Tuesday 31 March 2020

Perhaps like so many academics, especially women of color, I often feel like a misfit, like someone whose story always seems a little out of joint with the stories of others around her. In the case of biblical studies, writ large, I feel that my narrative is unusual. On the one hand, I do not come from a conservative religious home that I have rebelled against; my immediate family are all quite progressive theologically and some are not religious. On the other hand, I never experienced my profession as a “calling,” though I suspect women of color who experience this profession as a calling have been fortified by that conviction. It likely helps them endure the many challenges of academic life, including the ways that we so often feel like impostors rather than misfits.

I became a professor of Latina/o/x studies and religion at a small liberal arts college in New England because of a series of happy accidents, a rolling accumulation of pushes and pulls, of moments of support. I cannot recount all of them in a short blog, so I will focus on some key moments in my academic career. Through a string of unusual events, including undergraduate mentoring from Elizabeth Castelli, I found myself a master’s student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While there, I took Hebrew and Greek (and then Aramaic) for fun because I liked learning languages.

I was also fortunate with my professors of ancient languages. All of my Hebrew professors were women, and Wyn Wright was a Black woman and a profound and supportive mentor who also taught me Aramaic. Inside and outside of class time, she would share the wonders she found in the study of ancient Semitic languages and linguistics. My teaching assistant for Greek was David A. Sánchez, a Chicano doctoral student from East Los Angeles, California, who had re-opened Union’s Latina/o Caucus and who had supported me from the start of my master’s program. He helped me to think through the ways that one can be both passionate about the ancient world and a robust interpreter of and from the present. Both of these mentors were scholars of color who passed away when they were far too young.

Although I never could’ve gotten into a doctoral program in biblical studies without a love for languages, a love for languages never would’ve been enough. Many of the questions that dominate biblical studies—questions about ancient provenance, original texts, philology, and authorial intent—could be interesting to me, but they did not compel me.

I pursued doctoral study because of the work of Vincent L. Wimbush who taught me to fundamentally re-examine scriptures as phenomena in our world and within my own communities. In his courses and speaking with him during his office hours, he transformed my understanding of how community gets made, contested, and re-imagined through stories, texts, and the practices that surround them. I continue to be a student of biblical studies on these more expansive terms, thinking about biblical texts in relationship to communal structures and in relationship to other texts and stories of social power.

That work and training also made me into a different sort of biblical scholar, an interdisciplinary student working between multiple fields and feeling always like a misfit in any one of them. And yet, this experience of multiple belonging and unbelonging—an academic mirror of my own sense of ethnic identity as a Costa Rican and United Statesan—was often a source of pain even if I could not have been an academic any other way. Again, I was lucky. I was able to secure a tenure-track position with a joint appointment in Latina/o/x studies and religion. I had wonderful support from colleagues in both units, colleagues like Denise Buell, Mérida Rúa, and Carmen Whalen, who gave of their time to help me navigate the strange structures of the liberal arts in rural New England. I also had wonderful colleagues in faculty, staff, and administrative roles throughout Williams as well as some key students who pushed me well and some key students who thrived in my courses and helped me to keep teaching.

Because I needed many different colleagues and mentors to support and push me along the way, I don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all plan to draw in a more diverse set of scholars. As Fernando F. Segovia argues, criticism in critical times requires expansive and collaborative efforts across disciplines, approaches, cultures, and geographies.[1] We have to be asking different questions, taking different approaches, representing distinct points of view to help make us all better scholars and to help produce scholarship that speaks to more people.

No one approach or emphasis should stand in as authoritative for what the field should look like; people can be trained to be rigorous scholars without expecting them to act like clones. To diversify our field, we have to diversify the options for study within it, diversify the methods and expectations, open up topics and approaches that previous generations of scholars ignored or discounted. Instead of misfits, senior scholars can become infiltrators working to build a more just and diverse academy and world.[2]

No one mentor is enough either. Academic misfits need multiple people from different spaces of belonging and unbelonging to help us navigate diverse structures and realities. And those of us who are now senior scholars have to provide more flexible and equitable mentoring, and it should not just be the people of color who take this on and often get made sick by the sickness of the system we live under. Everyone can mentor for a diverse world so long as we approach others with the humility of an individual misfit, trying to open up more options for more people who we don’t expect will always look or sound like us.

[1] Fernando F. Segovia, “Criticism in Critical Times: Reflections on Vision and Task,”  Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 1 (2015): 6-29.

[2] Lena Palacios, “The Underrepresentation of Latinx Faculty and the Future of Higher Education,” Latinx Talk, September 19, 2018, https://latinxtalk.org/1028/09/19/the-underrepresentation-of-latinx-faculty-and-the-future-of-higher-education/.

Jacqueline M. Hidalgo is associate professor of Latina/o Studies and Religion, as well as chair of the Religion department, at Williams College in Massachusetts. Her professional service includes committee work for the American Academy of Religion, the Hispanic Theological Initiative, and the Society of Biblical Literature, and she is the vice president (2020-2021) for the New England/Eastern Canada region of the Society of Biblical Literature. A past president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States (ACHTUS), she is the author of Revelation in Aztlán: Scriptures, Utopias, and the Chicano Movement (2016) as well as co-editor, with Efraín Agosto, Latinxs, the Bible, and Migration (2018). She has written “Latina/o/x Studies and Biblical Studies” in Brill Research Perspectives in Biblical Interpretation 3.4 (2020) in addition to numerous essays that examine the intersections of scriptures, gender, sexuality, race, and Latina/o/x communities. 

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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