Faculty Profile: Althea Spencer Miller
When did you start at Drew and where were you before that?
I began teaching at Drew Theological School in September, 2008. Before that, I had taught a variety of subjects in undergraduate schools. The most stable experiences were in the Claremont Colleges, particularly at Scripps College and Pomona College. I also lectured at Whittier College and at the University of California, Northridge. All these colleges were in California. I had also done a bit of teaching in Jamaica at the United Theological College of the West Indies. But I came to Drew and to New Jersey from California.
What, for you, have been some of the most rewarding aspects of mentoring doctoral students?
My mentoring of doctoral students began with a predominance of sitting on dissertation committees and grading comprehensive exams. In the undergraduate schools I had opportunities to direct advanced senior theses. Working with dissertations was simultaneously challenging and rewarding. The rewards were the opportunities to learn from my colleagues about how it was done at Drew, to participate in exciting expansions of ideas, knowledge, and the construction process in which new ideas emerged from massive bodies of scholarship. It has been like sitting right at frontier’s edge and contradicting the Teacher. It seemed that while there was no pristinely new dissertation—that is, there was none that lacked for roots in academic traditions and study—our students were articulating nuances with great care. Nuances emerged from fissures peered into, perspectives that had been unmined or insufficiently noticed, and indeed opened doors to many more unasked questions. Additionally, our students’ diligence in study and preparation meant that each dissertation not only walked old paths in new shoes/perspectives, they also brought strange bedfellows into conversation. That would make for freshness at the very least, but very often I had a sense of newness.
As rewarding as that was, however, it became a point of rejoicing and professional development to see students beginning to respond to my own ideas and scholarly canons, take them seriously and work them into new shapes. That was a new kind of challenge. The conversations about these matters have been stimulating and refreshing. That, I think, is one of the benefits of mentoring doctoral students. It disallows staleness. It opens up understanding. And to accompany a student who is blossoming—well, that stretches me and keeps me on my toes. But it is all so very exciting.
What have been your favorite doctoral seminars to teach?
I have been collaborating with my colleague, Dr. Kenneth Ngwa, on the development of a course in Africana studies and religion. This is my favorite course for a number of reasons. The first reason is pedagogical, but also cultural. Our pedagogy is experimental. One aspect of the experiment is in redefining collaboration by embedding it in communal sensibilities. Some of the most exciting moments occur behind the scenes as we prepare for class. There our conversations are energetic and energizing. My eyes are opened to see pedagogical visions that contrast with what I have experienced as a kind of compartmentalization even in collaboration. When our conversations effervesce into the classroom experience there is energy, palpable energy that transforms the classroom experience. What is happening there is a dynamic unleashing, especially in those times when we enact that conversation as a learning modality rather than as ideas in contest. It is cultural also because we are reaching into the roots of community teaching with Africana sensibilities (despite that being a dense concept that we are disentangling). The baobab tree provides, protects, reminds. It is religious, mythical, and inspirational. Among the many beliefs and ideas attached to it is one that is particularly useful and was taught me by Professor Kathleen O’Brien Wicker. A mature baobab tree’s trunk has an extraordinarily large circumference. For it to be understood, it takes a community. That is the symbol that bestows meaning upon this collaboration for me. Fecundity is found in dynamic interaction, mutual sparking, careful listening, and a gathering of the class around the dimensions of the baobab tree for pondering, discernment, understanding, and for gathering around with the goal of intellectual production in a holistic vein. So this is also the class, that honors its title by exploring a developing academic tradition in a way that seeks to uncover what it means to teach beyond Eurocentric pedagogies, to question what it means to even think that, and to reach for a reality dimly discerned in the midst of lived experiences and the community of scholarly writings. It is also in this course that Africana or diasporic students have a chance to look at a range of sub-topics with an indigenous perspective. Here also students who do not identify with those labels have a chance to learn the unfamiliar and to understand the journeys that unfamiliarity demands, intellectually, emotionally, and autobiographically.
