It’s because of professor emeritus of Religious Studies Giles Milhaven that on the first day of class I tell students that my goal is for them to have nothing less than a life-changing experience in my class. I tell them that I want this to be the course after which they were never the same.
I was a political science concentrator at Brown, preparing for a career in television broadcasting. By my senior year, I had had summer internships at NBC and CNN and had been news director of Brown Cable Television. My résumé tape was ready to go, packed with hard and soft news packages, live stand-ups, and an anchoring sample. I was determined to be the next Diane Sawyer.
But just before becoming a senior, I read a BAM article about a professor who had been voted the best on campus. The only problem, as far as I was concerned, was that he taught, well, religion. Who takes religion courses? I asked myself. Still, his teaching reviews were so glowing that I thought I’d take a chance. That course literally changed my life.
The title of Professor Milhaven’s course was Anger, and in it we read Aristotle and Seneca, Thomas Aquinas and James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly. Professor Milhaven worked us hard. We had demanding analysis papers due every single week, and even when the papers were finished, I stayed up all night rereading Aquinas and Baldwin and imagining a conversation between the two of them and between them and the other assigned authors.
This was the course I could not stop talking about when my mother called me at school. At parties I found myself describing Professor Milhaven’s last lecture. I felt like raw dough being pulled and stretched in directions that I never knew existed. At the end of the course he asked us to perform something or to create something that expressed anger. Art students produced tortured, angry canvases. Film concentrators screened their complex, angry montages. Musicians played angry compositions, explaining that their work had been inspired by racism, poverty, injustice—or by the rejection of a lover. I wept as a classmate played a wrenching piece on her fiddle that had been composed in memory of the Holocaust. As for myself, I gave a dramatic reading from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s dark play The Visit, in which a woman returns to her small hometown and offers the townspeople a million dollars to kill the man who abandoned her when she was young and pregnant.
CNN didn’t have a chance.
I now teach courses on women and religion, on African American religious experience, and on Native American religions. Students complain that my exams are too demanding, and that I assign far too much reading. Like Professor Milhaven, I challenge them to struggle with concepts that are often opaque and difficult to grasp. I also allow them the space for personal expression.
In my Native American religions course, the students read Richard Nelson’s ethnography of the Koyukon people in Alaska, Make Prayers to the Raven. Nelson contrasts European views of nature with the Koyukons’ intimate relationship to “the watchful world”—a world that is alive and intelligent in all its manifestations. After my students have read Nelson, I take them to the shore of Lake Michigan to observe the rocks, trees, grass, water, clouds, and bugs. I next ask them to pretend that the trees, rocks, clouds, and bugs are looking at them. Students passionately articulate what is more theoretically known as the difference between the “look” and the “gaze.” They talk about culture and cosmology and how all this shapes who we become and how we perceive our world.
A friend calls this Dead Poets Society teaching, but I bristle at the notion that classrooms in which students are actively, physically, and creatively engaged are found only in elite prep schools, to be outgrown in the dour halls of a university. I learned this from Professor Milhaven’s class. It’s because of the excitement he triggered that I stayed up all night rereading Aristotle and Seneca.
It might be too much to ask that each course we teach be life-changing, ground-breaking, awakening. But is it too much to ask that we at least strive for something along these lines? Professor Milhaven taught me that a reciprocal engagement between student and professor can have a profound impact on the intellectual world of both. Each new term, when I strive yet again to offer the elusive “life-changing course,” it is Giles Milhaven’s spirit that I conjure, and it is his legacy that my own students now carry forth.
Sarah McFarland Taylor is an assistant professor of religion at Northwestern.