Is Literature a Vehicle for Learning Empathy?

As the fall semester draws to a close, two students — Paige Nelson and Isadora Baughman — offer their thought-provoking reflections on how they came to study literature and how it can enhance knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.

More Than Fiction: How Stories Make Us Better People

by Paige Nielsen

My first exposure to literature was self-driven but not exactly intentional. After I learned to read, I consumed anything that I could get my hands on. I not only loved the words, but I also loved how those words conjured up pictures and led me to places I had never been. 

Story is something that binds us all together—it is the first way that knowledge was passed down orally, and it continues to be central to how we learn about the world around us. We use our own kind of stories to explain the natural processes of our planet and species when we conduct science experiments and write hypotheses and lab reports. We grow up with bedtime stories and the stories that our parents and grandparents tell us about their days in our place. And besides that, story is how we communicate every day. Books opened up my world beyond the streets of my small suburb into a vast country of spy schools and city apartments, with new countries and planets just past the horizon.

More than anything, I value literature because it teaches empathy in a way that no other discipline can because it allows you to step into someone else’s shoes. I decided to study English because I love the way that books reflect life back to the reader and in turn teach us more about ourselves and each other. I think that if you can gain a greater understanding of the people around you then you can be a better friend, employee, student, and community member. Literature is a bridge that we can use to learn more about dimensions of life that we have never experienced.

For me, literature is both a vehicle for finding our own voices and a way to hone our listening skills so that we can learn from our comrades on this walk we call life. These words we study all strung together on pages are not just created for amusement—they hold wisdom and guidance for all who come searching.

My approach to literature is not defined by a theory. Instead, I approach it with a pen in hand and search for how it resonates in my head and in my chest with the discourse of my life. I focus in on how people struggle and recover—mostly, I think, because I am fascinated by resilience and the lack thereof. I love learning about how people function, and in a way literature is all about how we function and overcome. 

Another thing I often find myself noticing is how literature connects us all together through shared experiences, because if it happened in a book then it happened to someone else too.  When studying literature in high school, besides the assigned questions for readings, I remember always wanting to know how to avoid the pitfalls in my path like the ones I read about in our texts. We focused on societal issues and explored them through our texts, so I wanted to figure out how to solve world peace through one giant book club. 

I have encountered a lot of poetry, plays, and novels, spanning from Beowulf to King Lear to Never Let Me Go to A Light in August to The Brothers Karamazov, and I have never walked away from a book without being reminded that we all have an individual experience that is far too valuable to be muted or ignored. The books I was privileged to encounter taught me about more than their characters and their plot lines. Literature, to my mind, is the best vehicle for teaching empathy because it allows total strangers to encounter issues they could never fathom with clarity.

Yes, Literature Is as Powerful as You Think: My Journey as an English Major

by Isadora Baughman

My study of English literature so far has always been ongoing and natural. Growing up, reading was a favorite pastime. Books were not only a source of entertainment for me, they provided security and safety from sometimes too-loud fifth grade classmates. Moreover, books and the stories they told captured my attention and imagination. I remember being glued to the pages of the children’s versions of Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Jane Eyre, enthralled by the journeys of the main characters and wishing I could join them.

My passion for books and reading followed me through high school, where we had an English class each semester. At first, we studied American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Glass Castle in Freshman English before moving on to upper-level topics such as British Literature, Greek Myths, and even Literature and Film. As much as I enjoyed these classes, I was hesitant to continue to pursue English when I reached college. With loving books and enjoying English classes for so long, I thought I should take the time to explore other disciplines before doing anything more with English. 

Fortunately, my English 113 class second-semester freshman year reminded me of my lifelong passion for literature and researching ideas. Ever since, I have not stopped taking classes. At first I was just an English minor, but I soon declared English literature as another major when I realized I would miss English classes if I stopped taking them. I enjoyed the freedom of interpreting texts from my perspective and then presenting my points in the form of papers too much to resist.

In college, I have taken a variety of courses: beginning with examining ancient Greek and Roman works, I have also studied literature from World War I, African American literature, and the works of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway. From my courses, I have learned how much history and society shape the literature we read. Likewise, I have also learned how much literature can shape history and society in return.

While I am reading, I value entering characters’ worldviews and in that way broadening my own. I believe that reading, especially about cultures or characters different from your own, helps you develop empathy and acceptance for others.

