind. They argued that females had gained equal standing and were supported by their institutions. They did not live in the United States and had never experienced the marginalization and alienation that I had. Now, with the onslaught of the new presidential regime, I feel vindicated, yet sad. These guys have always been out there abusing somebody. Every day I read a vicious tweet or verbal attack, it brings me back to the academic institutions and my own post-traumatic feelings.
While there were many detractors, predators, and downright mean people with whom I worked, as I plowed through thousands of files, I discovered that there were also wonderful people who supported and appreciated my contributions. This was an ah-hah moment for me! Digging up the dossier (evidence of scholarship, community work, and committees) I submitted for promotion I found scores of wonderful letters. They humbled me.
During the throes of a “war” you sometimes forget that there are supporters. I think I forgot them because the last ten years of my career were more than horrible. But often, when I had a proposal before a committee, someone who I did not know would champion my cause. I was so grateful for these anonymous supporters! It is to these people and other gentle souls that I dedicate this book. They helped me to make and survive the long journey.
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As always, this blog is copyrighted by Marla J. Selvidge