Towbes’ Fellow, 1992 Ph.D. alum Tracy Pintchman: Religious Studies professor, goddess guru, grateful award recipient

By Patricia Marroquin, Graduate Division Communications Director
Friday, February 28, 2014 02:32 PM

Dr. Tracy Pintchman earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from UCSB in 1992.The goddesses were smiling on Tracy Pintchman back in 1992 when she earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from UC Santa Barbara. The native New Yorker had written her dissertation on the historical evolution of a Great Goddess figure in orthodox Hindu texts. Even before she finished it, a publisher, SUNY Press, expressed interest in turning it into a book. “I had a book contract within nine months of finishing my Ph.D.,” Dr. Pintchman said in referring to what would become the 1994 book, “The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition.” Dr. Pintchman was doing the right research at the right time. “As one of the peer reviewers noted,” she said, “in the early 1990s, goddess studies were ‘a growth industry.’”

The female deity she wrote about proved to be a “green” goddess for Dr. Pintchman, as it earned her some cash from the book deal. This research as well as her other excellent doctoral work at UCSB also helped lead to a job offer before she completed her Ph.D. of a tenure track position at Loyola University Chicago.

Tracy grew up in New York’s Westchester County in a largely secular Jewish family, the youngest of three daughters. Her father headed up public relations for Reader’s Digest Corporation and her mother was an office worker. Tracy had no ties to Chicago when she headed to Loyola in 1992, and she had not imagined staying in the Windy City more than a few years. But today, 22 years later, Dr. Pintchman is still at Loyola University Chicago, as a Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the International Studies Program. She has won teaching awards; and has written, edited, or co-edited seven books. Married for 18 years to another Loyola professor, Dr. William C. French in Theology, whom she met shortly after moving to Chicago, Dr. Pintchman has two children: Noah French, 11, and Molly French, 13.

If not for a Towbes fellowship – which is marking 25 years of awards to UCSB students – Tracy would have probably gone to Harvard. She earned her master’s degree in Religious Studies from Boston University in 1987. When she decided she wanted to pursue her Ph.D. in the discipline, her advisor suggested UC Santa Barbara. “I applied to Religious Studies Ph.D. programs at just two universities, Harvard and UCSB,” Pintchman said. “While I was accepted to both, the funding I received at UCSB was much more robust than what Harvard offered. I liked both programs, but getting the Towbes Fellowship support at UCSB was for me the deciding factor.”

 Pintchman was the very first Towbes recipient, in the 1987-88 academic year.

“I remember I got a phone call from the then-Chair of the Religious Studies Department at UCSB, Phil Hammond,” Tracy recalled. “He told me I was being offered this fabulous fellowship. I did not really know anything about it.” Soon after coming to Santa Barbara, Pintchman was fortunate to meet Michael Towbes and his late wife, Gail, for lunch, where they discussed a mutual interest in music.

“The fellowship supported me fully for four years through teaching and research assistantships,” Pintchman said. “I took one year off in the middle of my Ph.D. program to study in India, and that year was supported by a different fellowship. So I was able to complete my doctoral program in five years without having to take out any student loans or work at McDonald’s.”

While studying at UCSB, Tracy’s “work-life balance” skewed heavily toward the “work” side, by her own choosing.

“The professors in the Religious Studies Department were fabulous teachers and mentors,” she said. “I did coursework the first two years, and I remember I was studying or writing papers much of the time.  Learning Sanskrit consumed a lot of energy. After I returned from my year in India, I spent two years writing my dissertation. So I didn’t have much time to enjoy living in Santa Barbara.”

Only a month before leaving California for Chicago, she went swimming at a Santa Barbara beach for the first time. “My dissertation was done at that point, so I decided it was OK to have a little fun,” she said.

Dr. Tracy Pintchman visits the Parashakthi Temple in Pontiac, Mich., in July 2013 with her family: husband Dr. William C. French; son Noah French; and daughter Molly French. Dr. Pintchman is writing a book about the temple.At Loyola University Chicago, Dr. Pintchman specializes in the study of Hinduism, with a focus on gender issues, Goddess traditions, and Hindu women's rituals. She has held grants from the American Academy of Religion, American Institute of Indian Studies, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. In addition to Loyola, she has also taught at Northwestern University and Harvard University, where she was a visiting scholar in the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School in 2000-01. She’s currently doing research for a book on transnational influences on a Hindu Goddess temple in Michigan.

For some, career paths take twists and turns in new and unexpected directions. But not for Pintchman, who knew exactly what she wanted to do when she was a graduate student.

“My goal then was to do pretty much what I have been doing for the last 22 years: to work as a professor in a university setting where I could teach, write, and think.” 

Awards such as the Towbes helped her achieve that goal. “Graduate fellowships like the Towbes Fellowship can help attract hardworking, committed graduate students and enable them to finish their programs in a timely manner with minimal distraction,” she said. “Fellowship support is probably more important in humanities doctoral programs than in many other kinds of graduate programs. Professors in the humanities do not earn the kinds of substantial salaries commanded by lawyers, business professionals, scientists, or medical doctors, so completing graduate studies somewhat quickly and without taking on a great deal of debt is important.”

Dr. Tracy Pintchman says she 'read what my professors were writing so I would understand the standards of scholarship in my field.'Dr. Pintchman also attributes her career success to her UCSB professors. “The outstanding scholars in the Religious Studies Department set the standard when I was there, and I simply tried to do what they were doing. I learned how to teach by watching great teaching in action,” she said. “Being able to serve as a teaching assistant in several classes also helped a great deal. So I had a handle on teaching by the time I started my job at Loyola. I read what my professors were writing so I would understand the standards of scholarship in my field. Barbara Holdrege and Gerald Larson were my main faculty mentors, and they were incredible; they were supportive, but they pushed and challenged me as well.”

Dr. Pintchman has some simple and straightforward advice for current grad students. “Stay focused, work hard, and don’t get distracted by department politics,” she said. “Watch what the best professors in your department do in the classroom, and read what they write. That will help you figure out how to be a professor yourself. Remember that a dissertation doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be done if you are to ever get out of graduate school and start your career. So just do it. And maybe go to the beach more than I did.”

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