What is your main research project at present?
My main research project is a study of orality as a cultural epistemology that has implications for hermeneutics and biblical exegesis. I am working on an expanded definition of orality that removes it from an illiteracy/literacy binary and from an absolutized connection to speech. Using autoethnography and autobiography, I am demonstrating that orality is a way of life with ways of processing information that can impact interpretive and exegetical methods. With anti-colonial interests, I do critical historical analyses of the foundations of biblical orality studies to demonstrate an unacknowledged xenogenetic trait in the earliest literary scholars who studied oral cultures. Autoethnography is the antidote to that trait. With autoethnography I can exercise an endogenous understanding that susses out nuances that might escape the outsider. Ultimately, the goals of my research have an anti-colonial telos that determines my methods and the resources I use. My interlocutors then are primarily Caribbean peoples and representatives of our scholarly tradition, particularly Édouard Glissant and Aimé Césaire. The Eurocentric and Euro-masculine biblical scholarly traditionalists are often my foil. Research into the Caribbean cultural performance of orality and a demonstration of its impact on the interpretation of a particular passage provide the core tools for realigning our understanding of the culture that we dimly see through the biblical texts and its communication processes.
What additional resources does the GDR currently need to enable our students to thrive in our programs and be optimally prepared for obtaining rewarding careers afterwards?
In many ways, we are doing a very good job of mentoring our students. We give them lots of personal attention that shapes and guides them from coursework through to dissertation defense. The most obvious need is better financing of the students. We have made significant and helpful improvements in their tuition scholarships. However, our students in their creativity demonstrate a stalwart commitment to their academic growth and achievement. They are doing wonders with what we give them and these wonders add to Drew’s reputation. They deserve better institutional support from library hours to the health center, better understanding of the formative processes they are going through leading to better institutional responses within the larger university. In some areas of the GDR we need more faculty. There is a need for more institutional understanding of the ways in which we depend on faculty to fill gaps and develop creative solutions to keep our students going.
We need to better understand the particular needs of students of color and international students. This needs to be an open agenda topic. These student constituencies face particular struggles, the contours of which we have not adequately identified and so we do not have an adequate strategic response. This is not a plea for special treatment. It is an appeal to the good judgment and courage that we have as a faculty body to take note of graduation rates, time to graduation, financial struggles, impact of family issues, student accommodation strategies, cultural differences that occur in a context of invisible and not so invisible “white privilege and American privilege,” culture-based learning differences, race dynamics, and their impacts on the road to success that students of color and international students take. These are not issues that we can solve by simply throwing more money at it, though that is not to be despised. These are relational issues with pedagogical impact. The extent of the problem and its dimensions require careful thought and analysis and, then, a caring response.
How does it feel to now be a permanent member of the Drew faculty?
Of course, I am glad I have gotten tenure! There are certain obvious reasons for saying that, such as the promise or hope of life stability. There are also institutional reasons. There are great colleagues and collegiality here. Courtesies and considerations are more than perfunctory and go deeper than superficiality. The intellectual climate of openness and discovery is inviting. It is also frustrating as I wish I had more time to study with my colleagues and hear of their research. Among us in the GDR—but of course, I also have in mind my colleagues whose areas are not represented in the GDR—there is intellectual adventurousness, very careful scholarship, incredible thoughtfulness, a love of students, goodwill, grace, and kindness. Considering all that, of course I am glad I am now tenured. There is more. We have enough critical mass in the faculty to struggle with critical and difficult issues that arise among us. Goodwill, grace, and kindness also exist among us for each other. There is also a certain kind of honesty. There are also enough tensions and undertows to keep us all real and in our humanness. I have gotten tenure in the place where I want to be and to which I am eager to contribute. I am glad that tenure came at a time that coincided with my own maturation in understanding of Drew and the task I am involved with here. I have been catalyzed by the influence of larger social challenges and I believe that in our collegiality my own humanness and intellectual endeavors can be meaningfully deployed here. There is promise in the challenges. Thank you.