The life Diane Christian lives is not the life she started. Surrounded by women shrouded in black, she entered the convent in 1961, participated in three years of cloister, and took her first vows. But after eight years in a convent, Christian made the decision to hang up her robe and walk away from her life as a nun.
She can now be found in a lecture hall at UB, imploring her students to talk about real-life enthralling topics, including sex, which makes her among the most popular and most requested professors here. She is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, which is one of the highest honors a teacher can receive in the SUNY system.
"I wanted to be great," Christian said. "I wanted to be a saint. I wanted to be terrific."
While she may not be a ‘saint' in a formal sense of the word, Christian has become a saint to the English Department. She joined the UB faculty in 1970 after receiving her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and teaching at Nazareth College in Rochester.
When she decided to leave Nazareth in 1969, she had sensational credentials and "an oddly sexy background," so she had a lot of job offers, but she chose to continue her journey at UB.
"Buffalo had the best English department in the country," Christian said. "Full of writers and artists and some really smart people. When I came to the interview, they asked me all sorts of questions – about my work, about film. I loved the energy."
Christian believes that the secret to maintaining her passion for education is teaching what she herself is thinking about – the topics that she's infatuated with. Her most popular classes are Mythology; Heaven, Hell, and Judgment; and The Bible as Literature. She has written and co-authored three books, and produced films about ex-nuns, death row, and Robert Creeley, an American poet.
"It was clear she was very passionate," said Lydia Quebral, a sophomore English and business major that took a class with Christian. "She had knowledge beyond her subject – one of the myths we read was her own translation of the myth from French. She always knew background information, and her lectures really clarified what was going on."
Many students tie together Christian and sex, because that is often the most frequent and engaging topic of conversation in her classes, but the label does not bother her.
"We live in a wildly sexual culture, and yet we are repressed and puritanical in certain ways," Christian said. "I really think we are very confused about issues of sex and violence. I can make jokes about it because I've read lots of texts about it and I can explore it. I think it's very important to explore."
In addition to her extensive résumé, Christian is also part of over 10 committees on campus.
When Cristanne Miller, a professor of literature, became chair of the English department in 2006, she began working with Christian and the two became fast friends.
"I very quickly came to admire enormously the amount of work that she does for the university without public acknowledgement," Miller said. "She doesn't have an administrative position; she's just on a bunch of committees. There's no kind of title one can receive for the kind of leadership she shows, but she spends an enormous amount of time doing these things." UB provided her with the opportunity to teach what she loves, and it also led her to her husband, Bruce Jackson. Jackson is a Distinguished Professor and a James Agee Professor of American Culture here at UB.
The two met on campus on Christian's first day in 1970 at a sandwich machine. They have been married for over 40 years, and their overlapping interests have allowed them to flourish as both professors and as a couple.
They have been teaching the Film Seminar class together for 12 years, which has shown over 400 films. Lectures, organizing conferences, putting on series at UB and the Albright Knox are only a few of the things the two have collaborated on. They also published a book in 1979, called Death Row, and produced a film that goes along with it.
On April 14, they will be releasing their newest book, entitled: In this Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America. This book includes photographs from death row, a long essay about what life is like living on death row, and a section on how they went about completing the first book and film.
The two spend a lot personal and professional time together, which strengthens their already-strong bond.
"She's one of the smartest people I know," Jackson said.
Diane Christian redefines the position of ‘professor.' Her passion for education and her curriculum, combined with her wit and story-telling skills, make her wildly popular among students.
"I love ideas and I love thinking out loud," Christian said. "I think what makes me popular is that I don't have the idea that I can just give you a lot of facts; there's so much to know. I only teach the things I love – that I think are valuable intellectually, morally, aesthetically. I really want to engage people."