I believe literature has this power not only based off my own feelings, but the research I conducted this past summer. As well as being an English major, I am also a Psychology major, and I helped conduct research about the effects of literature on readers’ social cognitive abilities. We had participants read excerpts from fiction or nonfiction pieces and then respond to an article about an international conflict. We measured for different aspects of the social cognitive ability “wise reasoning” (which involves humility and perspective-taking).

While we did not find that the different types of reading affected the participants’ levels of wise reasoning in the short-term, there was correlational evidence that reading in the long-term might affect intellectual humility and aspects of wise reasoning. Reading, then, could aid us in developing wise reasoning and empathy towards others in the long-term.

Although the relationship between reader and text still has to be fully teased apart scientifically, intuitively, literature changes you as it has changed me. It is an all-encompassing, interdisciplinary way to not only express and receive words but learn about yourself and others. How lucky are we to be a part of it.

Fun Facts about Going to the Theater in the 19th Century

A Faculty Feature by Dr. Emily Tucker

Popular theater in nineteenth-century Britain drew enormous audiences and exerted tremendous influence on writers in other genres. Sadly, though, it has a bad reputation as “the nadir of the English drama.”1 Other than late-century playwrights like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, most writers for the nineteenth-century stage are rarely taught in college courses or performed in theaters anymore.

Okay, I’ll admit, there is plenty to dislike, from contrived plotting to political messages that could veer into sexism, racism, colonialism, and other problems. Still, if you’re willing to wade through some occasionally terrible texts, there are moments of tremendous creativity and humor. As a preview of my upcoming public talk at the English Department Colloquium on Dec. 3rd, I’ve collected a few of those gems for you here:

Surprising Feminist Origins of the Train Tracks Rescue

The thrilling, last-minute rescue of a damsel in distress tied to railroad tracks is popularly (somewhat erroneously) thought of as a cliché of the silent film era, but it appeared far more frequently on stage. While these days, the trope is often associated with female victims rescued by men, this wasn’t always the case.

The train tracks rescue was popularized by Augustin Daly’s 1867 play Under the Gaslight, an American play that eventually made its way to London. It inspired many other plays to make use of the dangers of the railway—in fact, Daly won a court case against the famous Irish playwright Dion Boucicault after Boucicault included a similar scene in his 1868 play After Dark.2

Under the Gaslight features a male victim named Snorkey who is tied to the tracks while the heroine, Laura, is locked in a nearby shed. She breaks down the door with an axe and releases Snorkey just before the express train rushes past. The scene ends with the grateful Snorkey exclaiming: “And these are the women who ain’t to have a vote!”

A black-and-white illustration of a woman about to rescue a man who is tied to train tracks, while a train approaches in the distance (from 1868).
Laura about to save Snorkey in the nick of time! (1868)

Expressive Forms of Being Angry for a Polite Audience

Creative insults and emotional outbursts are certainly not unique to the nineteenth-century stage, but the oversized emotions combined with the sometimes rigid licensing standards of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office led to some particularly interesting examples.

Nineteenth-century audiences were treated to invectives like “rascally night hawk!” and “herring-gutted villain!” Meanwhile, villains who found their evil plans flummoxed would sometimes give audiences a condensed version of their own psychological state; for instance, an American play adapted for the British stage features a frustrated evildoer shouting “Confusion!”

Stage Adaptations That Preceded the Completion of their Source Materials

Because many Victorian novels were serialized, there could be a substantial gap in time between the publication of the initial chapters and the final ones. Playwrights attempting to capitalize on popular novels still ongoing were therefore frequently in the position of having to write their own endings. Scholar Deborah Vlock notes that there were twenty-five theatrical versions of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby produced before the novel’s completion, resulting in what she terms “a larger Nickleby experience.”3

The circulation of numerous versions of the plot and characters while the novel was still in process gave nineteenth-century audiences a sort of precursor to today’s popular culture, in which book series, film and television adaptations, and fan-created works all contribute to our perceptions of popular stories and characters.

Lots of Plays on Words

Comedic theatrical fare was very reliant on puns and wordplay, like this moment from J. R. Planche’s The Golden Fleece:

Chorus: Sir, I’m the chorus.
King: Sir, you’re indecorous.

