When Rosalie Beck began her college career at the University of California San Diego, she had her sights set on becoming a doctor. She accomplished that goal, just not quite like she had first envisioned.
Dr. Beck earned her Ph.D. in religion at Baylor University in 1984 and joined the faculty that same year. For 17 years, she was the only female teaching religion at Baylor. Now, at age 70, she’s retiring. She wants to quit while she’s still able to travel, and she has quite a trip planned for the upcoming summer. But there are also more altruistic reasons Beck has decided that now is the time to leave.
Beck and one of her former students, Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley, talked recently in her office on the fourth floor of Tidwell Bible Building, which is slated to undergo a $20 million renovation. Though Beck won’t be around to see the improvements to the building she’s called home for the past 35 years, she’s seen plenty of changes to the Baylor campus. She talked about some of those changes and her delight in Baylor naming its first female president, as well as murder mysteries, female vocalists and tattoos.
WACOAN: When you joined the faculty in 1984, were you planning on staying here the rest of your time or did you have another plan?
Beck: I was actually married; he was a professor in the English department, and I didn’t know. I didn’t have a plan. I was hired as a lecturer, and I was offered [another] job about three years into that. It was a very attractive job in a lot of ways; it was as an editor for a women’s magazine. I told my chair about it, and he says, ‘OK. Let me talk to the provost.’ So it was at that point I was moved to tenure track, which doesn’t happen now very easily.
WACOAN: Didn’t you study chemistry at one point?
Beck: Biochemistry. I was headed to [medical school]. I went to University of California at San Diego. I did a B.A. in biology, and my grades just weren’t good enough. I had barely a B average. In 1971, when I graduated from college, that wasn’t going to cut it for a woman trying to get into med school because it was still, at that time, fairly difficult for women to get into med school. But I wasn’t rejected because I was a woman.
I should have gotten a clue, Kevin, because I aced my cultural traditions and language classes and my history classes, and I got B’s in my math and science. Actually I failed a math class, which is what killed my GPA. At that point at UCSD when you failed the class, that F stayed on your transcript and was figured into your GPA. It didn’t drop [if you retook and passed the class].
I failed calculus II, and part of it was the professor’s fault. I mean, I just didn’t understand it for one thing. But he was a visiting professor from France, and he spoke in a very soft voice and he never repeated anything. And he didn’t answer questions. We were on the quarter system, and he got hepatitis and was out for two weeks. Sixty-five percent of the class failed. I got a B the second time I took it, but I still had that F on my transcript.
So when I didn’t get into med school, I did what I knew how to do, which was to work in a lab. I moved from San Diego to Houston — because Houston was booming in the early ’70s — and I got a job with a former professor at the UT med school department of biochemistry as a biochemistry technician.
I worked there for a couple of years and then did a missionary stint in Vietnam with the Southern Baptist Convention called the Journeyman program. While I was there, I realized I love teaching, and I wanted to do religion because I’d never had a religion class really. I came back and went to seminary and came here to do my Ph.D.
WACOAN: Where did you go to seminary?
Beck: Southwestern [Baptist Theological Seminary], before it was captured by the fundamentalists.
WACOAN: That was going to be my next question. If medical school wasn’t really open to women back them, was Southwestern?
Beck: Well I was fairly clueless until I started my Ph.D. work about the women’s movement because I had never been told no because I was a woman. I had [experiences] like — I remember when we were playing in recess once in the sixth grade. We were playing this great game called team ball, which is [similar to] dodgeball. And I was the last person on my team and got out. One of the guys said, ‘Are you sure you’re not a boy?’ And I was pleased. That’s how clueless I was. I had that kind of stuff.
At seminary, none of the students talked to me because I think I was scary, because I [got all A’s in] seminary. I was like a sponge. I’d been out five years from college, and I found my vocation. I found my passion, and I could not get enough. That scared a lot of folks, but none of them ever said anything to me.
