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Mills College’s Dr. Judith Bishop: what you did and didn’t know

Associate Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Judith Bishop
Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Judith Bishop

“Majestic,” “crystal clear,” “compassionate,” “life-changing” are the adjectives splashed on describing Dr. Judith Bishop, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Religious Studies. Despite the rave reviews, Dr. Bishop is one of the eleven faculty members targeted for termination under the current Financial Stabilization Plan. The layoff of beloved ranked and tenured professors will irreparably unstitch the fabric and wellness of the Mills Community.

Dr. Bishop’s impact reverberates through generations of Mills alumna—I first heard Dr. Bishop’s name when my friend Kiya Komaiko (class of 2011) mentioned her to me, 10 years before I transferred to Mills.

“Dr. Bishop is an amazing mentor and teacher,” Komaiko said. “She transformed the way I thought about religion, which ultimately inspired my senior thesis. She helped me realize I had potential at a time in my life when I had little self confidence, and for that I will be forever grateful. Dr. Bishop is the epitome of what Mills embodies. She encourages students to expand their knowledge and challenge their beliefs, while ultimately helping students transform into people with greater social and political awareness. Dr. Bishop’s approach to teaching and mentoring exemplifies the reasons I chose Mills.”

This raises a crucial point: The study of religion at Mills, and elsewhere in higher education, is essential for promoting critical thinking and informed civic engagement. Religious identities—personal, local, and global—have received escalating attention in both community and global affairs. Students who have the opportunity to critically explore the intersections of belief systems and cultures are better equipped to fulfill the Mills’ goal of excellence in local and global leadership. The academic study of religion also raises fundamental questions about humanity. What is the nature of human beings? What is the place of human beings in the cosmos?

Bishop’s classroom creates a unique forum for addressing issues of ultimate meaning. It gives students a space to address moral dilemmas thoughtfully, intentionally, seriously—notions of “good” and “evil” in the world, living and dying; issues of peace, social justice, equality. Her work embodies the intersection of essential generosity, masterful pedagogy, and incisive expertise spanning academic fields, stitching social discursive fabric. It is this expertise that brought national attention to Mills in 2015 when Bishop was granted the Excellence in Teaching Award from the American Academy of Religion for excellence in teaching and leadership in the academic study of religion.

You may not know that her family would “eat cheap and scrimp for five to seven years” in order to spend three months traipsing through Europe in a camp-mobile, then Greece, then Israel, where thirteen-year old Bishop participated in an archeological dig.

“I had the opportunity to see a lot of different expressions of religion, from a very young age,” Bishop said. “I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of religion and culture; by the influence of religion and religious systems on the construction of gender, and the ways in which many religious movements, in their beginning, were locations for women to practice counter-cultural empowerment. A distinctive aspect of the Mills Religious Studies program is a strong emphasis on women and religion.  Courses in this emphasis centralize the voices of women in religious traditions and engage feminist critiques of racial and androcentric bias in the academic study of religion.”

You may not know that Dr. Bishop’s unique ability to act as a conduit creating direct connections between class texts and personal, lived experience stems, in part, from her life-long involvement with the Deaf community.

Upon graduating from Baylor University with a Bachelor of arts with three majors (English, Spanish, and theater), Bishop joined a group of Deaf young adults working with undocumented Deaf youth along the Texas-Mexico border.

“The purpose of our group was to showcase the young adult Deaf leaders, and to let the undocumented Deaf youth see that you don’t have to be hearing to be a leader. You don’t have to be hearing to make a difference in the world,” she said.

As an interpreter, Bishop facilitated interaction between Deaf youth and hearing society.

“This experience fundamentally shaped my understanding of social justice and privilege— the privilege of hearing, the privilege of citizenship, language, and the power of ally-ship,” Bishop said.

As an interpreter, she became closely attuned to language, and to how human beings structure communication. Because she grew up in and out of Spanish-speaking households, Bishop was personally familiar with the concept of linguistic code-switching—“when bilingual-bicultural people switch from one language to another within a narrative or grammatical unit.” Later, as a scholar writing about seventh, eighth and ninth-century Irish and Latin texts, Bishop observed how and when the languages switched, applying a modern analysis of code-switching to the text, demonstrating that the observed linguistic pattern was intentional code-switching as practiced by bilingual-bicultural people. This finding gathered international acclaim at the 13th International Congress of Celtic Studies, in Bonn, Germany and is the basis for a chapter in her current book manuscript, “The Many Lives of Brigit:  Context and Contestation in Early Medieval Ireland.”

Bishop promotes individual and societal enlightenment by acting as a conduit for unprecedented understanding amongst her students and colleagues alike. At the end of each semester, Dr. Bishop asks her students to jot down “take-aways” from the semester:

“I’ve never actually found religion interesting before this class, or enjoyable to discuss,” one student said.

“This class taught me to look at religion and not just see a religion: Religion influences culture, the economy, personal relationships, politics,” another student said. “It’s not that I didn’t understand that it has a broader effect on society, but more how much it affects it.”

Bishop’s impact extends beyond her classroom: “I found myself in physical pain from an unknown source that had me in the hospital multiple times within a few weeks span,” Joy Robinson ’18 said. “Dr. Bishop reached out to me and supported me through it. I have never experienced a professor exhibit that much care. As I got better, she worked with me to get my grade up, as I feared I was going to fail. She extended herself past her role as a professor. She helped me actually understand the material. If it weren’t for Dr. Bishop, I would have dropped out from Mills during my first semester due to my illness; she kept me here through her grace.”

“The opportunity to teach is the reason I chose my profession,” Bishop said. “To provide an environment where students and teachers can fearlessly debate ideas and still fearlessly hold identities and values in a context of respectful give-and-take is the gold standard for teaching. The opportunity for myself and everyone in the classroom to open ourselves to challenge and enlightenment, to think in new ways, to enter into another’s person’s thought process and see from that how I am imprinted on my own thought process—this is the strength of a liberal arts education.”

If the Financial Stabilization Plan is implemented, the value of a Mills liberal arts education will decrease, as students choose Mills (in part) because of the professors, eleven of which are targeted for termination.

“I learn from my students. I am inspired by my students. I am inspired by the way my students interact with me and with others. I am inspired by the way my students interact with the world,” Bishop said. “The opportunity to engage in dialogue around both classical and new texts with Mills students who bring so much passion, so much life experience, so much vision to the discussions is a privilege and a great joy.”