On Being Seen: Reflections on Anne Monius

August 12, 2019
Sarah Pierce Taylor
Sarah Pierce Taylor and Anne Monius / Courtesy photo; Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

The course of my entire adult life changed on a single day in October 2015, when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at Cambridge Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I was then an academic sojourner, dislodged into a temporality of ever-changing jobs in a revolving landscape of places. Since I had no place, I didn’t really have a home. My grounding person was Anne Monius, a professor I had gotten to know as an MTS student at Harvard Divinity School some nine years previously.

She was there, there at the hospital, there as I wept. She was there as I wondered if I would recover my vision, have the stamina to hold down an academic position, have a body that would enable me to do research in India. Anne was there to tell me that I could and that I would and to make me laugh again. As a person with a lifelong chronic illness herself, she showed me how.

To show a person how is a wonderful and magical thing. The first thing Anne ever showed me was how to read at the ripe old age of 22. Of course, I had the mechanics down, but I lacked any sort of sensibility of what to do with a text. She opened up new worlds inside and outside the text by showing me how to carefully read: for rhythm, for pacing, for semantic and sonic junctures and disjunctures. Anne took great joy in reading and was intuitively sensitive to pleasure and pain, and the hilarity that often lies in the middle and distances us from them both.

Anne was a careful, caring, patient, and sympathetic reader, and her method of reading was emblematic of her larger mode of being in the world. After I completed the MTS program, I began a PhD elsewhere in a program that was increasingly turning towards history as I was increasingly turning to literature. Anne, the person who taught me to read, became my reader, my interlocutor, my mentor. Every word that I wrote for the dissertation (and even those she insisted that I cut) she read not once but until she felt as though she didn’t need to read them anymore. She unlocked my arguments, sharpened my prose, refined my translations, and demanded that I think big in my account of my material.

Through monthly Skype sessions that went on for several years, she pushed me to finish the dissertation until, one day, I did. My narrative of the brutality of the academic job market is largely the same: Anne was ever there, ever caring, and ever demanding. The countless drafts of dissertation chapters she read and commented on were only matched by the equally numerous and personalized letters of job recommendations.

It’s important to remember that Anne did this for me out of no institutional obligation but out of her own personal generosity and intellectual curiosity. My relationship with Anne felt so special, generative, and time-consuming for her that it is hard to put into perspective that what I experienced was simply Anne, as she did the exact same thing for dozens of students at a time both in and outside the walls of Harvard.

Each relationship with her student was special because she made it so for each and every one of us. This is radical pedagogy. The idea that graduate school should not be abusive, exploitative, or crushing. That mentorship is not the reproduction of the self but the cultivation of another. That one’s intellectual work deserves to be read and commented on no matter the stage. That women and people from every racial and class background can study Sanskrit and certainly should study Tamil. That a PhD is not an inheritance or a right, it’s a privilege for those who seek it and work for it. And, as a woman who stocked her desk with tissue, that feminized care is just simply care of the best kind.

She was also a hard-ass. Those of us who had the privilege to experience this ethical world of Anne’s teaching became fiercely loyal because we understood just how rare it was. Anne’s most palpable legacy will perhaps be single-handedly modeling a better way to advise and mentor graduate students for several generations of scholars. Look out world; we are all radicals now.

I’ll end with one final anecdote. After my dissertation defense, my partner Chris, their family and I went to dinner with Anne to celebrate. My partner and I were both a bit nervous about bringing together a liberal Harvard professor and Chris’s sharp as a tack father from a very different political and educational background. In retrospect, this anxiety was misplaced. Anne had everyone captivated, comfortable, and, as always, laughing. She took my father-in-law seriously and debated him fiercely as her equal. She saw him then. She saw me always. She saw the text.

Who will see me now? Who will show me how to do this academic life? Who will read my work? Who will show me how to write a book? The person who would normally fill the interrogative void in these questions is gone.

To be seen by Anne is to have one’s life changed. What an honor it was and is for me, for everyone.

Sarah Pierce Taylor, MTS ’08, is former student of Professor Monius’s and currently serves as Assistant Professor of Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.