Biblical studies in Chicago is really male, really white

As I’ve pointed out before, there are not a lot of women in biblical studies. Or at least that’s my impression. Then again, I might have a weird sample – maybe only Loyola is boy crazy. Or maybe Catholic universities are. So I looked at the Bible faculty at 15 Chicago area schools. As always, a more formal study is warranted: I picked these 15 more or less because I could list them off the top of my head, but they constitute a big slice of Chicago biblical studies faculty.

Altogether there were 65 tenure-track professors (no visiting professors, instructors, or lecturers were included) specializing in biblical studies (which I gathered from their publishing history). I discerned whether they were male or not, and also white or not. There is always room for error here – a survey in which they could self-identify would be preferable. However, given these caveats, I just wanted to do a spot-check of what proportion of Bible scholars was white, and what proportion was male.

Percent of Chicago biblical scholars who are (apparently) male: 74%

Percent of population who are male: 48%

Oddly, although this is grossly tilted toward men, it isn’t as bad as I thought. Granted, I work in an all-male-TT department. The year I entered doctoral studies at LUC (2011) was the last time a woman was admitted into New Testament program, the very brilliant Nelida Naveros-Cordova, now at LaRoche College in Pittsburgh. Since then, total sausage fest. Still, 74% men is heavily skewed.

Percent of Chicago biblical scholars who are (apparently) white: 86%

Percent of population who are white: 64%

Again, I work in an all-white-TT department so this isn’t terribly surprising. But there is an obvious skew toward one demographic.

Over 60% are both, i.e. white men (rough population ratio, 31%).

Only three Chicago biblical scholars were neither white, nor men: Stephanie Bukhanon Crowder and Seung Ai Yang at Chicago Theological Seminary, and Elizabeth Sung at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

There are some factors that contribute to this skew:

More conservative churches, and the colleges they run, are unlikely to encourage women to go into biblical studies – women shouldn’t have authority over men and all that. Since colleges connected to these churches are likely to hire from within their own tradition, they are also more likely to hire men. But what about more progressive departments, which are still heavily skewed male? And why so white?

This may have to do with privilege. It takes roughly 11 or 12 years to work through a PhD in biblical studies, often longer. During that time, working full time is rough if not impossible, and one may accrue quite a bit of student debt through undergraduate and master’s degrees that may be unfunded. Someone needs to have the ingrained confidence that he or she will be all right financially, that the system will eventually work for them, even with a twelve year break from building wealth. This may be a feeling that white men are more likely to have than others, given the (longstanding) distribution of wealth in America. I know, for example, my wife’s family, who are first generation immigrants, views me as a bit silly and irresponsible for pursuing work in this field without the promise of significant financial gain at the end of my studies. If the economy or the political situation ever hits the fan, she will have accrued wealth and valuable skills as a medical doctor. I will be able to read several dead languages and to voice strong opinions on teaching strategies. In other words, my wife will be welcomed by societies that need her skillset, and I will be digging ditches. As a privileged person, there is simply no tangible reality to this threat, whereas for someone who knows, or whose family knows, that economies can fail, or can fail to work for us, the threat is much more real. The uncertainty and financially unrewarding nature of academics may be more likely a deal-breaker. This may be (maybe) why the doctoral applicant pool to LUC got a lot whiter and a lot dudier when the recession hit.

I’m not arguing against white guys in biblical studies. I am one, and I’m the bee’s knees (or so I tell myself). But non-white and/or non-cisgendered-male people bring important new perspectives to the field, and their inclusion combats the cultural isolation that biblical studies imposes on itself. The field is significantly skewed, and many would think it is as it should be. For those who don’t, however, it is worth taking the time to spot-check what the actual numbers are from time to time.