Faculty Faces - Dr. Jane Harris

Jane HarrisDr. Jane Harris When North Carolina native Jane Harris walked out of teaching her first college class at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., her undergraduate alma mater, she knew she wanted to get her doctorate and teach on the college level.

“After the first class, I decided ‘I’m going back’,” she said.

Fortunately for Hendrix students and the religious studies department at Hendrix, she did. Harris joined the Hendrix faculty in 1990. More than 20 years later, she’s still here and can’t imagine being anyplace else.

Harris grew up in Albemarle, N.C., and completed high school in Greenville, S.C.  She found Meredith College, a women’s college with 1,200 students at the time, to be “a good environment for a shy kid who needed to be encouraged and given a shove.”

After she graduated in 1974, she went spent two years teaching English and studying Chinese in Taiwan. Returning to the United States just days before the bicentennial celebration in July 1976, she found a position teaching eighth-grade English and social studies for two years in Dillon, South Carolina, 60 miles inland from Myrtle Beach.

“That was more of a culture shock than Asia,” she said. “And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Harris wasn’t sure what she wanted to do but knew it would either involve graduate school or seminary.

She chose the latter, attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

With more women percentage-wise than other Southern Baptist seminaries, it was a more progressive environment than other Baptist seminaries at the time, with excellent faculty from a number of prestigious schools.

“Seminary was a natural step,” she said.

After finishing seminary in 1981, Harris went to University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., where she studied religion and literature for two years but found it difficult to integrate the two disciplines.

She moved to Chapel Hill, where she accepted a lay position on the staff of University Baptist Church, across from the University of North Carolina.

An avid Tarheel basketball fan, she was there for Michael Jordan’s last year at UNC.

“I was in Heaven,” she said. “Church work was challenging in a positive way, and I had a real good time.”

As she was exploring church ministry and ordination, Meredith College’s religion department asked her to teach a course on religious education to 15 students in spring 1985.

“It was great,” she said. “I just knew I need to go back to graduate school.”

Serendipitously, UNC announced the beginning of a doctoral program in religious studies in fall 1985, and Harris leapt at the chance. She left the church and became a full-time graduate student.

“I had found my home and found my discipline, religious history,” she said. “I wanted to understand American religious trends better, delve into the American context and understand the relationship between religion and culture in America.”

She finished her master’s degree in 1987. Drawing from her experience in Asia, she developed a project that would become her doctoral dissertation, focusing on the effect of the presence of women missionaries in China at the turn of the 20th century and the effect of their presence on the missionaries themselves.

“It was a real satisfying project,” she said.

After completing the coursework and exams for her Ph.D. in the spring of 1989, she saw an ad for a teaching position at Hendrix.

“I had never heard of Hendrix,” she said, though classmates and colleagues familiar with Hendrix encouraged her to apply.

She didn’t think the College would seriously consider her because she had not completed her dissertation.

She met faculty members Dr. Jay McDaniel and Dr. John Farthing in November of 1989.

When she got the offer, she was shocked.

“I took it,” she said, adding that her friends told her she would be a fool not to. “And 21 years later, I’m still here.”

“I love this place,” she said. “I have great students, terrific colleagues, and I’ve been challenged in my teaching and had the opportunity to undertake administrative roles as department and humanities area chair … Hendrix has just been a great place for me to be.”

Harris has taught world religion for 20 years and all of the department’s American religious history courses. She also developed a course on women in religion, which evolved into the study of religion, gender, and sexuality.

“It’s kept me interested and on my toes,” she said of the course’s broader scope. “I don’t want to get lazy.”

Though she could teach world religion off the top of her head, she continues to enhance the syllabus. This year, she’s using novels as a lens or insight into religious experience.

“I try to maintain a nice balance between building upon years of having taught a subject I care about and trying new subjects,” she said.  “I continue to learn.”

Harris feels that world religion is one of the most important courses for students so they can have a familiarity with different traditions and cultures.

“Hendrix is so supportive of study of religion,” Harris said.

For 10 years, she taught in a three-person department that covered fairly broad curriculum.

Additionally, all religion professors teach a section of Journeys, the core course required of all freshmen.

“We’re committed to that and have been from the beginning of the course,” she said.

The College realized this commitment and has supported the department with the addition of new faculty, including the addition of a Biblical scholar to teach the Bible from a literary and historical standpoint and a non-Western specialist, who teaches Tibetan Buddhism and Asian religions.

In addition to new faculty, the department has a new name, changing from religion to religious studies.

“We think it captures more broadly the approaches we use for the study of religion,” she said of the name change. “It indicates the many approaches to study of religion, and students have responded more positively to religious studies.”

Though there are not as many religious studies majors as other departments, faculty in the department contribute significantly to several curricular programs, teaching courses related to interdisciplinary programs such as American, Asian, Environmental, and Gender studies, she said.

“We are naturally at home in an interdisciplinary environment,” Harris said. “It’s natural for us in religious studies to borrow from other disciplines throughout campus.”

Harris would love for the department to ultimately add a specialist in Islam, who would also help develop a Middle Eastern Studies program.

Her 20-year tenure has allowed her to observe the difference that Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning has made on campus.

“Students have been doing interesting independent studies or summer study abroad projects in religious studies on their own since I came here,” she said. “Now I just see more students being encouraged to think creatively for possibilities to pursue their interests.”

“Hendrix students are naturally inclined to follow their interests, and now they have more opportunity with the support through Odyssey,” she said.

“Odyssey expanded and provided a mechanism for recognizing engaged learning and took what was already going on and made it more visible. And it made more public the kind of student who comes here.”

“The possibility of realizing their potential is greater today than it was 20 years ago,” she said of Odyssey’s impact on student learning. “And that’s exciting.”

The intersection of teaching and learning is not going to stay put, and innovations such as Odyssey are vital, Harris said.

“We keep adapting,” she said, referring to engaged learning, as well as the increased presence of technology in the classroom. “If we resist some of the changes, it is to our detriment … to us as teachers and to our students. How we communicate will have to change. Education is not going to stand still.”