Henry J. Byron’s Esmeralda, or the “Sensation” Goat!, a cheerier version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, features many similar moments of comedic wordplay, such as:

A poet, forced from the bay-leaf to fly,
‘Tis altogether past belief

The play also links “homicide” to “oh, my side!” and “animate it all” to “any mate at all.”  

Humorous Versions of Shakespeare

Nineteenth-century audiences often found a lot of humor in Shakespeare’s plays, and not just in his comedies. Shakespearean scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner argues that comedic versions of Shakespearean plays in the nineteenth century formed an “alternate literary history” that allowed for interpretations of Shakespeare outside of the emphasis on interiority.4

Referred to as travesties or burlesques, many Victorian versions of Shakespeare were designed to entertain audiences by contrasting the elevated language with silliness, such as by having Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene marred by a case of the sniffles. This same 1859 version, by Andrew Halliday, also features Queen Mab turning up at the end to bring all of the characters back to life so that they can yell at Shakespeare’s ghost!

Perdita, or The Royal Milkmaid, loosely based on The Winter’s Tale, resolves Shakespeare’s famous stage direction for Antigonus to “exit pursued by a bear” more happily than Shakespeare’s play does: instead of being mauled to death off-stage, Antigonus turns up at the play’s end with a large furry friend, who’s now wearing respectable clothing and has learned how to dance. Sadly, this reimagining of the bear’s role failed to make a lasting impact—every production I’ve seen of Shakespeare’s text has left Antigonus to his originally-planned misfortunes.

Decorative border with dancing bear.

These plays are rarely or never performed for contemporary audiences, often for entirely legitimate reasons. However, the existing scripts give us a fascinating glimpse into popular entertainment at this point in time, and contain many moments of humor and drama that are worthy of applause.


Professor Tucker will speak on “Charles Dickens & Victorian Melodrama” at the English Colloquium on Tuesday, December 3rd at 5:30 p.m. in VanderWerf 104. Professor McGunigal is also presenting. Pizza provided. All of Hope is invited.

References:

  1. Hadley, Elaine. Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1855, (Stanford UP, 1995), 2.
  2. Daly, Nicholas. “Blood on the Tracks: Sensation Drama, the Railway, and the Dark Face of Modernity,” (Victorian Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 1998), 48-49.
  3. Vlock, Deborah. Dickens, Novel Reading, and the Victorian Popular Theatre, (Cambridge UP, 1998), 3.
  4. Pollack-Pelzner, Daniel. “Shakespeare Burlesque and the Performing Self,” (Victorian Studies, vol. 54, no. 3, 2012), 401.

5 Literary Feasts to Sate Your Imagination

With all the snow coming down this week, it’s not so hard to believe that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. To get us in the mood for food, we’re thinking about some of the most memorable feasts in fiction. What’s the first one to pop into your mind?

Supper and a Toast in Joyce’s “The Dead”

“It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance,” James Joyce tells us in “The Dead,” one of the best-known stories in his famous 1914 collection, Dubliners. “Never once had it fallen flat.”

Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist, feels pressure to keep up this tradition, knowing he’s expected to address the crowd with a festive speech at suppertime. But the guests are probably in a forgiving mood, considering that this sumptuous meal awaits them:

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting…

Was ever a meal described in more loving detail? One has to suspect Joyce was hungry while writing it…

Wedding Cake Blues in Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate

It’s hard to talk about food in fiction without including the book where food literally embodies emotion: Like Water For Chocolate, a magical realist tale in a historical setting, published in 1989 by Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel. Tita, the heroine, is held back by her strict family, but when she cooks, the pent-up feelings she’s experiencing are felt by whoever eats her cooking!

This is never more memorable than at the wedding feast of Pedro, her beloved, who unfortunately happens to be marrying Tita’s sister. Tita stirs her own tears into the wedding cake batter… and the result is not a joyful end to the celebrations.

An array of cakes and cookies.

The Fifteen-Day Feast in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

The unnamed author of this late-14th-century poem about the days of King Arthur really liked a good feast. The most memorable one, celebrated over the holiday season, went on for quite a while!

This King lay royally at Camelot at Christmas tide with … all the rich brethren of the Round Table, with right rich revel and careless mirth … For there the feast was held full fifteen days alike with all the meat and the mirth that men could devise. Such a merry tumult, glorious to hear; joyful din by day, dancing at night.