My professors were all very supportive of women in ministry. In fact, the dean of the School of Theology was a guy named Huber Drumwright. All the female students who were studying in the [master of divinity program] had to go talk with Dean Drumwright. He just basically wanted to know why they were studying theology. I was very defensive at first, mainly because I didn’t have much respect for him working for Robert Naylor [the president]. But I think once he got a sense of who I was, he relaxed and he said, ‘Let me tell you my plan for Southwestern.’ And he outlined his plan to incorporate women into the theology faculty.
They were in the music school, and they were in the school of religious education but none in theology. So he said, ‘This is what I plan to do. We’re going to start with this area because it’s the least threatening, and then we’re going to go to this area because it’s the next least threatening. Then the last area is going to be New Testament, or preaching, because that’s the harshest. That’s the most difficult.’
He went up yards and yards and yards in my opinion. I had no interest in being a minister. I really didn’t. That wasn’t my calling. [Drumwright] said, ‘Do you want to be a pastor?’ I said, ‘No, I want to be a teacher.’ He agreed that all of the required classes like preaching, preaching lab, church ministry, I could substitute history classes, and I am so grateful he did that.
So I really didn’t catch any flack, at least not to my face. I’m sure there was some around behind my back.
When I was here [as a Ph.D. student at Baylor], my peers were very supportive, I thought, until I was asked to teach as a graduate student. And one of my good friends was pastor out at Chalk Bluff [Baptist Church] at the time, who was also in the Ph.D. work, said one day — I guess he just felt he had to tell me, but he said, ‘You know, there’s a fair amount of discussion among the Ph.D. students about why you got that job.’ And I said, ‘What’d they say?’ ‘You got it because you’re a woman,’ because the religion department had actually been looking for a woman for a while. That hurt, that hurt. But it just flowed off of me.
I learned about Christian feminism from some colleagues here at the university that were good friends. We met once a week for breakfast and both [of them] were very strong feminists. Dr. Debra Andrist taught Spanish. She’s now the dean of liberal arts at [University of St. Thomas] in Houston. Dr. Glenace Edwall was in psychology. She’s now in charge of pediatric psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School in St. Paul. I would meet with them, and they started talking about stuff. I thought, well yeah.
WACOAN: What was some of the stuff they talked about?
Beck: They helped me become sensitive to issues. I’d always been really focused on what I was doing, and I wasn’t always aware of when I was insulted. Some insults I could figure out, but others I just wasn’t really aware of them. And I wasn’t aware of benign neglect as a gender issue. With them talking about what was appropriate and what was not appropriate — and they got me to reading some books, especially by Deborah Tannen on how men and women communicate. She’s done some fascinating studies on that. She’s a communications person.
She did a nonscientific study of conversations in the halls of her university. She carried a stopwatch in her pocket, and she would time how much of the conversation the women faculty were talking and then the male faculty were talking. Then she would ask the male faculty later what their impression was of the contributions of the women faculty to that particular conversation. She said, if [the women] talked more than about 13% of the time, they were considered too aggressive by their male colleagues. And it got up to 25% — that was the most — and that was just intolerable. Now this was 20 years ago.
WACOAN: What’s benign neglect?
Beck: Benign neglect is when someone isn’t aware of prejudice and they feel honestly that they treat all people the same. But they’re not always aware of the language they use, and they don’t always see the other person. Let me give you two examples.
One was my mentor who was chair of the department for a number of years, and he was a great guy and taught me so much. But he was a Southern gentleman, Glenn Hilburn. Just something like whenever we had a faculty meeting, [he would say], ‘Gentlemen … and lady,’ because I was the only faculty woman for almost two decades. That’s just irritating because the fact that he underscored that made me feel uncomfortable, in the sense that did I earn this or was I hired because I was a woman? Or somehow, with all the other research I had done by that point, does singling me out that way put me in a different category when contributing to the conversation? Yeah. It didn’t make me mad; it made me sad. That’s what benign neglect does.
