Martyn Smith poses for a photo on Main Hall Green.
Portrait on Main Hall Green: Martyn Smith (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.


Martyn Smith, associate professor of religious studies, continues to push students to think deeply about the human experience.

In addition to his teaching in religious studies and global studies, Smith has been a leader in First-Year Studies, directing the program the past two years and joining a task force that is looking to reimagine what the course for first-year students will look like going forward. He also will be among the faculty teaching courses in the newly introduced business and entrepreneurship major, built with an interdisciplinary approach. He served as a faculty-in-residence at the London Centre in 2019 and has led numerous student trips to local and international sites since joining the Lawrence faculty in 2006. He came to Lawrence after finishing his Ph.D. in comparative literature at Emory University in Atlanta, where he studied Arabic and wrote his dissertation on the literature of pilgrimage.

We caught up with Smith to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.

In the classroom

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

When students come to my class, I would like them to know that I’m serious about books and reading. During my term at the London Centre, I had a revelation once as I walked into a large bookstore there. I’d like students to feel more at home in a bookstore like that one after taking one or more of my classes. In my classes, I try to introduce students to conversations about our society, this world, and our purpose as human beings. Those big conversations have taken place through physical books for a long time, and I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize recent journal articles that move too narrow too quickly. I try to keep that big London bookstore in mind as I select textbooks for my classes—and I always have physical textbooks.

Expand your understanding of the human experience by exploring the powerful cultural and historical influence of global religions. 

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited? 

The past two years I’ve enjoyed my term as director of First-Year Studies. I took up this position midway through COVID, and it has been at times a challenge to reestablish traditions around the course. Because of my work in religious studies, I’m interested in scripture and the way texts come to serve as touchstones for groups of people. One thing I like about First-Year Studies is the way it gives us a common set of works at the center of our college community. There’s nothing else like it in our curriculum where every student and a subset of faculty are reading the same text. This communal value is most clear for longstanding works like Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey and Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.

Through this experience I’ve also discovered that I enjoy thinking about questions regarding the introductory education of students. I’m on the task force redesigning the First-Year Studies class, and that raises all kinds of questions. I’m also working now in another group to design the Business and Society course that all students will take at the start of the business and entrepreneurship major. I guess this is another part of my resistance to specialization the instant students arrive on campus. Humanities courses are a great place to build connections across subjects and to give space for reflection.

Global studies prepares you to understand and engage with our complex, interconnected world by combining perspectives from the arts, languages, literature, politics, economics, religion, history, and more. 

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional, or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

I’ve definitely surprised myself with the course of my intellectual journey. I came to Lawrence with Cairo and Egypt on my brain. Up through tenure a lot of my work centered on medieval Cairo. But then in the 2010s it got more difficult to travel to Egypt with all the political upheaval, and so I started to think more about sacred space from a global perspective. During these years we developed the global studies major and I had opportunities to travel to new countries like Indonesia and Senegal and Dubai. So, you could say that I’ve pursued a larger canvas for my questions about Islam and the way humans experience place.

Out of the classroom

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing? 

I would probably rephrase this question to be more like: If you weren’t teaching at Lawrence for a living, then what would you be doing? And my answer would be teaching someplace else, if not at a college, then at a high school. Teaching is the task of bringing students into contact with the larger contexts of their human experience, and as a democratic society we can’t move forward without good teaching. But if I had to think about what I would do besides teaching, then my mind goes to owning a bookstore. When I was in my 20s, I worked at bookstores, such as Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. It wasn’t so long ago that colleges and universities weren’t the only places where intellectual exchange took place, and I think it would be healthy if there were more outposts for thinking seriously about the world and sharing ideas.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

I like the trees on campus. I was thrilled last year to learn about the existence of a map that identifies all the trees on our campus. Over the years I’ve tried to learn the names of the tree species around campus, and now I know there’s a place I can go if I get stumped. One of the goals in my class, Forests and Human Flourishing, is to get students thinking about the names of the natural things they see, and to move beyond the generic terms of “tree” and “flower” as we move through the world.

It’s always nice in the spring term as the weather warms and students get out onto the Main Hall quad to study or chat with friends. I enjoy taking walks down along the Fox River. It’s amazing to live so close to a river. I grew up in Southern California, so the abundance of water in Wisconsin continues to be a bit mind-bending. We’ve got a river that runs past our campus, the Great Lakes aren’t so far away, and then “up north” we have all these smaller lakes.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

Book: The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron. More than any other genre, I love travel writing. I like to follow someone through a landscape and read about their experiences. This book is by the dean of English travel writers, and in it he follows the Amur River from its origin in Mongolia and then along the vast stretch where it serves as a border between Russia and China. Thubron goes back and forth across the river and he describes the striking contrast between the Russian and Chinese sides of the river. The book has only become more interesting as events of the past year have drawn these two nations closer together. It’s not that I would ever be drawn to travel along the Amur River, but to me that’s the point of reading a travel narrative: getting somewhere I couldn’t otherwise visit.

Recording: FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE by Brian Eno. This is such an outstanding album that I have to mention it. I try to find art that recognizes our environmental crisis and responds by reimagining the human relationship to the world. This album draws on the ambient work Eno has spent a lifetime producing (Music for Airports, Apollo), but is still an album of songs in the vein of Another Green World. The lyrics move toward an earthy or environmental perspective. The first song asks: “Who gives a thought about the nematodes” and the album proceeds to move up and down the scales of the cosmos, but always working to shift our point of view from the human. I’ve thought for a while that music would be a great way to introduce students to questions about climate change.