Throughout her career in higher education, Mary O’Shan Overton (M.Div., Vanderbilt; Ph.D. in Theology and Education, Boston College) has worked toward equitable educational access and outcomes for all students. As a contingent faculty member, she has taught and served at institutions as diverse as Middle Tennessee State University, Boston College, Southern New Hampshire University, and Volunteer State Community College. She now serves at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as the Director of the Center for Writing and Learning Support and as an adjunct professor. Her course offerings include theological writing and research methods in both masters and doctoral programs. Shan also devotes her energies to support the teaching and scholarship of all faculty -- tenured, TT, and adjuncts alike.
Shan’s research interests include transformative writing pedagogies and scholarly production for and beyond the academy. Her professional writing includes academic book reviews, articles on writing and pedagogy, and grant writing. She has taught writing workshops for theology scholars in Southeast Asia, collaborates with seminary Writing Center Directors around the country, and leads public conversations with academic and popular writers on the creativity and craft of writing. Shan is currently at work on a book of creative nonfiction about the eco-mystics of America.
In my recent article for the blog, The Religious Studies Project, I ask a primary question, Whose academy is this, anyway? I believe this is a good way to frame the space where we, in the American Academy of Religion, are in this conversation about contingent faculty and academia itself. My original inquiry for the blog addressed the work of faculty in religious studies and theology who teach and write outside of the Global North context. As it turns out, the issues our Global South colleagues regularly confront are not entirely different from those that we Global North contingent faculty face every day: they are under-paid, over-worked, undervalued, and often unseen and unheard; they lack institutional support, access to health care, and academic freedom. As Contingent Faculty Director, I want to wonder with AAR members and leadership about this central question, Whose academy is this?, not only to unearth the often-unexamined assumptions and structures beneath the question itself, but also to imagine and build another possible future for all of us.
To these ends, I envision the Contingent Faculty Director role as one of convening generative conversations that examine problems in order to uncover opportunities; that envisage something different for ourselves and for the academy itself. But the route these questions will take, we will have to find together. In one of its best senses, an academy is a community of practice where we can consider what kind of community we have been, what we are now, and what we hope to be. This shared inquiry must lead us through generative questions like those I posed in my article for The Religious Studies Project blog: What does our community of practice look like? What are its boundaries? What are its practices? What constitutes meaning within it? How do individuals and groups develop identities through the practices? And who decides? Beyond this, we must ask what we want the community and its practices, boundaries, meanings, and identities to become.
When I contemplate this shared work, I recall two lines from Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Leaflets,” which I keep next to my desk on a small, blue, wrinkled and stained sticky note. It says, "I am thinking how we can use what we have / to invent what we need.” I am thinking that, during this time in which everything we have taken for granted is turning over, contingent faculty and our colleagues have a portal through which we can enter to explore what we already have so we may invent what we need. I am thinking that we might create an academy that better reflects the insights of everyone involved in scholarship and teaching, from whatever place or position we happen to inhabit, to bring into being an interconnected academy that truly belongs to all of us. If elected to serve as the Contingent Faculty Director, I will enthusiastically collaborate with you as an intentional community of practice to (in Rich’s words) “reconstitute the world.”