Women’s History Month Feature: Chontel Syfox


Photo courtesy of Chontel Syfox

Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Chontel Syfox uses open communication to combat micro and macro aggression in the classroom.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Chontel Syfox brings discussions of faith, feminism, and academic intersections to the Luther community.


Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Chontel Syfox has joined Luther faculty for the 2019-2020 academic year. She is teaching Paideia and Introduction to Biblical Studies while she pursues her research interests in feminist and gender theory interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the practice of medicine in the ancient world.

Born in London, Syfox was dedicated to higher education from an early age, but she did not commit to religion as her field of study until later in life. She was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, from elementary through high school, but she found that she still had unanswered questions about faith.

She was initially torn between her love of English literature and interest in theology, but ultimatly chose to study religion as an undergrad at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“It was a toss up between English literature and the Bible,” Syfox said. “Then it dawned on me that I could study the Bible and use the same sort of lens one uses in English literature, so it made sense.”

Syfox’s particular interest was in feminist interpretations of the Bible. Syfox identifies as a feminist and believes in women’s empowerment, but she was initially wary to pursue feminist biblical studies because she did not wish to be tokenized by her peers.

“There are more women in the field of Biblical Studies now, but still not enough,” Syfox said. “I felt that I didn’t want to be a cliché. I didn’t want to be the one woman in a department working on women. But one way or another, all my work ended up being about women, so I eventually came to realize that I needed to own it.”

Syfox realized that, if she was going to study the women of the Bible, she also needed to apply her feminism to contemporary issues.

“It seemed too easy to just sit comfortably in an office writing about the plight of ancient women, so I felt that it was important to me to live out my feminism more,” Syfox said. “I became an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. And, in seeing connections between the plight of ancient women and women today, how could I not continue to work with this?”

Despite the efforts she has made in the fields of feminist studies within and outside acadamia, Syfox has experienced some challenges. She explains that it is hard to be a woman in academia, and even more so as a woman of color. She has faced implicit biases and passive aggression from those who try to undermine her work, her effort, and her authority. As a result, Syfox attempts to directly address micro and macro aggressions present in the classroom.

“I try to be transparent with my students about this in the hope that we can have open lines of communication and that they can check their implicit biases if they have them,” Syfox said. “Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

In spite of these challenges, Syfox continues to teach. She moved to Luther after her fellowship at Notre Dame because she was interested in teaching at a small liberal arts college, as she felt that she would be gaining a closer connection with students.

“I liked the idea of having regular contact with students, as opposed to teaching a class at a large university and never seeing them again,” Syfox said. “I felt that [Luther] would be a good fit for me, because I am clearly not the most conservative of people, and when I came to visit, everyone on campus, and in the department, was very welcoming and encouraging. ”

Luther in particular interested her because she realized that students were socially aware and progressive. When she first visited Luther, she says she was charmed by Decorah, the students, and faculty.

Her students and colleagues are grateful for the experiences and impact that she has on the school and the department. Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Chontel Syfox uses open communication to combat micro and macro aggression in the classroom.

“She is extremely collegial and participates actively in the life of the department,” Professor of Religion Gereon Kopf said. “Her interest in ancient medicine and in the overlap of religion and medicine enriches our department and gives us the ability to better contribute to the global health program and the Rochester hub.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion James Hoke has also been struck by her educational style.

“Her research and teaching interests compliment how our department thinks about the academic study of religion, the Bible, and our emphasis on thinking about the politics around interpretation,” Hoke said. “I was really excited by her 185 course [Texts of Terror] this J-term. It sounded like a great course that resonated with students. I wish I could have taken it.”

Students seem to feel the same way about Professor Syfox. Alison Breen (‘23) took “Texts of Terror” with Syfox over J-term and is currently in Intro to Biblical Studies with her. Breen explains how Syfox creates a collaborative classroom.

“Dr. Syfox works hard to create a classroom free from micro and macro aggression,” Breen said. “When a form of insensitivity or prejudice does arise, Dr. Syfox brings attention to it in a way that educates the class on why it is unacceptable and how to avoid it in the future. Because of this, I feel like a valued member of Dr. Syfox’s class.”

Syfox states that her experience at Luther has been mostly positive with fantastic students she enjoys working with. She loves to be able to have the connection that she has with her students and enjoys being able to see them on campus. Her experience at Luther has solidified her career aspirations.

“I enjoy the opportunity to share knowledge and ideas with students,” Syfox said. “I appreciate the insights the students bring into the conversation, the questions that they ask. A lot of times teachers learn from the students as well, and I find that to be a very worthwhile task.”

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