We had a guy that worked in practical ministry. He was one of the sweetest men I’ve ever known, but he didn’t see me — literally, did not see me as a colleague. And it wasn’t because he didn’t believe in women. It’s just he had never experienced a female colleague.
The faculty coffeepot was in the chair’s office area, in a work room, and I was in there getting coffee before going to class. (If you have something to drink, it gives you a chance to pause and make the students comfortable or gives me time to think or catch up.) So I was in there getting coffee before class, and he came in. There were a couple of other faculty members in the office at that time, and he asked each of them if they would like to go to lunch with him. They said no, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll go see if anybody else is available.’ Never saw me. I was standing right there in front of him, but he never saw me as a colleague. It just didn’t dawn on him. So when he walked out, I said to the executive administrator, ‘Thank you, Dr. So-and-So. I would love to go to lunch with you, but I have class,’ and the two colleagues just howled. That’s what benign neglect is.
It’s kind of like when white people don’t see people of color, when a teacher doesn’t see the hand of a student of color or a female hand. Or if a teacher automatically, after asking a question of a female student, goes to a male student — cuts her off — and he may say exactly the same thing, but he always goes from her to a male. It’s not deliberate to spread it out; it’s just that he always goes from a woman to a male. It’s benign neglect, and it’s much harder to fight than overt -ism of any kind, because it’s not deliberate.
“Rosalie Beck has been a pioneer for women in the religion department at Baylor. For years, she has created space in a male-dominated world, without allowing the persistence of that struggle to embitter her. Quite the contrary, she seems led by an impulse to show compassion and generate solidarity, and her presence in the department made it a warmer and more welcoming environment for me and many others.”
— Dr. Natalie Carnes, associate professor of theology at Baylor
WACOAN: You were the only female faculty member in religion for how long?
Beck: Seventeen years.
WACOAN: How many faculty members are there now in religion? How many female faculty members are there?
Beck: I honestly don’t know how many faculty we have because we have a number of adjuncts and we’ve got Ph.D. students who are teaching freshmen classes. I would say we have about 30 full-time faculty members, and we have eight women now, which is a heck of a lot better than it used to be.
WACOAN: Besides benign neglect, did you face other challenges because you were the only female?
Beck: Yeah. Interestingly, in strange ways. When I first began teaching, Baylor was more connected to Texas Baptists. This was before the charter change, and the Baylor religion department faculty were expected to attend associational meetings and do a promo for Baylor. I went. I didn’t have any overt rejection at all when I went to associations and spoke from the pulpit on behalf of Baylor.
But when I went to East Texas, to the Tyler area, the association was meeting at a little church in Chalmers. East Texas is the most politically and religiously and socially conservative part of Texas. I did my spiel on Baylor, and I was eating supper after the meeting with some Baylor alums. They were ministers, music ministers, education ministers and pastors, in that association. One of them started laughing, and he said, ‘You know, when you stood up to speak, I looked around to see if anybody had fainted.’
But as far as overt, there have been places that I have not been asked to return if I went to speak. I’m a pretty good public speaker, and if I went to speak at a church and they don’t ask me to return, I reckon I may have stepped on some toes someway or just not done what they had wanted me to do. But I don’t know that. As far as being told to sit down because I’m a woman, no.
But I have had conversations with students at seminary and here where I raised the issue and they joined in, but not with the kind of vitriol you hear today. It was much more, ‘Well, I, I don’t think a woman should be a minister,’ and with an openness to conversation. I don’t think that would happen today.
When I first began to teach, I was [listed as] ‘staff’ [on the course schedule] because they didn’t know if they put a woman’s name in the schedule what might happen. So about three-quarters of the way into my very first semester, these two students came in from one of my classes, and they graciously said, ‘Well you know, we walked into class the first day and seeing that you were a woman, we weren’t sure we wanted to stay, but we decided to give you a chance.’ [Laughs.] That was very gracious of them. So they gave me a chance, and I worked out OK.