Trans. by W. A. Neilson

All the meat and the mirth? Sounds like an excellent party, unless you’re a vegetarian.

A Feast of Fancy in Burnett’s A Little Princess

Sara Crewe was used to the finer things, but after her father’s death, the young heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1904 children’s book A Little Princess must live as a servant in an unheated attic with rats. On one especially hard and hungry evening, she and her friends take comfort in imagination: they pretend to have a grand banquet, complete with minstrels, golden platters, carven flagons, and a feast of sweet things to eat.

Caught and punished by her cruel employer, Sara falls asleep in despair, only to awake to find that something like her fantasy has some how, unbelievably, come true:

In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimson rug; before the fire a folding-chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small folding-table, unfolded, covered with a white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curious wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slippers, and some books. The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland—and it was flooded with warm light, for a bright lamp stood on the table covered with a rosy shade.

After Sara has called in her friend, “they removed the covers of the dishes, and found rich, hot, savory soup, which was a meal in itself, and sandwiches and toast and muffins enough for both of them.”

Is it a dream? Magic? Or is there some still more surprising explanation? We suggest picking up the book to find out.

Bob Cratchit’s Christmas Dinner in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

Naturally, the list wouldn’t be complete without this. No, not that skimpy little goose the Cratchits would have eaten and enjoyed! We mean the big prize turkey that Scrooge sends to them after he embraces the true Christmas spirit. And don’t forget “the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball … bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”!

Then again, you might also think of the impressive feast that the Ghost of Christmas Present brings with him:

“Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see…”

But Scrooge isn’t reformed yet, so nobody eats this feast which is maybe for the best, since it’s been sat on.

Which of these dishes would you pick if you could have one appear by magic? And what other literary feasts have made you drool?

For the English Major with No Plan: Alumni Interview with Brooke Furry ’13

Hope graduate Brooke (McDonald) Furry shares her surprising journey into the world of marketing, and how her English degree prepared her to thrive in business and leisure.

Thanks for speaking with us, Brooke. So, what do you do now? And we’ve love to hear about how you got there, as well.

I’m a marketing manager. It wasn’t my plan, but here I am.

Like many English majors, all I wanted after graduation was to get paid to write! For my first job, I worked at a tiny web development agency in Minneapolis writing web copy for small businesses. I left after a year for a larger digital marketing agency, where I started out writing but ended up managing projects and working with clients. As the business grew, the pace sped up. I worked longer hours, ate too many Twizzlers, and cried a lot. Despite the stress, the lessons that agency life taught me — in advertising, strategy, creativity, quality — should count for a mini marketing degree!

When the time felt right, I took a new writer gig at a software company. It was comfortable and wonderful. As doors opened to new opportunities, however, I felt ready for something more. So I started walking through doors until I stepped into my current role managing a team.

Marketing is all about telling stories that resonate with people (and getting those people to act). Management is all about helping people succeed and grow. Blending the two has been a surprisingly good fit for me. I could not do this without both my English background and also those first few grueling years of agency life that filled the gaps.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

At a very basic level, it humbled me! I will never forget sitting in class my freshman year hearing classmates drop names I’d never heard of, like Toni Morrison and Aldous Huxley. These bright kids were far beyond me in their ability to articulate opinions and reach conclusions. Daily immersion with them (and the brilliant, thoughtful professors who guided us) sharpened and challenged my brain.

Exposure to the world’s best literature also refined my palette. I’d like to think I’m a more discerning reader now. Like people who love craft beer or making homemade pasta, once you’ve tasted what’s truly good, it’s darn near impossible to go back.

Creative writing classes taught me how to tell the truth, avoid the saccharine, and bring my “best whiskey” to the table (your metaphor will forever stick with me, Heather Sellers). I use these skills every day, in both professional and personal writing. 

Did you study off campus? And if so, what did it mean to you?

Yes! Junior year, I spent a semester participating in The Philadelphia Center (TPC). For 16 weeks, I interned at a legal newspaper, took urban issues and marketing classes, lived in Chinatown… and sampled all the cheesesteaks.

