Theology professor Jean Porter, inaugural Graduate Student Mentorship Award winner, takes positive, personal approach to transforming students into scholars

Author: Marilyn Odendahl

Jean Porter
Jean Porter

Jean Porter finds it difficult to describe her approach to mentoring graduate students, because it changes with each and every one.

As a mentor, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame has been described as providing candid and clarifying advice while also offering patience, support, and generosity. She has guided and encouraged 28 doctoral students as they finished their dissertations, then written recommendation letters for them and given further advice as they launched their own careers. 

“It’s just about forming a personal relationship with the student,” Porter said. “In my experience, there’s no substitute for that.”

In recognition of the time and attention she has dedicated to her students, helping them grow intellectually and find their scholarly voices, Porter has been selected as the inaugural winner of the College of Arts & Letters Graduate Student Mentorship Award

The honor recognizes a tenured faculty member who has demonstrated outstanding scholarly mentorship and care for doctoral or MFA students, and will be presented to Porter at the A&L spring faculty meeting at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 2, in McKenna Hall. E. Mark Cummings, the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Professor of Psychology, will receive the inaugural Arts & Letters Research Achievement Award at the event as well.

‘A special charism’

Elisabeth Rain Kincaid, now the Legendre-Soulé Chair in Business Ethics and director of the Center for Ethics and Economic Justice at Loyola University New Orleans, completed her dissertation under Porter in 2018. She credits Porter for continually giving doctoral students care and attention as they forge their way through years of research and writing.   

“All her students believe that she has a special charism as an advisor of helping us figure out the best and clearest way to say what we had always wanted to say but couldn’t figure out how to express or communicate,” Kincaid wrote in recommending Porter for the award. “Whereas some dissertation directors may seek to impose their own personality, ideas, or style, Jean’s goal is always to make each of us better scholars in the way most appropriate to each of our scholarly natures — rather than making us into mini-images of herself.”

“Jean’s goal is always to make each of us better scholars in the way most appropriate to each of our scholarly natures — rather than making us into mini-images of herself.”

A member of the Notre Dame faculty since 1990, Porter earned her Ph.D. from Yale University and holds an M.Div. from the Weston School of Theology and a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. She is considered a leading scholar in moral theology and Christian ethics, and in 2012 she was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published widely, including six books — including her most recent,  Justice as a Virtue: A Thomistic Perspective (2016), and Ministers of the Law: A Natural Law Theology of Legal Authority, which won the Catholic Press Association Book Award in 2011. 

When mentoring her doctoral students, Porter said, she gets to know her students “really, really, really well.” She learns how their minds work and what their interests are along with something about their personal circumstances and their lives outside of graduate school. She listens to them, reads what they write, and always offers guidance whenever they ask, whether during a formal meeting in her office or a quick chat on a campus sidewalk.

“There’s no substitute for taking time with them,” she said, “talking to them about where they want to go, and getting a feeling for what they can do and what they can do well.”

‘She has made all the difference’

Writing is central to doctoral work, and Porter keeps her students focused by reminding them to sit down and do it. Although she now writes more quickly, progressing on drafts of articles and chapters whenever she gets a few moments in the day, she once labored over her writing, agonizingly crafting one sentence at a time.

Because of the strong relationships she develops with her students, she knows they trust her as she critiques their drafts with positive suggestions instead of negative criticism.

“Feedback on students’ writing can be all kinds of things,” Porter said. “I can help them be more scholarly, if that’s needed — and at the beginning, it usually is, even for the best students. But I can also help them try to figure out what it is exactly they want to say, and that involves usually going back and talking about what got them interested in the project in the first place.”

Mary Hirschfeld
Mary Hirschfeld

Former student Mary Hirschfeld began pursuing a Ph.D. in theology at Notre Dame after already completing a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard and working as an economist for 15 years. She struggled with finding the focus of her new dissertation until Porter suggested she build on her previous career by integrating economics with theology. 

Hirschfeld began “painstaking scholarly excavation” by concentrating on the conversations of 18th- and 19th-century theologians about political economy. Her progress was slow, however, so to prove she was being productive, she showed Porter a paper she had written for an academic conference. 

A few days later, Porter called to point out that the paper integrating Aquinas’s thought and economics was Hirschfeld’s dissertation proposal.

“I owe Jean a lot for having the wisdom to see clearly what skills I have and what contributions I might make,” Hirschfeld, now an associate professor of theology at Notre Dame, wrote in her letter of recommendation. “She has made all the difference for me.” 

“I owe Jean a lot for having the wisdom to see clearly what skills I have and what contributions I might make. She has made all the difference for me.” 

‘I watch them turn into scholars’

After more than three decades at Notre Dame, Porter continues to value the University’s commitment to teaching — she fills her class schedule not only with graduate courses, but also routinely teaches undergraduates in Foundations of Theology. 

Porter All Faculty Team
After being named to Notre Dame’s All-Faculty Team, Porter was honored on the field at a football game and featured in this ad in the gameday program.

Teaching, she said with a shrug, is what she was born to do, tracing her love for the classroom to her mother, who was a high school forensics speech and debate teacher. 

“It’s the best life I could imagine,” Porter said. “There’s something really powerful about this kind of involvement in another person’s mind. I watch them make connections. I watch them turn into scholars.”

She’s played a part in that transformation for many, especially ones who go on to teach at Catholic universities or seminaries. In recommending Porter for the award, Timothy Matovina, chair of the Department of Theology, and Joseph Wawrykow, a professor of theology and former director of graduate studies, noted that of the six most recent hires in moral theology at The Catholic University of America, four were Porter’s students. And many more hold tenured or tenure-track appointments at other major universities.

“Brilliant and no-nonsense, Jean is also caring and compassionate, utterly dedicated to her students,” Wawrykow wrote in their joint letter. “Jean Porter has set the standard for graduate mentoring in her long and distinguished time at our University, and her example has been inspirational for us all.”