WACOAN: Do you teach to religion majors, or do you teach the big introduction classes?
Beck: Both. And I’ve done graduate seminars.
WACOAN: Among the religion majors and graduate students, what percentage are female?
Beck: Generally over half are women. Of course in my Women in Christian History class, it’s heavily women. I’ve got 19 students, and I have 17 women and two men in there. Now that’s small.
I have now and then taught a class that was pretty even, 50-50, but generally our class enrollment reflects the university enrollment, 60 [percent female], 40 [percent male] or something like that. I do know there have been a number of women students who have chosen to take me for an upper division class in religion, even if they’re not a religion major, simply to see a woman in religion.
They may have been wrestling with the issue of who women are, or they may have been wrestling with a call. And coming out of most traditional Baptist churches in the South, they had received no kind of encouragement, no encouragement at all to pursue the call vocationally. I have counseled a lot of women who felt called to ministry, preaching ministry. That’s always been good. I’ve always felt really good about being able to do that.
I averaged four classes a quarter, three quarters a year, for four years of my undergraduate. I had one woman [professor]. I had no women in my MDiv. I had no women in my Ph.D.
WACOAN: You had one woman professor during your undergraduate career?
WACOAN: What class was that?
Beck: African-American Cultural Traditions. It’s very different now, but that’s the way it was then. Of all the other classes I had, I had a woman TA a couple of times, and that makes a huge difference in how you teach, Kevin. It really does, because, as you know, when you decided you wanted to teach, you started going through your file in your brain about I will never do that to a student or I will always try to be this in the classroom. And there are very real ways in which men and women differ in how they teach, and if you have no models, it’s hard to feel good about being different.
You know, when I started teaching, I knew I taught very differently and related to my students differently than my male colleagues. But I just thought I was weird. And [the religion department] is blessed with great teachers. We have one of the best pedagogical faculties at the university, as far as I’m concerned. They care about their students. Even now that we’re trying to get to R1 [for very high research activity], our faculty still care about teaching and about the students. But I just had a different way of doing things and dealing with students.
WACOAN: How do you think you dealt with students differently than your male colleagues?
Beck: Let me tell you a story, and then I’ll get specific. Nancy Chen was a professor in the English department, and she sent me an article in the MLA Journal. It has since been included as an essay in a book [‘Calling: Essays on Teaching in the Mother Tongue’] by the author, Gail Griffin.
Gail was a student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and she went to [University of Virginia] for her Ph.D. in English [literature]. She didn’t know that she didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell being hired by UVA. They didn’t have any women in their English department at that time. But she wanted to go back to Michigan. So she went back and started teaching at Kalamazoo, and she kept feeling odd because she had had only male professors at UVA, and she just approached teaching differently.
To kind of break the narrative a bit, I think one of the big differences — and I don’t know if it’s a female-male difference, I really, really don’t. But one of the things I know is different from how I taught, and teach, than my colleagues past and present, I care about the students in a way that makes me take the journey with them. I am not a mile out in front with a megaphone saying, ‘Come here.’ I am walking with them. Sometimes at the front. Sometimes with the stragglers, encouraging them to keep up. But I am walking with them.
Gail Griffin was asked to write a piece on a woman who was the wife of the president of this college for a long time and had a reputation for being a magnificent teacher. She had lived in the 1800s. Griffin couldn’t figure out why on earth this woman was so popular because when there was a celebration of her anniversary of teaching, [at] this little school, hundreds of former students came back to honor her and even more wrote letters. She began to read them, and she came across a note written by this woman. It stated, ‘The mother heart is the center of all great teaching.’
I think it boiled down to the students cared because the professor cared. I don’t know that that really is a difference between men and women. Maybe women, because of how we’re socialized, find it easier to express that, because I know all my colleagues care about their students. It could be the students just relate to us as mother figures. I don’t know. I don’t recall the psychology.
