By: Caroline Maas, staff writer
Dr. Helen Dixon is one of around five Ancient Phoenician scholars in America. She is also the newest addition to Wofford’s religion department.
To say Dixon is qualified is an understatement. She earned her undergraduate degree in what she calls a “made up degree” in Scriptural Interpretation at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Directly following her undergraduate work, she enrolled at the University of Michigan where she earned both her graduate degree and her Ph.D. in a department called Near Eastern Studies.
Dixon says of the program, “It was sort of like the MENA program here at Wofford. While I was there, I was learning like 14 different languages. It was nice preparation but it took me nine years to get out of there.” Near Eastern Studies encompasses the Arab lands, including Iran, Israel and Turkey, all the way through Central, South and Southeast Asia
After the acquisition of her Ph.D., Dixon did two post-doctoral appointments. She describes this not as a degree, but as a way to broaden your training. Dixon did her first post-doctoral appointment at N.C. State University and the second at the University of Helsinki in Finland.
Dixon attributes her interest in religious texts to her family religious history. She grew up with a Christian mother and a father with a Jewish background. Her grandfather converted to Christianity and became involved in the early stages of Hebrew Christianity, which planted the seeds for her interest in ancient Phoenician culture. However, her nuclear family raised her Unitarian.
She says of her complicated family religious dynamic, “It brought about a lot of religious questioning. I started wondering about what held so much power for my extended family in these ancient religious texts. It was interesting that only one generation ago people changed the way they lived based on these texts and my family, as Unitarians, didn’t at all.”
Another motive of Dixon’s interest stemmed from the Lebanese culture her mother preserved from an Air Force Airman prior to marrying Dixon’s father.
“My mom in the sixties dated a guy in the U.S. Air Force who was stationed in Lebanon. She traveled to Lebanon and I remember growing up with Lebanese music and Lebanese food and jewelry and it just seemed to me like this glamorous place. I think that also somehow wooed me subconsciously. Somehow, I ended up studying the field of Biblical Lebanon. The Phoenicians are kind of the underdogs of the Bible.”
Originally from Atlanta, Ga., Dixon says teaching at Wofford feels like coming home. Having only ever worked at big schools, she calls Wofford’s class sizes “luxurious” and revels in the fact that she gets the opportunity to know 65 students personally rather than 300+.
Dixon urges students not majoring in religion to take a religion class beyond their general education requirement, if possible. She describes teaching and learning about religion as academic knowledge combined with emotional understanding and sensitivity. Dixon says honestly, “in terms of sandboxes, religious studies are one of the most fun sandboxes to play in. It has a lot of modern relevance so you get the best of both worlds.”