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Edinburgh's first female Head of Divinity

Interview with new Head of School, Professor Helen Bond.

Professor Helen Bond in the quadrangle of New College
Professor Helen Bond in the quadrangle of New College

Professor Bond took over as the Head of School of Divinity on 1 August 2018, after Professor Paul Foster completed his term in office.

In this introductory interview, Professor Bond describes her initial thoughts on taking up the role.

Helen says:

"Being the first female Head of the School of Divinity is a great opportunity. For one thing, you would be surprised how little people seem to know about the subject. Someone even asked me how we manage to teach religion in a secular setting! If having a female Head (and a non-minister at that) helps to shake up people's misconceptions, that can only be a good thing."

More diverse than ever before

"Divinity has traditionally been very male dominated. It's not surprising really, given that until recently most interpreters of the Bible have been monks or priests. As a female student in the 80s and 90s, I was very much in the minority. When it came to doctoral work, other women were few and far between. I suppose you learn to cope in that environment but I can't say that I really enjoyed it.

"I'm really inspired by the changes that have taken place over the last decade or so in terms of gender balance. Nowadays at New College women are in the majority at undergraduate level, and while we are still under-represented amongst postgraduates there are definite changes in the air – changes reflected in a far more diverse staff than ever before.

"There's been a huge change in the curriculum too in recent years, with gender studies playing a more significant role across the subject areas, and a much greater awareness of the importance of hearing different voices and perspectives. Long may it continue!"

Ready for the challenge

"I applied to be Head of School because I know the place well and I’m ready for the challenge of leadership. I have been here 18 years and held various roles, from Personal Tutor to Director of Research. Ultimately the job of Head is about making sure that students and colleagues are happy, giving them space to do what motivates them, liaising between them and the higher echelons of the University."

School successes

"The School is in very good shape in terms of research rating and student satisfaction. We ranked 1st in Scotland and 4th in the UK for Theology and Religious Studies in the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) assessment based on the quality and volume of our research, and we achieved 92.5% student satisfaction in the latest national Student Survey (NSS 2018). We are the largest single-site Theology faculty in the UK, attracting a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate students and staff with international expertise."

Remaining at the forefront

"As the new Head of School, my role is to make sure we remain at the forefront of theological education and religious studies.

"Faith distinguishes Divinity from the other Arts. As staff and students, we have a responsibility to each other, whether we have strong faith, certain faith or no faith. That doesn’t mean wrapping students in cotton wool and not challenging them but being aware that there are aspects of study that may be sensitive as well as challenging and liberating.

"I would like us to be more outward facing. I want our School to become the first place people come to when they have an interesting theological question, whether that’s by social media, through our research centres or when we are speaking publicly in local classrooms, church halls, or on national TV and radio.

"I’d also like to foster an environment where anyone, staff or student, who has an idea feels encouraged to express it. I’d like undergraduates to come forward and talk about their courses. I’d like to cut down on bureaucracy, so no-one gets bogged down in internal structures and everything is clear and simple."

Research and teaching

"I think research and teaching are two sides of the same coin. Good teachers like good researchers are generally curious, enthusiastic, genuinely motivated by their topic. We have research-led teaching for that reason.

"I have learned a lot about teaching from students. When you’re an undergraduate sitting in a class or a PhD student in supervision, you may not realise that your questions, your enthusiasm, give me a better teaching experience, so you get a better one back. When I was a postgraduate, my supervisors – Jimmy Dunn and Martin Hengel – were not just extremely erudite but also so excited by the topic that I would come away from supervisions buzzing, keen to hit the library or write my next chapter. Enthusiasm in others brings out the enthusiasm in me."

 

Editor’s notes

Originally from County Durham, Helen initially planned to study maths but switched at the last minute to Theology, She studied at the University of St Andrews, where she co-founded the St Andrews Whisky Appreciation Society, then Tübingen and Durham where she wrote a PhD thesis on Pontius Pilate under the supervision of Professor J.D.G. Dunn. She taught a range of New Testament courses at Northern College in Manchester (1993-6) and the University of Aberdeen (1996-2000) before joining the University of Edinburgh in 2000. In July 2011, she became Director of the Edinburgh Centre for the Study of Christian Origins. In 2015 she was appointed Professor of Christian Origins, the first female to hold any such post in Scotland.

Helen is married with two children, Katriona aged 14 and Scotty, 12. At home, they like to snuggle up together in front of a film (think: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) with a box of Maltesers.

In her spare time Helen has admitted to enjoying belly dancing lessons and more recently, taken up tap dancing.  “I’m also a bit of a closet thespian,” she confesses. “I’m going to be Prince Charming in the local pantomime. I’m doing him as a cross between Princes Charles and Boris Johnson.”

 

Links

Professor Bond’s webpage