Div School deals with identity issues

The conference is partially in response to a controversial event in the fall.
The conference is partially in response to a controversial event in the fall. Photo by Sam Greenberg.

The Divinity School’s All School Conference, taking place this past week, focused on the issue of identity, partially in response to a racially charged controversy the school confronted this fall.

During the week-long conference, the Divinity School has been exploring an issue relevant to community life. Dealing with the issue of identity was necessary, organizers said, because of a September incident in which students held a watermelon-eating contest that some community members said evoked painful racial stereotypes.

The conference helps ensure “that the devastating effects of the watermelon incident don’t happen again,” said Delfin Bautista DIV ’10, president of the school’s student council. “I think we’re at a place where we’re extremely cautious of bringing up controversial issues, which is to our detriment.”

Bautista, Associate Dean of Students Dale Peterson and conference co-organizer Denice Kelley DIV ’11 all declined to discuss the specifics of the watermelon affair, saying it was sensitive and could hurt individuals involved. But Peterson and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes wrote an e-mail to the school expressing regret following the incident.

“The contest was a painful reminder of past images and painful stereotypes involving watermelons and African Americans that continue to be used today, and it should not have happened,” Peterson and Townes wrote.

Kelley said the community had trouble discussing the issues of identity brought up by the incident, and she said she hopes this conference will help make the community more comfortable discussing issues of identity with each other in the future.

Identity can be divisive, she said, and so this week was a good way to “talk about identity in a way that acknowledges [each student’s] perspective on it.”

The All School Conference was started 10 years ago when the school was in a difficult period of upheaval, with the campus undergoing renovations. Classes for the week were cancelled, letting students and faculty take time discuss major issues affecting them, Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said.

Since that challenging year, the community has been “a good and healthy one,” and classes still meet during all school conference, Associate Dean of Students Dale Peterson said. Nonetheless, Attridge said the conference remains an opportunity for students to “stand back and look at some issues which may be nagging them but they don’t have time to deal with in day to day life.”

This year’s conference aimed to explore identity in nontraditional ways so that students not only explore identity through their gender, race or other conventional categories. Instead, each day had a theme through which to explore identity, including academics, food, spirituality, and love and sex.

Kelley said that another issue of identity that confronts Divinity School students is the challenge of accommodating students who come from various faiths and cultural backgrounds and learning how to balance concern for one’s own religious community with the many denominations represented at the Divinity School.

During this year’s All School conference, the students stressed the complexity of each of their identities. At a panel concerning spirituality across different denominations on Monday, participants each detailed which denomination of Christianity they identify with, different denominations they have belonged to throughout their lives and how those may have shaped who they are now.

“Students around here are so busy, we do a lot of reflection in the classroom, but not enough outside the classroom,” said Rebecca Lenn DIV ’10, a member of the Community Life Committee, which sponsored the event. The week helps students sit back, reflect on their work here, their purpose and their future plans, she said. She also views the week as a community-building effort between students and staff in informal ways.

The conference organizers collaborated with student groups to plan activities, said Kelley. For example, to explore how academic passions shape students’ identities, Glossolalia, the school’s academic journal, hosted talks for students to present their published works. The goal of these talks was to foster an academic discussion outside the classroom, and to “foster the identity of the students going to the school as academics” said Glossolalia editor Willa Lengyel DIV ’10.


  • Hot House

    Professor Paul Holmer at YDS used to refer to students there as “hot-house plants”, so delicate that they couldn’t survivve in the real world of wind, rain, drought, snow, and sleet.


  • Auntie PK

    Ask G-d to abolish watermelons, I guess…

    G-d is so racist!

  • Cousin PK

    I’d wager a certain group would be offended by a pie eating contest!

  • Yale 08

    I love it.

    Div School stories always read like brilliant satire!

    I remain baffled as to the purpose of this collection of post-modern empty-headers.

  • From a YDS student.

    I think #1’s Holmer quote has some validity. There seems at times to be an atmosphere at the Divinity School of hypersensitivity that projects racism, sexism, pick your ‘ism’, into events where it simply is not there (It makes me wonder if some of my fellow students understand that most of their parishioners will not be nearly as politically correct as they are!). That said, while I wasn’t at Melon-gate, from what I was told there is more to the story than what was written in this article. I’m not going to go into it though, as its all hearsay at this point and as I think the article itself was unnecessary. What was largely a personal issue within a certain group of students at my school, or at worst within the Divinity School itself, has apparently hijacked an entire conference and has become the highlight through which the rest of the university views us.

    @Yale 08
    “Post-Modern Empty-Headers”.. is there any meaning contained in this description, or did just decide to jumble together a string of words you picked up from various classes downtown? You may not like Div School academic culture, but if that’s the case, you should also own up to the fact that it is essentially the religious expression of the liberalism that occurs downtown.

  • Yale 08

    Dear YDS “student” (LOL),

    I do not like anything about that “School.”

    It is a charade, a joke, a poorly draw sketch of what proper philosophical and theological training should be.

    A disciplined and holy seminary it is not. A place of genuine scholarship it fails to be.

    It has no business bearing the Yale name.

  • YDS Student

    Well now, don’t we think much of ourselves! I find it amusing how after spending four years in the liberal arts at a very secular university you’ve decided what constitutes both holiness and ‘genuine’ theological scholarship! Please, O Glorious Prophet, do come and make the trek up the hill to enlighten our poor and helpless souls!

    First, YDS is a divinity school, not a seminary. By not understanding the difference between the two you have already revealed how incredibly unqualified you are academically to pass judgment on any institution of religious learning. In short, whereas seminaries tend to be self-governed institutions that cater to a certain denomination or school of thought (ex: Reformed, Charismatic, etc.) divinity schools tend to be ecumenical and are often part of a larger university. So tell me something, what rule of discipline do you suggest we implement that will not only satisfy all the denominations here ranging from Reformed to Catholic-Orthodox, but will also avoid driving a greater wedge between us and Yale University? No such rule of discipline exists. Yale aside, even if you found a common rule of discipline the denominations could agree to, then congratulations, you’ve just solved the problem of Church-Schisms. As for our prayer/worship life at Marquand Chapel, you can, as one would expect, find a bit of everything within Christendom.

    We are an ecumenical divinity school, not a seminary; our pursuit of holiness is rightly left between ourselves, God, and perhaps our ordaining churches.

    As for our poor scholarship, the Society of Biblical Literature disagrees with you, seeing as we have two of their former presidents on faculty (Attridge and Collins), and the greater theological community disagrees with you a well. Ph.D/Th.D admissions and other graduate school admissions from YDS to other institutions are posted publicly at the school, and our results were excellent.

    As for the rest of what you said, “charade, a joke, a poorly draw sketch” it’s all empty words with no information offered to support them. I suspect by the near insufferable combination of ranting, ego, and general inability to compose an argument, that you were either rejected from Yale altogether, or perhaps you simply didn’t earn your way in and are now drunk with your own sense of entitlement.

    Either way, I hope that clarifies things for the reader. To any undergrads reading this, take the time to go up the hill either for chapel or a class. You may find that you’ve discovered a good reason to extend your stay in New Haven an extra two or three years.