There’s nothing better than a professor with an open door, one with a willingness to say ‘hey’ and answers any questions that might be crossing your mind.
That’s exactly how Dr. Rita Shah is, the woman whose office sits on the second floor of Nicarry Hall, just out of reach of the hustle and bustle of everyday classes. She teaches all of her students to be respectful of a professor’s open-door policies, but is always there to talk if need be – sitting at her desk, constantly working away like the diligent professor and sociologist that she is.
Her office is filled with boxes, stacked in the corners and piled on top of one another like kids in a dog pile. Crates are filled with files, papers, books, and more, the walls emptied of memories. The space used to be covered with knick-knacks – notes from students, stickers promoting activism and feminism, random coffee mugs and Post-It notes and all the other indications of a well-loved professor.
Officially (that is, according to the college’s website), Dr. Shah is a criminologist who researches the relationship between parole and post-release supervisors for prisoners, as well as the re-entry process for former prisoners, but to the campus community, she is a beloved coworker, professor, and friend. Dr. Shah has always been a woman anyone can go to for advice, no matter the topic. She’s always got an intelligent thought, and they are always greatly appreciated.
She received her PhD from the University of California-Irvine, and has been at Elizabethtown for the last six years, teaching criminology courses and the occasional first-year seminar. Students have described her as an excellent teacher – if an intense one – and frequently comment on how much they learned from her.
On Becoming a Professor
Dr. Shah is known for her rigorous sociology courses that mentally prepare students for the workload of college – and eventually, the workforce, academic or otherwise – but there was a point in her own academic career where she considered a career path that didn’t involve working with students.
“I actually debated between law school and the PhD,” she says of her decision. “And between the two, I really enjoyed both teaching and research…[I] knew that if I went into law school, I would either be a defense attorney or a constitutional lawyer. And I wasn’t convinced that I would be 100% happy doing that, but I knew I would be as a professor.”
Last semester, Dr. Shah taught a first-year seminar course titled “Joss Whedon: Friend or Foe?”, which focused on examining writer-director Joss Whedon’s filmography under the lens of many different types of feminism. The course involved a cumulative final paper in which students examined particular pieces of Whedon’s work, and many credit the course with giving them a much deeper understanding of a subject they’d heard so much about.
Shah noted that the course material was incredibly interesting to her, but also that feminism is something that students and staff (as well as the general public) should understand on a deeper level.
“I think it gets a bad rap,” she said. “It’s something that I don’t think people really understand until they’ve taken the time to really look at [it]…[Like], what exactly does feminism argue, what are the different branches of feminism? Most people, when they critique feminism, I think they focus more on radical feminisms, and the idea that, y’know, ‘we don’t need men’. But that’s one of many, many, many different versions of feminism, and many individuals don’t abide by that.”
She also mentioned that feminism isn’t just about empowering women, it’s about breaking down the barriers between men and women so that no one is viewed as ‘less than’ another person.
“The only differences that exist [between men and women],” she says, “Are the ones we put upon ourselves. But those differences have been around for so long that it’s really hard to acknowledge that they don’t actually exist biologically.”
She speaks powerfully and with authority, like a woman who knows her stuff and isn’t afraid to show it as she speaks.
“And so I think feminism – especially today – is important because until we start breaking down the assumed differences, we’re never going to get to a point where we can truly have men and women – and anyone else who identifies as any other gender identity outside of the binary – as truly being equal, as truly being respected, as truly viewed as an individual with worth.”
On Leaving Etown
Dr. Shah’s packed-up office is not just the sign of a semester coming to an end – it is the sign of her career at Elizabethtown coming to a close, her chapter in the college’s history books written and ready to be published. She is moving on to Eastern Michigan University, a far cry from the colonial-style buildings and chocolate-scented air of Etown.
“I’m going to be in a place that’s going to be much larger,” she says of Eastern Michigan, “And so, I have no doubt that I will find students and faculty and staff that I will connect with and be close with, but it’s not the same as having a handful of people in every class, even only thirty students in every class, where I can get to know you on a first-name basis.”
But when asked what she’ll miss most about this tiny little college in Amish country, she credits the school’s greatness to its people, without hesitation.
“Etown has some truly amazing faculty and staff that work here who are just some of the most kind-hearted, hardworking, brilliant people you’ll ever meet, and they bring the warmth to Etown, and I will definitely miss that.”
A stack of three large plastic bins sits behind her desk chair as she talks about these people – she says they were filled entirely with her graduate school dissertation data. She said that purging was difficult, but a welcome and cathartic release. It’s sad to see her go, but the feeling of eradication is shared as the semester comes to a close.
We’ll miss you too, Dr. Shah.
Listen to the full interview with Dr. Shah here.