Living and working in the city was immensely practical. My fellow classmates and I learned to balance career, class, and tourism. We dealt with landlords, public transportation, and bosses — all with TPC as our safety net. And we gained what was, for most of us, our first real job experience. Personally, living downtown and mixing with students from other institutions exposed me to new viewpoints and helped me define my own values more clearly.

If I ever had a doubt beforehand that my liberal arts education wouldn’t translate to the “real world,” I left Philadelphia confident that it would. For any student who wants a trial run at adult life (and an excellent addition to your resume), I can’t recommend a program like this more highly. 

If you could start a nonprofit, who would it help?

Low-income mothers! Pregnancy and parenting are overwhelming enough for people with plenty of resources and quality healthcare. So many families worldwide want to care for their children but lack basic necessities, and it’s heartbreaking.

I say this because my husband and I are about to welcome our first child into the world, so motherhood is top of mind for me! As is reading all those books on my shelves that I haven’t had time to tackle. It’s going to be a lovely maternity leave.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

My book club recently read Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. What an unbelievable story of overcoming, told with such insight.

In one of the story’s defining moments, Tara finds herself at Cambridge University, far from home, dealing with major self-doubt. Despite high praise from her academic advisor, she attributes her success to “the Cambridge effect” — that at such a lofty institution, everything, including herself, appears more impressive than it really is.

And her advisor tells her this:

“You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were.” 

I believe the gift of college is time and space not only to discover who you truly are, but who you can be. To help you shine for the rest of your life… whether you pursue grad school, the corporate world, teaching, starting your own business, or whatever path you choose. What a privilege!

Transformed by Hope: An English & History Alum Returns

Meet our new Office Manager & Hope Alum ’12, Alison Lechner, as she shares how her experience at Hope shaped her career.

How did your Hope education shape you?

Alison Lechner, Class of 2012

I feel very blessed to have earned a liberal arts education, and that has absolutely benefited me in my career post-graduation. I was a History and Environmental Studies composite major, which allowed me to tailor a lot of my research in a way that I know I would have never been able to do had I gone to a traditional university.

I eventually went on to work in arts administration and earn my Masters in Art History, and I know that my writing skills set me apart as a candidate in the art world. In grad school, I was much more prepared than most of my classmates when it came to research writing and critical thinking. The liberal arts do such a tremendous job at teaching you how to think, not necessarily what to think. I’ve spent a lot of my art historical research on the notion of institutional critique, and I think my interest in that topic was inspired by this innate sense of questioning that I learned here.

Alison with her research on artist Carrie Mae Weems displayed at an exhibition at the Jepson Museum of Contemporary Art in Savannah, 2018.

I also took writing courses that allowed me to be creative. I know my work in copywriting and art criticism has truly benefited from the creative writing courses I took at Hope. Heather Sellers was my creative writing professor and was my first example of how discipline needs to be a constant companion of a creative life. She often preached to us about routine, prompts, and a need to see your writing as a kind of muscle that should be stretched and challenged in order to grow.

I’m a highly organized person (hence why I love being an office manager), and I think her way of approaching the writing process really made sense to me as a creative person who also needs order to produce results. I’ve never been some bohemian artist; I thrive on strategy and timelines, and Heather was the first person to show me that there was more than one way to nurture your life as a creative. That has probably been one of the most important things I ever learned at Hope.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

Alison as a Freshman at Hope (center), 2008.

I have a 3-way tie for this! Two recent choices are Michael Pollen’s How to Change Your Mind and Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World, plus one from my college days: Marion Winik’s Glen Rock Book of the Dead.
Pollan is an exceptional researcher, someone who has a real talent for fleshing out the origins of the topic he is writing about – in this case, the use of Psilocybin in therapy. I learn so much from his writing, both from a historian’s perspective and from a deep appreciation of his ability to make complex topics engaging.

Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World really inspired me to pursue work in the arts and is a refreshingly honest take on how the modern art world operates. Working with and for artists on a large scale can be both challenging and rewarding, and Thornton doesn’t shy away from the sometimes contradictory aspects of working in the arts. I re-read it usually once a year and I always take something new away from it every time.

