Q&A: Carleen Mandolfo, Religious Studies
Can you tell me about your college experience and how you ended up interested in religious studies?
I was a first-generation college student and I ventured off to a big state school in California. My sense of college was that you go to college to get a degree that gets you a job. I got my degree in broadcast journalism, and the atmosphere was really corporate. When I was in college the courses I always wanted to take were religious studies, literature, and philosophy. I decided I should go back and just study what I love. I went on to get a M.A. in Biblical studies, which was a combination of my interests. For my Ph.D. I became much more specific—I studied the Hebrew Bible. I came to Colby for a one-year sabbatical-replacement position about ten years ago and I fell in love with the liberal arts atmosphere. The Colby position opened up full time in 2002, and I have loved being here ever since.
What drew you to a liberal arts college?
A lot of people who teach here come from liberal arts colleges or backgrounds themselves and I really didn’t—I was a product of a large state-school system. So for me a school like this is an intellectual luxury where you get to sit in small classrooms. I get to know my students really well over the course of four years. Today we have senior presentations that I am going to. I get to watch them do this really amazing thing at the end of four years that is due to the fact that they are in this small, nurturing, intellectually focused environment that cares about their intellectual growth and cares about them holistically as a person. Colby is good for me, and I see it as good for students.
Why did you decide to teach religious studies?
I think this field has so much to tell us about the world because it is an interdisciplinary field. I feel like I am in the center of a bicycle wheel, and there’s all these spokes that represent the different ways that I can look at the world … and I can teach my students to look at the world. Religious studies attracts the kinds of students I really love to work with. Students aren’t coming because they think they are going to go out and get a high-paying job, but these are students who are seeking answers to big questions. They have the value type commitments that are very simpatico with my own.
You have written or edited four books. Do you have a favorite?
That is not actually quite that difficult, because that book right there [points to framed cover of Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the Book of Lamentations] ... as I typed portions of that book I felt like for the first time I was saying the things intellectually that really, really mattered to me. I wasn’t writing for anybody else. ... I said things that I felt my field should hear, and I challenged my field to change in ways that were very important to me. I felt incredibly fulfilled by that experience. The book has gone on to be very important and it has done a lot of exactly what I wanted it to do. It is probably the first moment that I felt like a genuinely independent scholar who had a voice and had something to say to my discipline that people needed to hear and wanted to hear.
Are you currently working on any projects or collaborations?
I have a couple different projects. One of the projects I have agreed to write on is a feminist analysis on the book of Psalms in the Bible. That hasn’t really been done before, so that is going to be something new and I am excited to do that. The other thing that I am doing ... is I want to write a textbook on teaching the Bible in film. There just aren’t adequate textbooks out there in my opinion; I want to use the experience I have gained in teaching this course [The Bible in Film] here to develop a textbook that colleagues of mine could use.
Can you share a memorable or remarkable experience you’ve had as a professor?
About three years ago I had a student in my classroom as a junior; she was a religious studies major so I had known her already for about a year and a half. She ended up becoming very mentally ill, and I became her lifeline here at Colby. She was in my office every day checking in. … She got way behind in her work and I helped her get through that. She completed every bit of work because Colby gave her the time and the nurture that she needed. I met with her parents afterwards and they were just incredibly thankful. I felt I accomplished something that was really so simple. I feel that Colby is the special place where that could happen, where at other large environments people would just get lost.