But what happened to Griffin was that when she read that statement for the first time, she realized it was OK not to be like the guys. And when I read that essay, I realized it was OK not to be like the guys. It was OK to have a different kind of pedagogy.
At that time, for example, small group work was not something that you did in 1986. Ours was very much lecture [style]. I just said, OK, I will embrace whatever this is that’s different. But not having any models was problematic. I didn’t have a confident woman, at a time when I was cognizant of the differences, to whom I could look and say, ‘OK. It’s all right not to be like everyone else in my area.’
WACOAN: Why is it important to have women teaching college, and specifically in religion?
Beck: In some parts of the country it would be irrelevant. If you’re in a part of the country where there are no limitations on you, where you’re not marginalized intellectually or academically because of your ethnicity or your gender or your socioeconomic status, then it doesn’t really matter. But I think that women teaching at the college level is very, very important.
I’m talking about women teaching well at the college level because interestingly, Kevin, for example, if a church hires their first woman youth minister and she screws up, the church’s response is, nine times out of 10, ‘That’s what happens when you hire a woman.’ Not, ‘That’s what happens when you hire Jane Doe,’ but, ‘That’s what happens when you hire a woman.’
So I think any university student needs to have both male and female teachers and preferably some teachers from another country so they have to deal with accents and actually learn how to listen and that sort of thing. One, to just realize this world is open to people of all kinds, that even in as stereotypical a world in which you and I live, there are all kinds of folks in this world and it’s open.
In areas where the role of women is debated or set by tradition — and that’s in lots of places, but it’s peculiarly present in the South — a woman in that classroom setting forces students to reevaluate what they’ve been taught. And that’s what I think every good teacher wants to make the students do, not to throw out what they believe until they’ve got something better with which to replace it, but to make them think for themselves. They have got to start analyzing for themselves.
And tradition is fine. I’m an historian. It’d better be fine. But [helping them realize] that everything that affects how we think and how we view the world is open for questions. How you understand people is open for questions. A few years ago I had a student secretary who worked in the summer in one of the projects here in Waco with a kids club. When the fall [semester] started up, she said, ‘Dr. Beck, they didn’t think my blood would be red because I was so different.’
“It has been a pleasure to get to know Rosalie and to work with her. Rosalie has amassed a remarkable teaching legacy. Former students around the world have been shaped by her teaching in the history of the Christian church. Her courses on the place of women in Christian history have had a major impact on women and men who today minister and live as part of the Christian faith. Rosalie has mentored many of these students in influential ways.”
— Dr. Bill Bellinger, chair of the religion department at Baylor
WACOAN: What are some changes you’ve seen at Baylor since you’ve been here?
Beck: Let’s talk about those. The landscaping is great, the physical layout, tons of new buildings. Years ago — I don’t know if she still is the landscape architect for the university — it was a woman for many years, and she began the planting of shaped bushes, Baylor Bears out in Founders Mall and all that sort of stuff. And she started the changing of flowers so that you’ve got flowers almost all year round blooming. And that actually is really, really important because I wish I had a buck for every student I’ve taught who said, ‘I came to Baylor because on my college visit it just felt like where I needed to be.’ The physical appearance has a lot to do with that.
The building of the [McLane Student Life Center]. I was not in favor of it because it was $25 million, and we needed classrooms much worse. But I was wrong because it has been a very attractive feature for students. Kind of like the building of McLane [Stadium], $200 million, however much it costs. That could have been used in so many ways, but it boosted giving for scholarships and academics because development said, ‘OK, you want to give this for the stadium, how about this for the scholarship?’ So our endowment really went up substantially, and I was surprised by that.