I was really lucky to read Winik’s Glen Rock Book of the Dead in Heather Seller’s ENGL 454 class, and it quickly became my favorite book of all time (See my lovely classmate Stephanie Mouw’s similar adoration for this text in her blog post). Winik’s skill as a poet is so visible in her short stories; she creates these incredibly tender, artful vignettes of people she knew who have died. I’ve had a recent loss of someone who was really larger-than-life, and Winik’s writing always seems like the most complete understanding of grief which otherwise has felt like such an enigma.

What do you now wish you had learned or done in college?

Alison with Senator Tim Kaine during the Washington, D.C. semester, 2011.

I wish that I had been more focused on my life after college, which is something that took me longer than I’d like to figure out. My advice is to talk to professionals whose career you admire while you’re in school, and don’t stop learning even once you are out of the classroom. Stay curious about the things you love and they will never become work. 

What are your goals for the History and English Departments?

Alison (left) with her Hope roommate Anne in 2011.

I would love to gain more exposure for both departments among the student body. Both English and History are programs that are applicable to wide variety of career paths. I believe a core foundation in writing and research are so vital to success in the working world; being able to communicate your ideas effectively and creatively is truly invaluable. All of the professors that work in these departments are so passionate about their area of expertise and we are really lucky to be able to learn from them.

What do you like to do in your free time?

You can catch Alison taking photos all around campus for both departments’ social media, like this one from Lubbers.

I’m an avid boxer and I love being active – yoga, lifting, running, hiking. Since I’ve moved back to Michigan, I spend as much time outside in nature as I can. I’m also a photographer and try to participate in the arts scene between here, Saugatuck, and Grand Rapids – my goal is to start writing art reviews, which I was lucky enough to do in Atlanta [where Alison spent the past 7 years]. I try to spend a lot of time with my family and close girlfriends here as well; it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to move back.

Hope Graduation, 2012

The Benefits & Beauties of Pairing English with Another Discipline

Today we continue with more brief personal reflections written for Professor Curtis Gruenler’s Literary Theory course. Aine O’Connor and Taylor Lombard illuminate how their study of history and biology (respectively) has intersected with their literary learning.

Aine O’Connor, “Miracle of Miracles: Storytelling as Power”

I am often asked, especially now in my senior year, what I have learned from my two majors. The answer is more complicated than the questioner perceives. Lately, my response has been that history taught me storytelling and English taught me everything else.

Often, the questioner seems confused by this answer. I think they believe the two should be switched—that English taught me the meaning of a good story and history taught me about the “real world.” Of course, both majors offer a healthy mix of things to learn about. English, though, magnifies the glory of humanity’s wonder in ways I never could’ve imagined when I decided to pursue the field as a major.

Within Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates tells his companions: “everything that fable-tellers or poets say is a narrative of past or present or future” (Plato 392d). This quote gets at a critical tenet of learning both English and history: nothing and nobody exists in a vacuum. Every single book included in any curriculum came from a contextual background. We, too, are made up of pieces of other people, pieces of our past that have (miracle of miracles) bound together to create us.

Humans and books have a lot in common. The best of both help us realize that we are not alone, and that we came from somewhere and are going somewhere else. The English classes I have enjoyed the most are the ones designed to include literature that stuns me in its relatability. Complex characters invite recognition and appreciation.

I carry many characters within me. Some have been tagging along in my life since I was very young. The first fictional character I felt close to was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, a quiet yet plucky child who read voraciously, loved school, and firmly believed in the power of self-advocacy to make a difference. As a quiet yet plucky child who read voraciously, loved school, and desperately wanted to use my voice to change something (not my parents—unlike Matilda, my parents are wonderful), seeing a character who felt so much like me was a bolt of lightning.

My adult self knows just how lucky I was to find a character who looked and felt like me at such a young age. Much of my research in English throughout my time at Hope has been working towards a world where all children find a character to whom they can relate, whether in race, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, ability, ethnic background, or any other identifier. For so many generations, a huge portion of humanity was left out of classic literature, or portrayed solely as a stereotype. Curricula can and should change to reflect the diversity of the human experience; I’ve been enormously grateful to have been on the receiving end of many these shifting curricula at Hope, from African American literature to Big Read books to disability YA novels.

Reading books across so many different genres is a gift. While many of my close friends struggle to stay motivated in majors that are essentially a means to an end, I get to do and read what I love every single day. That statement does not imply that my majors are easy. No, all it means is that my struggle to understand, to learn, and to grow is a beautiful conversation amongst different times, stories, cultures, and personalities. Books have taught me that I am miraculous, and, far more importantly, they have taught me that everyone else is miraculous, too. True joy is reading literature that motivates us to wonder, to marvel at the complex world around us that holds more beauty than darkness.

