Spotlight on: Professor Susan Ackerman '80

By Emma Moley | 1/26/12 11:21am



Raised in a non-re li gious fam ily in Arkansas, pro fes sorSusan Ack er man'80 was con fronted with two ex tremes grow ing up: those who were “dis dain ful” to ward re li gion and those who thought about it in an “un crit i cal way, leav ing in tel li gence be hind," she said.

Now a pro fes sor and chair of the Col lege’s re li gion de part ment, Susan Ack er man stands out as a pi o neer in her field, par tic u larly for her re search in as pects of Mid dle East ern re li gions that have pre vi ously re mained un ex plored.

For ex am ple, in her up com ing book, which has the work ing title “Mir rors, Drums and Trees”, Ack er man will ex plore how ob jects, pri mar ily mir rors, have been un con ven tion ally used in Mid dle East ern re li gions, a topic very few schol ars have con sid ered study ing.

“I’m the only per son who has this ob ses sion with mir rors,” Ack er man said.

Mir rors were placed in tombs of both men and women of all ages, which demon strates that they were not solely used for beauty pur poses. She hy poth e sizes that the mir rors served as weapons to ward off demons. Ack er man sus pects that the mir rors were used fac ing away from the user in order to force demons to view their own re flec tion and flee in fear.

Be fore Ack er man can com mit her time to this topic, how ever, she must fin ish her book on women and the re li gion of an cient Is rael, which she hopes will be re leased by 2013.

Ack er man’s in ter est in her field de vel oped through a com bi na tion of her back ground and her Dart mouth ex pe ri ence.

At Dart mouth, from which she grad u ated in 1980, Ack er man first took a re li gion course to learn more about the sub ject. Ack er man said she was “blown away” by her pro fes sor, who nei ther scorned nor blindly fol lowed re li gion. Dart mouth was a “dif fer ent world” from her Arkansas pub lic school, and her pro fes sors opened up that world to Ack er man.

Ack er man said that many of her pro fes sors “cared so much about me and gave so much of them selves to help me learn. That was un be liev able.”

De spite this “fan tas tic ed u ca tion,” Ack er man de scribes her Dart mouth ex pe ri ence as "The Tale of Two Cities" ex pe ri ence — it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The late 1970s were a "rough time so cially for women at Dart mouth,” Ack er man said. “There was a rigidly man dated quota of three men for every one women,” cre at ing “a com pletely ab nor mal so cial en vi ron ment.”

Added Ack er man: “It was a real chal lenge to man age that."

Nev er the less, the at trac tion of the prospect of teach ing along side for mer pro fes sors pulled Ack er man away from a “pro fes sion ally re ally good place” at the Uni ver sity of Ari zona and brought her to Dart mouth in 1990.

“I wanted to be their col league,” Ack er man said of her Dart mouth men tors.

As for main tain ing a bal ance be tween teach ing and re search ing, Ack er man usu ally ded i cates all her ef forts to one area. She finds it dif fi cult to write about some thing if she has to spend a sig nif i cant part of the day teach ing about top ics ir rel e vant to her re search. The op po site is also true: Ack er man fo cuses all her at ten tion on stu dents dur ing her teach ing terms.

“When I’m teach ing, I tend to put my re search on the back burner,” she said.

Ack er man has found that most stu dents who major in re li gion are very sim i lar to her in that "they never thought they’d do this.” In her 22 years of teach ing, Ack er man has only had six stu dents ap proach the de part ment in the fall of their fresh men year al ready know ing that they wanted to major in re li gion.

“It just doesn’t hap pen,” she said.

For her stu dents, Ack er man hopes that they will ex pe ri ence re ward ing re la tion ships with pro fes sors sim i lar to the ones she formed in her un der grad u ate ca reer.

“The stu dents who thrive the most here are those who de velop good per sonal one-on-one re la tion ships with pro fes sors," Ack er man said. "This gives Dart mouth the in ti macy of stu­dent-fac ulty in ter ac tions."

This process is not easy. Though stu dents are paired with a first year ad viser, Ack er man likens these cou plings to blind dates: “Most don’t work out.”

“You re ally have to find a per son whose in ter ests and per son al ity in ter sects with yours and who you enjoy spend ing time with," Ack er man said. "It’s like find ing friends.”

Click here foraudioof Ack er man’s com men tary on the As syr ian re liefs at the Hood.

Emma Moley