And Baylor is more diverse than it was, which I really, really like. I have a friend who teaches at a school in Oakland [California], and it has a substantial African-American population, but it has tons of Hispanics and Asians and so forth. I look at her classes, and I go, oh man, that would be so fun. There’s more variety among the students.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about students is that — and I guess that’s even more true now, even with the increase in tuition — Baylor gives so much scholarship money. This used to be true. I don’t know if it’s still, but for many years, Baylor extended more need-based scholarship money than any other school in the Big 12, which is astonishing. Something like 75% of the students at Baylor at that point were receiving some kind of need-based scholarship. I like that. I like having students who want an education so badly they’ll work two jobs.
They’re as bright as any group of people you could want to be around. They really are.
WACOAN: What was it like to see the first female president at Baylor?
Beck: Wonderful and very surprising. I honestly thought I would die before that happened. Literally. I did think that, so when Linda Livingstone was hired, I was ecstatic. I knew her when she was here as a faculty member. I think we were on the faculty senate together. I was on a committee with her. I didn’t know her well, but I knew her name and the fact that she was really tall. I was delighted.
Even before her though, when they hired Elizabeth Davis as the provost, I was ecstatic because she’s one of the most capable women I’ve ever known. I was really saddened when Furman [University] offered her the presidency. Judge [Ken] Starr was brought in here [as president], and I wouldn’t have wished our regents on Elizabeth. I like her too much. But she had been faculty for years. She had been in administration for a number of years. She was a whiz-bang provost as far as I was concerned.
I was the chair of the senate during her last year as provost, so I had a lot of interaction with her and with Judge Starr, too, and I really wanted them to hire her before they hired Starr. But they hired Starr, and she, I think, realized that was never going to be able to be president at Baylor. So she took the job at Furman, and that was a great loss for the university because I think she was incredibly capable.
WACOAN: What are you doing next, after you retire?
Beck: I’m taking advice of friends, a couple of things. First is, I will not make any major lifestyle decisions like moving to a different location or something like that until I’ve been retired a year, so I can get a sense of the rhythm of retirement. But there are some things I want to do.
I probably will stay in Waco. I own my home. My support system is here. I have no biological children. I’ve been divorced for many years. I’ve got a brother who lives in Harlingen; I’m not interested in living in the valley. This is where I know people, I know the town.
In thinking about the future, what I would like to do is to be more involved in the nonprofit work in Waco. For example, my church, Seventh and James [Baptist Church,] does Meals on Wheels, but I always have classes at the noon hour, so I haven’t been able to do that. I would love to be able to do that. I think doing that and choosing another charity to work with on a volunteer basis will be really, really good.
I also would love to do things like if they need me as an adjunct now and then — because our freshmen enrollment varies depending on how much money we need. [Laughs.] I’ll be happy to take a class every now and then, a freshman class, just to help out.
I do want to be actively involved in Baylor’s lifelong learning program. You don’t get any money for [teaching] that, but I just think it will be fun. I’ve done it a couple of times, and I’ve enjoyed it greatly.
And I want to travel. This summer, I’m spending a month in Asia. I’ll be visiting Vietnam for a couple of weeks; that’s where I was a Journeyman missionary. I was evacuated when the country fell in 1975.
WACOAN: Have you been back since?
Beck: Once, 14 years ago. So it’s about time to go back. I have a friend who doesn’t like Asia; she’s a Europhile. But she said if I’m ever going to go to Asia, I want to go with somebody who knows what they’re doing — so let’s go to Vietnam. But we’re going to also go to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. That’s on my bucket list. Just the idea of acres and acres of these thousand-year-old temples.
I’ll be there for two weeks, and then I’ll be going to Malaysia to teach at the Malaysia Baptist [Theological] Seminary for two weeks. They have intensive one-week courses in the summer for Asian pastors. Because most of them are bivocational, they can’t take off a semester, but they can take off a week. I’ll do that for two weeks, and then I’m coming back here. I’ve got some commitments in August.
WACOAN: Why did you choose now to retire?
