This winter, for our seasonal series entitled “Professorship and Mentorship,” PCURs interview a professor from their home department. In these interviews, professors shed light on the role that mentorship has played in their academic trajectory, including their previous experiences as undergraduate and graduate students as well as their current involvement with mentorship as independent work advisers for current Princeton undergraduates. Here, Shanon shares his interview.
As part of our seasonal series on faculty research, I sat down with Professor of Religion Anne Marie Luijendijk to discuss her work in Early Christian History through the study of papyrus manuscripts. Having taken a course with Professor Luijendijk before, I must say that she is one of the most enthusiastic educators I’ve ever met. As such, it was definitely a privilege to speak with her about her own research. You can read our conversation below. If you’re interested in advice for working with a faculty adviser, the importance of taking walks, or the historical study of ancient religious manuscripts, then read on!
Has the research process changed in the field of Early Christian History over the course of your career?
Yes, it has, but I’ve always been interested in the “real people” and the sociology behind the texts that I study. In the really large picture of my career, I was trained as a New Testament scholar, particularly looking at variations across manuscripts. But also, we studied how the manuscript was produced, why, and other contextual aspects of the objects available to us.
Right now, I’m working on a manuscript of a fragment of the Gospel of Mary, and I’m thinking about what kind of person could have written this and for whom it was written. And I think I’ve always been interested in trying to find out more about people, and not just the really “important people” of history but also a broader range of people.
But one major change in the humanities is the availability of electronic versions of sources. Many manuscripts are available digitally online, and there are databases which allow you to search for manuscripts. This helps enormously!
How do you deal with deadlines and not knowing what to write?
Well, it’s a little bit hard sometimes. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices. When I get really stuck, I make a mind map. I take some time away from my computer—that way I’m not staring at my screen—and the mind map allows me to visualize things in a non-linear way. This allows me to see how concepts fit together.
I also sometimes use a writing program called Scrivener, which makes it much easier to shift around paragraphs and edit more complex pieces.
What are some issues that you see your undergraduate students struggling with in their research?
Especially if we’re thinking about the New Testament or early Christianity, lots of people have different knowledge that they bring to the research. This can be wonderful, but it can also be an adjustment to get into a different mode of reading. There’s nothing wrong with looking at these texts from a religious standpoint because many are meant to be read that way. Indeed, it’s totally legitimate to read these texts in a liturgical setting—but that’s not what we’re doing here. As scholars, we’re reading with a historical lens, so we’re interested in sources, audiences, composition, literary features, contradictions, and so on. That is our approach.
We also have the issue that these texts are not originally written in English. Consequently, we have to make sure students feel empowered to read these texts in translation and to know that they can still have very important things to say about them.
Where do you find inspiration?
I like to walk—I actually walk every night with my husband. When we have time during the day we like to walk on the canal. And I actually find that this can be really productive, in a sense… I also like to attend the Hellenic Studies lunch with other researchers, where I meet lots of different people and hear about their work. I go to the Art Museum. I do yoga. And I find inspiration by singing!
What is your advice to students as they prepare to work with an adviser?
I have a few suggestions. Schedule meetings in advance. Come to the meeting even if you don’t feel like you have the most moving piece that you’ve ever written. Have an idea about what you want to ask and what you’d like to get from the meeting. And be on time! Princeton students are generally really good about all of this, but these are just a few things to keep in mind as you prepare to work with an adviser.
What’s your favorite part of the research process?
Both the very beginning and near the end. At the beginning I’m finding lots of things, researching in the library and on Google, and tracing little thoughts to see if they work. Sometimes these end up being rabbit holes, dead ends, but you let go and try again. And then at the end, I like when you can craft your words more. Sometimes you read over a sentence and you’ll realize that you can include an alliteration or a little subtle joke. Or you can find some stronger verbs than variations of “to be”!
And then near the very end, it’s really exciting to present the next-to-final project or to give a talk to other researchers. People are mostly very constructive in their feedback, which makes you feel part of the community of scholars. It’s really very special.
This brings us to the end of the interview; I hope it was as informative to read as it was to conduct. Personally, speaking with Professor Luijendijk reminded me of why I enjoy studying the history of religion–it is an endlessly complex subject that allows you to engage with fascinating sources like papyri fragments. If any of this sounds interesting to you, then I highly recommend taking a course with Professor Luijendijk!
–Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent