Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 3, Issue 2
spring 2013
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editors, Linda Hase & Craig Canfield
Layout Design, Nick Appleby
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Building Futures, Making Histories:
Emilie M. Townes

by Jennifer Leath (RLST) with Sofia Betancourt (RLST)

The womanist dancing mind of Emilie M. Townes conjured new approaches to research and writing in social ethics throughout her teaching tenure at Yale Divinity School (YDS) – with faculty appointments in Religious Studies and African American Studies Departments as well as active involvement in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies.  As Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at YDS and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, Townes’s innovative and transformative scholarship and administration have influenced the culture at YDS more significantly than her tenure might suggest.  Townes begins a new five-year appointment as Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School in July 2013 after eight years at Yale.

Many professors offer courses in which students learn a subject; Townes’s courses change lives. She exhibits an unflinching commitment to cultivating diverse perspectives and to sustaining students with diverse backgrounds in a common intellectual community through engaging, interdisciplinary pedagogical techniques. Academic rigor meets participatory learning through each of her classes, which often culminate in constructive group projects where unexpected ethical insights bridge the broader University and greater New Haven communities.  As an ethicist, Townes embodies the virtuous characteristics and qualities that she teaches.  We gain new ways of thinking and revised life trajectories from her classes and advising. Townes discourages her students from simply mimicking her beliefs and approaches; as a mentor, she encourages us to do the hard work of exploring our own commitments, beliefs, and approaches for ourselves.  In this way, Townes draws us into our fullest creative potential.

One of Townes’s most significant intellectual journeys has been through the terrain between postmodernism and materialism.  Townes’s work provides a literary stage and classroom theater for the voices of these two traditions to “speak” to one another through categories of race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion.  Her articulation of a non-essentializing materialism and a postmodernism relevant to the “everyday” adumbrates an intellectual future for those of us committed to promoting justice as scholar-activists.

A student once said of Townes that being her student is sometimes like being a fortunate participant observer in the making of history.  Truly, Townes’s vision for the future is balanced by the historic significance of her scholarship in and of itself and as it is informed and distinguished by her unique identity.  “Herstory” is still in the making as Townes transitions from her extraordinary work as the first black, same gender loving woman to hold an endowed chair and serve as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at YDS, to her new position as the first black, same gender loving woman to serve as Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School.  May her brilliance as a teacher, intellectual giant, and trailblazer continue to shine!
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