Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions
By Brooke O'Neill
Photo by Chris Strong
Known for her translations and interpretations of Hindu mythology, Indologist Wendy Doniger tackles her subject from diverse perspectives of gender, sexuality, and identity. She joined UChicago in 1978 and has supervised nearly 70 doctoral dissertations. Her time-tested approach to mentoring? Let students take the lead.
There couldn’t be anything that could mean more. To think some student said, “Wendy did this good thing” and someone else said, “Yes, she helped me too” is very touching. People are saying nice things about you behind your back. It’s the very opposite of being gossiped about.
I used to hang out with horses a lot, and I always say that I ride with a very long rein. There’s a moment when you intervene and say to a student, “I think this is a bad idea. Don’t do it.” But that moment for me, well, I trust my students to go quite a ways. They wouldn’t be at the University of Chicago if they didn’t basically know what they’re doing. I only step in when I see the horse is galloping to the edge of a cliff.
They’re very strong-minded. They’re very independent. They’re also very good. They read widely, and therefore often come up with ideas about how to go about their projects that wouldn’t have occurred to me.
My inspirations for teaching came first in high school, and then when I came to Chicago as a full professor. My high school English teacher Jack Fields kept up with me for years. When I was grown up and writing in the New York Times, I published in the book review section, and he wrote to me, “I always knew you were talented. You were always one of my favorite students. I loved your article.”
And then he said, “You know, it would have been better if you had left out the first paragraph. And in the second paragraph…” And then he went through and basically tore it apart the way he did in high school English 30 years before. So, he never let go of his students. He was a great teacher.
When I got to Chicago in 1978, I met Mircea Eliade and Frank Reynolds. Mircea taught me how to talk about religious texts with graduate students. Frank was passionately dedicated to his students. He found out about their marriages, divorces, illnesses, financial problems, everything about them, as well as going carefully through everything they wrote. He taught me how to do all of that.
I love seeing the students change. I love how they take what I teach them and turn it into something so different because of the things they know that I don’t. When I have an extra opera ticket, I usually take a student rather than a faculty member because I just like being with them. I enjoy their courage and their originality.
If we choose our students well, then we have to have faith in them. I would advise young teachers to resist the impulse to tell students how to do their project the way they themselves would do it.
I really didn’t know anything about teaching until I was 38 years old, when I came to Chicago in 1978. That’s when I really began to learn, from Frank and Mircea, how to teach.