Beck: I’ve never had a fixed time in my brain to retire. I thought that I would just teach until I couldn’t do it anymore. Over the last several years I’ve begun to realize that those of us who are senior teachers, senior faculty, perhaps don’t have the right to keep teaching for our own pleasure, that we really do need to make decisions about opening up space for young faculty. That’s the main reason.
The selfish reason is I want to retire while I’m still OK [mentally and physically] so I can enjoy travel because I’ll get to a point where I can’t do that. I’m still figuring out my finances and travel as much as that will allow. But professionally I’m not going to stop doing what I do. I’ll go anywhere and talk with anybody about churches.
I hope to write more. As a matter of fact, I’m not a writer. I love the research, hate the writing. But I think now I might have an interest enough to last through a book project.
And I will leave a niche for a newbie and hope they have as good an experience as I’ve had.
“Rosalie Beck is known to all as a master teacher (whether she won the official award or not). She loved students, invested time in them, and they loved her in return. She introduced so many students to the important role that women have played in the history of Christianity, and she taught, affirmed and modeled the best of the Baptist heritage — beliefs in voluntary faith, church commitment, priesthood of all believers, faithful dissent of conscience and the separation of church and state. She was a wonderful colleague who will be greatly missed in the halls of Tidwell.”
— Dr. Doug Weaver, religion professor and professor of Baptist studies
WACOAN: What’s something that you hope you’ve taught your students over the years?
Beck: Tolerance. Tolerance for difference. I’ve realized that throughout human history — not just Christian history, but human history — one of the things that humans do not deal with well and that has caused wars and holocausts and genocides is difference. That when we see difference, we seem to automatically value it as better or worse than we are.
For example, with the issue of racism, I don’t want to ever say I don’t see color. I want to say I see color and that doesn’t matter because difference makes the world exciting. You know, it’s like spice in a good dish. It just brings out the flavor of humanity. But I hope to help the students through the years to be able to acknowledge difference and not automatically judge it. They may have to come to a judgment because there are some differences that can’t be tolerated. But by and large their job is to figure out if it’s just a God-given difference, like different colors and different textures in the creation, or if it is a difference that has profound implications for good or for ill. I hope that’s been something.
For my Christian students, actually for any student I have who has a serious commitment to religion, but especially for my Christian students, I hope that when they have left my classes, they are unabashedly Christian and not apologetic intellectually for being a Christian. That they have learned to love God with their minds as they’re supposed to.
WACOAN: What is something you have learned from your students?
Beck: Oh, Lordy. [Laughs.] What springs to mind first, Kevin, is that as we get older — and I think this is of everybody, not just professors — we forget what the basic questions are, and we don’t realize we probably never answered them. Students make me go back to the basic questions.
That’s why I always teach freshmen. I have at least one freshman class every year, and for the last few years I’ve had one every semester that they ask questions that I quit asking, but just quit asking rather than often coming to a real conclusion or real answer to the question.
They keep me engaged with my world. They force me to pay attention to technology so I’m not a Luddite. They are gracious when I make a social faux pas about a singer or a movie or something like that.
WACOAN: You play music before your classes, don’t you?
Beck: Yeah, I play a different song every day. The only thing that is always the same about my music is it’s always female artists — not always female writers but female singers. That’s very deliberate and just has to do with me trying to find balance for my students because they’re not going to hear a lot of female artists out on the airwaves. But they come to my class, and they will hear everyone from the Andrews Sisters to Beyonce and lots of folks they’ve never heard before.
For example, today we studied Latin American Christianity in the 20th century, liberation theology, Pentecostal growth. So I played Selena, ‘Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.’
I play one song before class, and I play a song as they’re exiting the classroom. Sometimes students will make recommendations. Last semester I had a student who actually would play from his iPhone; he would plug it in. He always had good music. It was all Christian music, which wasn’t my shtick, but it was good. It was well thought-out music. That’s just been a fun part.
