“I’m very passionate about preserving Christian institutions that form young people to think well, think theologically, love God, and love their neighbor.” -Dr. Iliff
Dr. Joel Iliff is an Assistant Professor of History. He was born and raised in South Carolina and received his undergraduate degree at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He went on to complete an M.Div at Yale University Divinity School before earning his Ph.D. in history at Baylor University. Dr. Iliff just recently joined Regent’s faculty this fall.
What are your favorite things to do?
“My favorite thing—and this is something that we did when we lived in South Carolina—was every Sunday after church [we would] go home, eat, and then my wife, and my daughter and I would drive around and just explore. Look at old houses, look at old churches… We love going around and seeing old things, exploring.”
“I come from a family where my parents are really into gardening. They have an enormous garden. When they come to visit they bring all these fresh foods. So I have this aspiration of gardening. I don’t live up to my parents’ model. I hope to (and I have to be careful because if my wife reads this she’ll call me out), I can’t say that I’m a real gardener, but I aspire to being a gardener.”
“I’ve also, through my daughter, it’s such a cliche of middle-aged men with children, but I’ve started to get into woodworking. Basically, it came through needing to build shelves for when my daughter was born in her room and then baby gates. So that has been the “gate” if you will, the portal, into woodworking.”
What made you fall in love with history?
“I’m the youngest child, so I spent my whole life around people who are older than me. And I especially loved growing up talking to old people, [like] my grandparents, and hearing stories about the past. So, I think it came from a love for stories and hearing about the lived experiences of people in my life.”
“Interestingly, my grandmother actually spent a number of years in this area. During WWII… her dad got a job building ships in this area… so she came and lived here with her dad and her brothers. The family’s [kind of] coming full circle for this area. So there’s already for me—even though it’s not where I grew up—some sort of family history in this area.”
What advice would you give students?
“I think that grades are important, but do not be limited by them. I’m an overachiever; I was obsessed with doing well in college and making good grades, which is important. I don’t want to downplay or diminish that, but I feel like there were some times in college, certain professors that I avoided because of their reputations, where I sacrificed the quality of my education because of my fear of grades.”
“I’d encourage students, well obviously if you’re making consistently bad grades that’s a problem, but you know, a C in one class is a small price to pay if you have a professor who really challenges you.”
“There’s a Southern writer I really love, Walker Percy, and he says, “You can make all As and still flunk life.” I think the wisdom in that is we’re so focused on getting the right answers, when failure, or not doing as well as we hoped, can actually be really good for us. So [I would encourage students] to see college as a time to try new things and not to be afraid of grades and perfection.”
What historical time would you like to travel to?
“The obvious one would be to go to the time period I study because that would then give me some sort of insight on a particular thing—like a source that I looked at that suggested something, but there’s no way of finding the answer unless I was actually there.”
“I have this interest also in the history of Christianity, ancient history. I would like to meet Emperor Constantine because his conversion to Christianity is a really big event for the creation of Christendom, [and] the Roman empire going from persecuting Christians to becoming Christian. I would like to meet Emperor Constantine to get a sense for the reasons behind his conversion to Christianity and what he did in bringing Christianity to the empire.”
What is on your bucket list?
“One of the things that I’ve done is, after college, some friends and I, my best friends from college, we sailed in the Mediterranean and the Greek Isles. Sort of along the lines of Odysseus in The Odyssey. We had our little summer Odyssey… where we read Homer on the ship. So that was definitely a bucket list thing.”
“I [want to] build my own house. I [want to] live in the country, that goes with the gardening thing and that also [sort of] extends out of the woodworking too, building something with your own hands. I love architecture. Probably something “cottagey” or from the British colonial style.”
“This is really aspirational, but you did say bucket list. My wife actually grew up in a house that her grandfather had built from scratch so [I appreciate] the symbolism of building the house that you live in.”
What was your dream job growing up?
“I went through several. I wanted to be an architect, so you can see the connection there. And then I wanted to be a filmmaker. And I pursued that; I’ve actually made several films- documentaries as well as narrative short films. Then I wanted to be a diplomat, and so I was going to do history and international relations.”
“And then it was being in college and just loving the life of the mind and getting to read and ask questions and think about the past that I was like, “Yes!” I liked history before, but it wasn’t until college that I said, “Oh this is something that I [want to] do; I [want to] share my love of history with students and try to make a living off it.”
“I had some great mentors and professors [in college] who were at an institution that definitely pushed them to focus on research, but they loved teaching, and it showed. And I think their love and their gifts as teachers were infectious. It was the example of good teachers that made me want to be a teacher.”
The Daily Runner extends a huge thank you to Dr. Iliff for taking the time to speak with us and investing in the Christian growth and education of college students.