Professor Profile: Dr. Kati Curts

Rowan Carter
Contributing writer

The rain taps lightly against the window of the cozy, lamp-lighted office on the second floor of Walsh-Ellett Hall. Dr. Curts is settled in a desk chair. The shelves behind her desk are filled to the brim, books about religious studies and teaching spilling over onto her window sill and part of her desk. There are various lamps around the room, but only one is lit.

Through her half open office door, voices drift in every once in a while. The Convocation Hall bells chime outside of the raindrop-covered window overlooking Guerry-Garth. The self-proclaimed professional picnicker is clothed in all black, down to the scrunchie on her wrist and the mask on her face. Her curly hair is the perfect representation of her personality, passionate and filled with layers. 

Curts’ career in academia did not have a typical beginning. Even though she is a religious studies professor here at Sewanee, she spent her undergraduate education learning about economics. After she graduated from Washburn University, she spent a year in China before coming back to the United States to work for an architecture firm in Pittsburgh. Her interest in religious studies was spurred by Walter Capp’s book, Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, which she would read after she finished working her normal nine to five. Though the book is encyclopedic in nature, Curts quickly found her new passion and a future career.

This four-hundred-page book inspired her to apply to graduate programs throughout the country, “I applied so many places. Like I was the most unsophisticated applicant for my graduate degree, but I was very fortunate.” Her good fortune led her to New York University for her graduate degree and Yale for her P.hD. At NYU, she discovered her passion for the historical aspects of religious studies, saying that she “was just really drawn to thinking more historically because of the theoretical questions that I had come to about the creation of religion as a category and its historical formation.” This passion is still present today; one of her favorite classes to teach is Religion in American History, though if you ask her during any given semester, she will tell you that her favorite is whatever she is currently teaching. 

Once she received her P.h.D., she began her journey into the competitive job market that is higher education. Every year there are more people getting their P.h.Ds than there are available jobs, “The trend in academia has been toward more contingent labor, meaning increased numbers of adjunct faculty,” says Curts. Because of the competitive nature of academia, Curts applied to all of the very few open positions available to her. She landed here at Sewanee, and her gratefulness was instantaneous, “The ability to teach here in the position that I’m in is one that I do not take for granted.” 

Her gratefulness and appreciation extend to her colleagues in the Religious Studies Department. As a field, religious studies is dominated by men, but that is not the case at Sewanee. Curts feels that her career has benefited from inspirational women figures, from her time at NYU to her time here at Sewanee. She notes, “My own excitement comes from the reality, which is that I see just a great number of women and people of color who are changing this field. I’m really fortunate in that way. That’s not true for everyone, but it has been for me.” Because of her colleagues, she has the freedom to develop classes on topics that she is deeply passionate about, such as the relationship between religion and technology, as well as the relationship between religion and gender. This intersectionality between religion and other areas of study is one of the things that drew her to religious studies, “That part to me is continually energizing.” 

When she is not working in her office, she loves to be outside. One of her favorite places to work is at Stirling’s, where you will find her munching on the Crunchy salad. Curts also enjoys spending time in Abbo’s Alley, where she hosts weekly Walk and Talk Office Hours, “I usually end at the labyrinth, and what a nice space to quietly think. That’s a beautiful part of the mid-day wander.” She spends her weekends hiking, her son strapped to her back. She also enjoys reading, her most recent read being The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel. 

While academia is a major part of her life, she spends her free time doing other things, like caring for her three-year-old son. She finds things in common with her son and her students, stating, “One of the things that I have learned from him is that he doesn’t really need me to tell him a lot. I have found that to be true in the classroom. If I join him in a conversation [while] playing, he can usually work things out and I have found that’s also true with students in the classroom and the times where I think it’s most generative or when the conversation emerges in the room together doesn’t need strong-arming.”