Series: Faculty & Staff Spotlights

Tutor Spotlight: Emily Langston

This interview originally appeared on our GI blog, the Colloquy.

On her educational background:

“I have an undergraduate degree in English with a minor in philosophy, and after that, I decided that I wanted to go into the area of theology or religious studies, so I went to the University of Chicago, which has a divinity school with a good religion and literature program. As I studied, I become more and more interested in Judaism and its relationship to Christianity as a sort of a thematic area. I ended up with a master’s degree in theological studies from Chicago’s divinity school. I also went to Oxford and got a master’s in Jewish studies from their post-graduate institute in Jewish studies. Then I came back and followed my husband’s advisor from Chicago to Emory, where he was hired away. I ended up with my Ph.D. in theological studies from Emory, where I ended up studying Emmanuel Levinas.”

On her journey to St. John’s:

“My journey here was pretty accidental. I was working on my Ph.D., and I went to Florida to visit my parents, and my mother is a faculty member at Eckerd College, where they have a Western core curriculum. They just recently had several people from St. John’s down to talk, give lectures, and lead seminars to help develop their Western core, and those people left literature lying around my parents’ house, and when I read it, I thought, ‘oh no! I should have gone to undergraduate school here!’ Then I realized I was working on my Ph.D., and if I applied to teach here, and they hire me, then I would get to do the whole program, and they would pay me! It was almost too good to be true! So, I applied and got the job, and it worked out pretty much like I thought it would; I got to do the whole program, and I just completed my first term as the Associate Dean. It has been a very happy place for me to be.”

On classroom life:

“Sometimes the reading of the actual core text can get lost a bit behind the debates between various interpreters of a specific text or the question about how a text fits into some kind of “-ism” or broader construct that people are currently interested in. Although I don’t think it’s entirely possible to put away all of our presuppositions and so forth, I believe that we do aspire to something like that as we go back and read these texts because what we want to do is read these texts and not ask, ‘How is what Augustine is saying like or unlike what other people who are interested in political philosophy at the same time as the city of God are saying, or how has it influenced people who come after him?’ We want to read it and ask, ‘Is this true? What is Augustine saying, and is it true?’ And if I don’t think it is, then why not? And then, the ‘why not?’ may involve other people that we’ve read and questions that it raises. Still, the main encounter that we want to foster is the encounter between the student and the text itself, and we want to allow the text to question us deeply rather than just our studying the text in various ways. I think that this is one reason that we can have the sorts of classes that we do.

Our tutors, although they know the books well, are not necessarily experts in Augustine or someone else because we don’t necessarily follow all the most recent critical debates about it—we know the book itself. We need each other in classes because we need to hear the ways that other people who are encountering the book with the same sort of ideal are reading it and the questions that it’s raising for them in order to hear the things that it might be saying to us, but still, for some reason, we aren’t focused on it. If I read something and I have a set of questions I bring to it because I’m particularly interested in ethics, whereas someone else is interested in cosmology, then its good for us to be in a class together where both of our voices are important. This way, we can both ask those questions of this one text with that we’re both reading carefully together. That’s what we’re trying to do; we’re not trying to generate novel approaches to an established canon. We’re trying to know the canon and to use the canon to know ourselves, to use it to understand the world around us—those things are more of a priority to us than any contemporary scholarship.”

On why students should choose St. John’s:

“Almost anyone that you’re going to want to study, whether they’re contemporary or not, whether they’re writing continental philosophy or analytic philosophy, they’re steeped in this tradition. The arguments that they’re having arise from the knowledge of these books. Emmanuel Levinas, who I’m a specialist in, died in 1995, but I have gone back to read him, and I read him and anyone else who is contemporary now much more deeply and more richly than I think than I did before because I’ve Aristotle carefully and I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with Kant, and those are things that no one forced me to do, or even asked me to do, when I was going through my Ph.D. program. Those were sort of understood constructs in the background where you’d look at something and think that looks Kantian, and I’d just have to sort of figure out what some people meant when they said something looks Kantian by going back and looking something up. The people who are really making strides and are deeply interesting are arising out of this material and dealing with it themselves. A couple of years of reading it carefully and seriously yourself as what it is instead of as scaffolding for what comes later is I think the best sort of preparation for doing other work.”

On her current projects:

“I’m always involved in outreach projects: projects that are centered around building the community life at the graduate institute, projects focused on the curriculum at the graduate institute. But right now, I found out that a grant I wrote along with the Dean of Liberal Arts at Anne Arundel Community College is being funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s a three-year grant, and the idea is to introduce more discussion-based pedagogy and use of primary resources into the curriculum at Anne Arundel Community College. We’re very excited about it! It seems to me that one of the things people sometimes think is this kind of education is just for the elites, or just for people with a certain ethnic background, or what have you. But, this kind of education is really important in forming the sort of knowledge that one needs to be a citizen and to really participate fully in a democracy. The ability to read and grapple with primary and foundational texts, both from our founders and the texts that influenced them, those sorts of skills help define what knowledge is, what these texts mean, and who gets to claim that they can interpret them. So, the more broadly people are reading them and talking about them, the better it is for all of us.”

On the most underrated program author:

“There are always books that are kind of on the edge of the program and go on and off, and people don’t quite know what to do with them. But, I’d have to say Plotinus. We only have one Plotinus seminar sophomore year, and anything you just have one seminar on, first of all, tends to get a little bit overwhelmed. Because he’s so oddly experiential and what he’s talking about seems so mystical, without spending more time with him, it’s hard to really get into enough to even know how to take it seriously.”

On what book she would like to see added to the Program:

“I would have said Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, but that just got added to the undergraduate senior seminar reading list. So, now I’ll say Totality and Infinity by Levinas!”

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