I did that initially as a focusing mechanism because one, it loosens them up, especially if they like the music. But it gets them out of the norm of their life, especially if I’m playing Billie Holiday. And when I turn it off, class starts.
It’s really funny. When I play a song like from ‘Moana’ or ‘Frozen,’ that they grew up on when they were kids, they just go berserk. They just love it. I had a student actually try to teach me that cup game from ‘Pitch Perfect’ once. I played that one day.
It’s also cool when they liked the music, but they’d never heard of the artist. I have one album by a British artist named Basia. I’ve never heard of her here in this country, but I was at a conference in England in the late ’80s and heard some of her music there and found a copy of one of her CDs in a used bookstore. She has the most incredible voice. It’s a real smoky voice. It’s almost a Roberta Flack kind of voice. I always have students who want to know who she is.
Her album ‘Promises’ is the one I have, and it’s kind of like soft blues.
WACOAN: Are you reading anything good right now?
Beck: Yeah, I am. I’ve begun to reread some of the classics that I have enjoyed. I love murder mysteries. That’s what I read when I’m not reading in my area. But right now I’m reading ‘Salt’ [by Mark Kurlansky], which is the history of salt, and I’m rereading ‘Dakota’ by Kathleen Norris. I really like that book. She writes crystal-clear passages.
My murder mystery is about academia. It’s written by Amanda Cross, whose real name is Carolyn Heilbrun. She taught at Columbia [University] for many, many years and wrote murder mysteries on the side, all set in academia. I read one called ‘Death in a Tenured Position’ right when I was going up for tenure. It was not a happy experience.
I love Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and I really enjoy reading well-written history, like ‘Undaunted Courage’ by Stephen Ambrose, about the Lewis and Clark expedition. I don’t read many modern novels. I’m at a point where serious thinking when I read is not what I read for. I read for pleasure.
WACOAN: When I was in your class a … few … years back, I sat close to the front of the room, and there was a platform where you stood and taught. You always wore a dress to class, and I seem to remember a small tattoo on your leg. Is that correct?
Beck: Yeah. It’s commonplace now. I got it the summer before I started teaching. I was in Maine. I had always wanted one.
I grew up [around] the Marine Corps. My dad was in the Corps for 26 years, so I grew up around tattoos my whole life. We were always around Navy guys, and they generally had tattoos even back then, and some of the Marines did. I just always thought it was cool. So I just thought, ‘OK. I’m starting a new part of my life, [I’ll get a tattoo].’
I was in Maine visiting some friends and went to Old Orchard Beach and was walking along the main street there. It’s a wonderful little town. I walked by this tattoo parlor. It was spick-and-span. So I chose the smallest tattoo they had that wasn’t a skull and crossbones, and I said, ‘I want that on my ankle.’ It’s a rose.
A really funny story. I had a student years ago. Her dad told me a story about her. I was at a meeting speaking, and he introduced himself and we got to talking. He was a pastor, and he said, ‘You know, [my daughter] had the greatest respect for you for weeks because you could get a monogrammed hose in exactly the same place every day.’ He said she was so disappointed when she found out it was a tattoo. I saw her on campus a few weeks later, and I looked at her and grinned. She said, ‘You talked to my dad, didn’t you?’ She was so disappointed.
WACOAN: Did you get any other tattoos?
Beck: No, but I’m going to try to get one this summer. I reckon I got one when I was 35 because that was when I started on faculty, and I’m retiring at 70, so every 35 years. If I live to be 105, I’ll get another one. I think this time I want to get a wristlet of Celtic knots. Not big. And I chose the smallest one because I’m not into pain. I have a friend who lived in New York City for many years, and he said one of the funniest signs he ever saw was a tattoo parlor in Greenwich Village that says, ‘Tattoos, with or without pain.’
WACOAN: They can’t be done without pain. That’s just part of the deal.
Beck: But I may not do it because I give blood regularly and you have to wait for a certain amount of time before you can give blood after a tattoo.