Yonder Gillihan earned a BA (1996) and an MA (1998) from Ball State University, both in History, and studied Classics, creative writing, and sculpture along the way. In 2007, Yonder completed his Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago; he has been a full-time member of the Theology Department at Boston College since 2005, where he is now an Associate Professor. He served as President of the New England/Eastern Canada Region of the Society of Biblical Literature (2018-2019) and currently serves as President of the AAUP chapter at Boston College.
The following interview was conducted by Thaddeus Lee.
What did you study while you were at Ball State?
In 1996 I graduated with a BA in History, with minors in Classics and Studio Arts (sculpture) and Creative Writing, and in 1998 I graduated with an MA in History. During my MA in History, I served as a Teaching Assistant in the Classics Department. My work in History and Classics prepared me extremely well for graduate school at the University of Chicago, which is where I did another MA and a Ph.D. in the New Testament and Early Christian Literature program.
What is your career now?
I am an Associate Professor in the Theology Department at Boston College, where I teach and do research on a variety of topics related to Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, from about 200 BCE to 200 CE.
What does a typical week in your position look like?
Let me describe this semester’s teaching schedule: MWF I teach my Core class to 40 students, from 12-1. On Monday nights I teach a 3-hour seminar on race, freedom, and the Bible in America at a medium-security state prison, for BC’s Prison Education Program. Department meetings fall on Wednesday evenings, and AAUP chapter meetings take place on Thursday evenings. On Friday mornings our Ph.D. colloquium meets to review student and faculty scholarships. I try to get the grading done in the evenings; if I have free time during the day, I try to use it to make progress on articles and teaching materials that I’m writing. On weekends and Thursdays during the day (except once per month, when the Provost’s Advisory Council meets from 8:30-10, as it will tomorrow morning!) I try to spend as much time as possible writing. (Currently, I’m actively working on an article on the origins of the Book of Daniel, and on a book about the Bible for my undergraduate and graduate students.)
What are the most valuable skills you learned in your major?
In History and in Classics I learned the centrality of storytelling to being human. I learned the value of patient listening for the sake of understanding. I also got to confront my strong habits of listening to see if I agree or disagree, instead of listening to understand.
What is your advice to other Humanities students?
Treasure your own stories, and recognize that they inevitably, without exception, connect inextricably to the stories of every other being. If you wish to understand your own story — the experience of existence and life that is uniquely yours — you should seek to understand the environment of stories within which your story unfolds. Share and receive stories without worrying whether they are consistent or contradictory. Trust that the whole truly holds everything, including everything that seems to contradict. When you listen, prioritize understanding, and show the person who speaks that what matters to them is important to you. When you speak, prioritize clarity above cleverness. Above all, treat your own ideas with tenderness, curiosity, and a sense of humor. Get to know what they are, and make them better when you can. Don’t believe most of them, but don’t be frustrated with them, either: after all, they are trying to help, and they aren’t lying to you on purpose!
How does it contribute to your life outside of work as well?
Human beings are creatures who know, and who know that their knowledge is incomplete; therefore we are always seeking to improve our knowing-selves by seeking more complete knowledge. If that’s true, which I reckon it is, then I’m in the best position in the world!
Critical thinking skills seem always to come in handy. Recently I’ve practiced extending the discipline of being curious and prioritizing understanding above agreement, to conversations with family and neighbors and others, about politics. It alarms me to see how easily we reject each other and turn away from each other when we sense disagreement about any number of topics. This habit of daily life deserves to be interrupted, and one good way to do so might be to cultivate “academic curiosity” about the experience and convictions of others.
How would aspiring student writers proceed with publishing their scientific work?
Get to know working scholars at Ball State, and ask them this question! Besides your own interest and ability, mentorship is a crucial factor for success. At Ball State, I got to know my mentors by taking classes with them, hanging around their offices during office hours, and asking them for advice on my projects. Folks like Christine Shea, Abel Alves, and Tony Edmonds showed me things that gripped my imagination and inspired me to want to know more; they also had the patience and skill to show me how to follow in their footsteps.
Dr. Alves mentioned you sent him a lovely tribute to Tony Edmonds after his passing. Would you be willing to share some of those thoughts with us?
Here is what I wrote to Abel Alves, after receiving his notification about Tony’s passing:
Your reminiscing about Dr. Edmonds’ wanderings was funny and familiar. I recall going to get signatures from him for various programs, and always having to track him down. He was always around and available, and always appreciated the very real help that he could offer.
I was not in touch with him enough. It pains me to recall how silent I was toward him, after departing BC. I wish I had reached out to him and to Joann more. But I did cultivate a relationship with Dr. Edmonds, as my mentor in teaching, from the day that I began teaching at Ball State, to the present.
Dr. Edmonds has lived and lives in my heart as truly as any heart-dwelling-being can live. His example as my teacher has followed me into every teaching situation. I mean this in a literal way, without exaggerating: since I began teaching for the BSU Classics Department in 1996, until this year, my 16th in the BC Theology Department, I have thought about Dr. Edmonds almost every time that I enter a classroom.
Why think about Dr. Edmonds? The most obvious is the one that I’ll mention first: he was WONDERFUL. Think of your own superlative. All of them are completely true. He was a wonderful, gifted, generous, captivating, inspiring teacher. His way of telling history as the story made us, his students, recognize our own stories as part of human history. Thinking of his love of story and of storytelling and of those to whom to tell stories, I aspired to be like him.
A second thing that I remember when I think of Dr. Edmonds as a teacher is his socks. Bright, entertaining, and always moving in support of his wandering, up and down the terraced aisles of the Burkhardt Building’s big lecture halls. Good humor at the foundation of all of his activities.
When I think of Dr. Edmonds I remember his great teaching, style, and sense of humor. These are what I remember, but they are not why I remember Dr. Edmonds.
Why I remember Dr. Edmonds is because, in my mind, his example showed what courageous teaching looks like, and his example gave me the courage to overcome anxieties in my own teaching. What I remember about him that has helped me most in my own teaching, what I have meditated on for twenty-five years of teaching, from BSU to the U of C to Yale, Dartmouth, and Boston College, is a vivid memory of a slight tremble of nervousness in Dr. Edmonds’ voice, at the start of many lectures. In my memory, it is only there at the beginning, in his first words to get our attention and start the lecture. He speaks, his voice trembles just a little, betraying some jitters, some anxiety, something that feels familiar — and then he keeps speaking, the class gets going, and the animated, interactive history-telling gets underway.
I admit, readily, that this personal history might be just that — a personal reordering of phenomena into a story that is useful for me. What I told myself was that this genius of a teacher is not able to be a genius because he lacks nervousness, or insecurity, or anxiety, or caffeine jitters, whatever — this genius is able to be a genius because he does not allow his normal human anxieties to disturb him. They come, he allows them to move through his voice, they move through, and they are gone. When I imagined that Dr. Edmonds achieved wonderful teaching, even in the presence of anxieties, I managed to take my own anxieties less seriously.
Maybe it’s true — maybe Dr. Edmonds did experience and overcome some version of the anxieties that I have long felt, but maybe not. I regret — more than regret, I grieve the fact that I cannot ask Dr. Edmonds now, myself. But this pause to remember Dr. Edmonds reminds me of how many who knew him, like me, live still and are surely available as living informants. I am very much looking forward to hearing their recollections and getting to know Dr. Edmonds again through the words of others.
If you wish to connect with Yonder, you can do so via LinkedIn.