Having worked in academia for the past two decades, I often take for granted the myriad opportunities it provides for substantive discussion and debate, ubiquitous reading suggestions casually tossed out in hallway conversations, and routinely scheduled lectures and workshops. Like most, I went into teaching as much for that milieu as for anything else this career brings.
These intellectual activities and the scholarly communities that embody them, we well know, are not typical beyond the university’s walls. Even still, I firmly believe that such exchanges matter for all people, in or out of the academy, especially for Christians who are called to love God with our whole self, mind included. For that reason, I am pleased to share the following interview with Melissa Cain Travis, founder and president of the Society for Women of Letters, an initiative intent on extending such conversations well beyond institutional confines and of which I am a contributing member.
Tell us a little about yourself, including your academic background and teaching/scholarly experience.
I grew up as a preacher’s kid in the rural south, where I had little exposure to the intellectual aspects of Christianity. I attended public schools and earned a full academic scholarship to a Christian university. After finishing my undergraduate degree in biology, I entered the field of biotechnology as a research associate, genotyping mice and processing genetic data. I planned to apply to graduate school once my husband completed his technical training, and I considered several paths, including medicine. However, through many theological and philosophical conversations with my biotech coworkers, I came to realize what fascinated me most about the natural sciences were meta-level questions that science itself cannot answer—philosophical questions about the rationality of nature and cosmic and biological origins.
As a stay-at-home mom after the birth of my first son, I used my precious few hours of downtime for self-study. I read everything I could related to the science and faith intersection, and I continued to cultivate my lifelong love of great literature. Eventually, I discovered Biola’s MA in Science and Religion program and began working on my master’s while homeschooling our kindergartener and caring for a toddler still in diapers. It was a crazy, exhausting time! Over those three years, I found my intellectual niche in philosophy and the history of science. I then pursued doctoral studies in Faulkner University’s Great Books humanities program, which deepened my appreciation for interdisciplinary studies and enhanced my ability to integrate the philosophy, theology, and imaginative literature of the Western Tradition with contemporary apologetics.
From 2014 through 2021, I served on the faculty at Houston Baptist University (HBU), teaching philosophy and apologetics. Since then, I’ve been writing curriculum and teaching for the Lee Strobel Center for Evangelism and Applied Apologetics at Colorado Christian University. In addition to teaching, I do quite a bit of writing. In 2018, Harvest House published my book, Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals About God, and then the following year I contributed to the beautiful volume entitled The Story of the Cosmos: How the Heavens Declare the Glory of God. I’m currently working on final revisions of my next book, which will come out later this year—Thinking God’s Thoughts: Johannes Kepler and the Miracle of Cosmic Comprehensibility. I also regularly contribute to Christian Research Journal, and I’ve recently joined the core writers team at The Worldview Bulletin.
What is the Society for Women of Letters? Who else is involved?
The Society for Women of Letters (SWL) is an organization established for two over-arching purposes: 1) building camaraderie and professional synergy among Christian women who are active in humane disciplines such as literature, philosophy, history, and theology, and 2) offering all Christian women an opportunity to develop a robust life of the mind through an interactive community that includes working Christian scholars.
I serve as the Founding President of the SWL, and our Leadership Council includes four other scholars. Dr. Julie Miller specializes in the philosophical questions related to transhumanism and artificial intelligence and currently serves in the Texas A&M chapter of Ratio Christi, a campus apologetics ministry. Annie Crawford (MA, HBU) is a cultural apologist and classical educator whose research focuses on C.S. Lewis’s understanding of gender as well as story, sex, and science in the context of modern culture. Annie Nardone (MA, HBU) is an author and educator whose academic interests include medieval literature and the work of the Inklings. Megan Rials, JD, is an attorney by vocation but is currently completing a graduate degree in cultural apologetics. Her research focuses upon the apologetic power of language and storytelling, the theology of suffering, and the function of memory in spiritual formation.
The SWL also includes a select group of scholars known as the Bluestockings in Residence—women who are doing excellent work in their respective fields. Professional profiles may be found on our website, societyforwomenofletters.com.
Why have you narrowed the focus to women? What value is there in targeting that group, and what benefits do you foresee in creating this community?
As a Christian woman working in academia and public philosophy, I’ve made two observations that gave me my original vision for the SWL: 1) many Christian women desire discipleship in the life of the mind but need inspiring female fellowship and 2) Christian women writers and educators face widespread isolation and loneliness, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Conversations with women in my circles convinced me that a society designed to create intellectual community, foster collaboration, and offer regular opportunities for meaningful, live interaction would likely flourish.
Because we are a collective working for a common purpose, our beacon becomes far brighter and draws attention to the wonderful work being done by women in the humanities. Moreover, we are more visible to women in the church pews who need motivation towards the intellectual virtues and Christian guidance in their independent study.
What are some of the initiatives you have undertaken, and what future plans do you have in the works? If there were no constraints holding you back (financial or otherwise), what are your most ambitious goals for the Society?
In the few short months since our official launch, we have instituted a quarterly literary gathering called Bluestocking Salon, which typically features an author interview and live Q&A. In addition, we host a monthly discussion group known as Bluestocking Hall that focuses upon shorter works of literature, philosophy, or theology. Both salons and halls are interdisciplinary, examining a wide variety of humane works, everything from classic literature to contemporary philosophy.
The cornerstone of the SWL is our annual Symposium, which brings together members (and potential members) in a beautiful setting for an extended weekend of lectures, discussion, leisurely fellowship, outdoor recreation, and spiritual refreshment. It’s designed to attract a diversity of thinkers, from independent learners and church ministry leaders to professional educators, published authors, and public scholars.
We have big dreams at SWL! Topping our wish list are a quality podcast and a semi-academic magazine to feature articles, stories, and poetry from society leaders and members. Given the right venue and sufficient funding, we would love to institute a summer program for college-age young women with a pronounced interest in the humanities. Ideally, the program would take place on the campus of a Christian university, and SWL leadership would create a fun yet intellectually rich experience meant to cultivate the students’ faith and inform their academic aspirations. Finally, we hope that SWL could someday offer paid positions to our incredibly hardworking team of volunteers!
Readers of the CSR Christ Animating Learning Blog are interested in interdisciplinary discussions of how Christ animates learning. What might the Society for Women of Letters contribute to such conversations? How can these readers learn more about the work of the Society and possibly become involved in it?
By bringing together a wonderful diversity of Christian scholars and avid learners from outside the academy, the Society for Women of Letters aims to enrich the ongoing conversation with fresh perspectives and unique collaborations. Using our individual backgrounds and intellectual strengths, we collaborate for a common purpose: to re-enchant the world for the glory of God and promote excellent Christian thought in our schools, churches, and homes. In all that we do, we emphasize the love of Christ by promoting truth without divorcing it from goodness and beauty. Our scholars are committed to intellectual hospitality and modeling graceful, respectful discourse.
Countering the tendencies of our technological age, we strongly emphasize live intellectual exchange with our salons and halls, and we encourage embodied gatherings among our members. Therefore, the pinnacle of our work as a Society is the annual Symposium. Our hope is that it will inspire more women of letters to regularly gather in their home communities for the purposes of mutual encouragement and the discipling of women who’ve not yet discovered the tremendous blessings of the life of the mind.