In this regular feature, we hear from women academics and professionals about their lives, their faith, and the way it all intersects. Pull up a chair and join us as we chat with cultural anthropologist and professor Christine Jeske.
Welcome, Christine! Tell us about yourself.
Name: Christine Jeske
Current job: Assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Wheaton College
Current location: Wheaton College (though I commute weekly from Madison, Wisconsin)
Schools attended: University of Wisconsin-Madison (undergrad and PhD), Eastern University (MBA in International Economic Development)
Favorite course I’m teaching: "Food, Farms, and Culture." We learn about the history of the cultural, social, economic, and ecological impacts of our food and farming systems in the United States. We tie in multiple field trips and guest speakers and then finish the semester with a celebratory potluck.
What was the hardest part of grad school and what kept you sane?
Rejecting the lie that my value depends upon approval of my scholarship. Grad student morale seems so often to go up and down depending on how recently someone has said they like or dislike our latest papers, presentations, and proposals. Those highs and lows sear themselves into our memory. I can remember the excited quaver in my voice when I walked out of my office and told a colleague that I’d had my first article accepted in a top academic journal. I also remember the gut-wrenching low of sitting in a café wiping away tears when I read that an application for research funding had been rejected by a miniscule margin.
Judging ourselves by these moments of approval and rejection is a destructive practice. What got me past this? Through much of grad school I met monthly with a group of women who were committed to being honest about naming and confessing our sins. They were able to graciously help me see a pattern: every month I would report on my emotional state, and it nearly always depended on some academic approval or rejection. I find it helpful to remind myself that my value comes only in being a person made by God. And I also find it helpful, as a social scientist, to look inward at the ways institutions of higher ed foster some very unhealthy patterns of impossible expectations and self-destructive work habits. If you’re interested, I recommend the books Slow Professor and I Love Learning, I Hate School.
What do you love most about your job right now?
In job interviews at my institution, I remember multiple people saying that students at this college are “earnest.” I love working with earnest students — people who want to discover truth and live by it together.
How does your faith inform the way you think about or do your work?
I have always loved growing things. I remember living in a tiny apartment with no green space other than flowerless yards within blocks and getting the library book Houseplants for Dummies. I would find myself sitting next to my table of houseplants just dreamily appreciating each new development of those plants. I learned that I could adjust some little things — like putting plants in the proper lighting, watering enough, and finding the right pots — but ultimately I was never in full control of the mystery of growth.
I find it extremely grounding as a professor to think of myself more like a gardener than someone with complete control over students’ growth. God is working on my students’ minds and hearts in ways that are far beyond my control, and my job is just to tend to what I can. I find that people in my line of teaching — addressing fairly daunting social issues like prejudice and inequalities — can end up bitter, discouraged, or burnt out. It’s easy to find ways to just go through the motions of teaching. Knowing that I’m no more able to control students’ actual growth than I am able to make a seed sprout helps me not take myself too seriously and become bitter. At the same time, knowing that God loves watching our spiritual growth and sanctification infinitely more than I loved watching my little houseplants grow reminds me to take teaching seriously enough to put dedicated effort into helping my students grow.