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Elizabeth A. Clark

Shaping an Entire Field

ClarkElizabeth A. Clark received her B.A. from Vassar College in 1960, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1962 and 1965, respectively.  In addition, she received an S.T.D., honoris causa, from the University of Uppsala in 2001. Professor Clark joined the faculty of the Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia in 1964, founding its Department of Religion and eventually serving as its chairperson. She remained there until 1982 when, after spending the spring semester as a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she joined the Duke faculty as a professor in the Department of Religion. She currently holds dual appointments at Duke: John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Professor of History.

Professor Clark specializes in the field of Christianity, and she is widely credited with having a transforming influence on its study.

Professor Clark helped make the male-centered field of ‘patristics’ into a vibrant field of ‘Christianity in Late Antiquity,’ and she continues to support all young scholars in the field while giving particular attention to women and others who have not traditionally been in the majority.

Her transforming influence is attributed partly to her own scholarly evolution, during which her interest in the application of other disciplines’ methodologies to her own led her first to feminist historiography, next to social network theory, then to poststructuralist literary criticism. In her current work on the creation of ‘patristics’ in nineteenth-century America, she uses models from reception studies to explain the genesis of her field as a modern discipline. However, her influence is not bound by her own scholarly endeavors, but is amplified by the impressive graduate students she mentors who enter the field.

I have heard on repeated occasions that Professor Clark has shaped the field of Late Antiquity at least as much through the scholars she has mentored as through her own renowned research.

Professor Clark’s mentorship is legendary; she “is renowned throughout this country and abroad as one of the best mentors in her field.” Her well-deserved reputation is built on a mentoring model that, while setting the bar high, ensures that the individual is equipped to reach it.

Encouraging her students from the beginning to grow beyond their undergraduate work, she models and requires thorough, lengthy writing projects, and comments critically on draft after draft, helping her students improve not only their research, language, and writing skills, but also the professional habits of scholarship that will carry them forward in their own careers . . . . Beyond coursework, she continues to support her students fully and to professionalize them. She encourages her students to begin presenting their work nationally (and internationally) as soon as she thinks they are ready, and she helps her students get their work published whenever possible.

I have watched Dr. Clark’s students go through a kind of ‘system’ and can attest to why she is widely regarded among doctoral students as one of the best mentors in the Graduate Program in Religion. Dr. Clark’s students typically take all the courses she offers on a regular basis; meet for, then facilitate, a reading group on the latest texts in the field; master an enormous preliminary exams reading list; produce very detailed dissertation proposals that significantly accelerate the dissertation writing process; TA for at least one of her undergraduate courses, then teach one course of their own; organize a local academic conference  . . . ; present multiple times at conferences; publish in top journals; receive . . . fellowships; get jobs.

By the time they graduate, Dr. Clark’s students have gained extensive familiarity with both the classic topics and latest scholarship in the field, valuable teaching and administrative experience, a strong network of academic contacts, and a budding publication and presentation record.

But this successful “system” is far from being a mere to-do list that allows the student to achieve academic success. At every step along the way, and in every capacity, Professor Clark initiates her students into her extended academic family, opening her home to them for monthly reading groups where her graduate students learn to discuss recent scholarship critically alongside local faculty in the field, and integrating them into her extensive and supportive network. 

At the major conference in the discipline, Dr. Clark actively introduces and advertises her students to other scholars; she and her cohort of current and former students (who dominate this conference) make a concerted effort to attend each other’s presentations.

Former students also are quick to welcome Professor Clark’s current students to the field.

Since accepting Duke’s offer, I have met and been embraced as a colleague by literally dozens of her students, both past and present. Their encouragement, interest in my work, and ready collegiality has had a dramatic and positive impact upon both my scholarship and my time at Duke. It is entirely to Professor Clark’s credit that she has succeeded in fostering such a sense of community and dedication amongst her students. . . .

Professor Clark is a rare scholar whose mentoring has created a vast community of former and current students that continues to grow. That she inspires a “remarkable level of loyalty . . . testifies to their appreciation for her efforts,” and if “[a] good mentor mentors her students, [and] a great mentor mentors an entire field,” then to say that her mentorship exemplifies greatness is indeed true.