Taylor Lombard, “The Study of Life”

My study of English literature thus far has spanned genres, time periods, and cultures. Throughout higher education, my studies have included analysis of novels, memoirs, poems, journals, and short stories. Though primarily focused on British Literature and 20th Century American Literature, I have also explored the cultures and perspectives of nations around the world during courses focused on global literature. From these various readings, I learned more about myself, others, and the world around me.

The decision to study English was, for me, less of a decision than a consequence of my interests. My desire to understand people led me to appreciate any and all literature responding to the human condition. As a Biology major, I am familiar with studying the human person through a scientific lens. While science helps us explore the human anatomy, literature serves as a medium to explore the complexities of the human mind and soul.

In high school, I began to appreciate the role literature plays in the exploration of humanity: why people make certain decisions, how desires lead individuals to achieve great feats, why pain drives others to tragic ends, and when a greater purpose has the power to bring people together. I am drawn to English because its domain of influence is not singular, but rather transcends across all areas of life.

In studying English, I hope to improve my critical reasoning skills, explore the human psyche, and broaden my understanding of the world as a whole. Already, the skills I have developed in English courses—how to analyze texts, dissect layered meanings, and interpret nuances—have transferred outside the classroom to positively influence the ways I approach scientific literature, problem solving, and conversations. I hope to further develop cognitive thinking skills as I prepare to enter the medical field. As a health professional, the ability to think in a critical and multidimensional fashion will better serve patients in need.

My approach to studying literature was greatly influenced by my instructors. Claudia Taniguchi challenged me to question an author’s decisions and draw conclusions about humanity from the desires of characters. Dr. Rhoda Burton invited me to apply literary theory for a more in-depth analysis. I was encouraged to approach texts with different perspectives—focusing on content, gender, historical context, or the human psyche—to reach a richer understanding of both the purpose and meaning. While Taniguchi fostered the development my analytical skills, Burton provided me with the knowledge and vocabulary to more accurately describe the approach with which I was analyzing texts. As my studies continue, I look forward to further developing my skills and enhancing my vocabulary.

Literature has played a substantial role in my overall education, despite my dedication to the sciences. The tools developed in English courses, such as the ability to analyze texts, ponder deeper meanings, and grapple with ambiguity, have contributed to my success as a student. When the scientific world becomes too rigid and confined, English allows me to escape to a place where creativity and imagination are welcome, and the exploration of higher thinking is encouraged.

Words and Images. Images and Words.

Artists often take inspiration from each other’s work. Picasso’s painting Don Quixote, inspired by the literary character of the same name, may be more recognizable to viewers today than the story itself. The famous painting Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, depicting that character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, almost seems to be part of the play.  Elida Tessler’s installation Dubling, using 4311 verbs stamped onto corks and placed in 4311 bottles, takes inspiration from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses yet confronts it in interesting ways. You may see for yourself on the Art World blog.

Sir John Everett Millais Ophelia (1851-2). Oil paint on canvas. ©Tate 2016.

Influence between words and images doesn’t just run one way. Poets have long been inspired by visual art. In fact, the relationship between poetry and visual art goes back to antiquity.

To the ancient Greeks, ekphrasis was the process of describing visual art through another art form, mostly poetry. The American Academy of Poetry claims that ekphrastic poetry now confronts, beholds, and interprets visual art more often than simply describing it. Like language itself, then, the dynamic act of ekphrasis is full of potential for experimentation.

Experiment is just what some of this semester’s creative writing students have done, exploring the edges and depth of ekphrastic poetry.

Early one morning, the Kruizenga Art Museum generously opened its doors before regular hours to host sixteen creative writers from English 253, Introductory Creative Writing, who went with the hope that art would beckon them to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects through ekphrastic poems. There was much beauty to behold from the permanent collection, as well as the two exhibits: “Capturing Light: The Art of Shin Sawano, a Tradition for the Future of Japan” and “Deities and Devotion in Mongolian Buddhist Art.”  

Before long, each student stood transfixed before a piece of work, pacing, scribbling, glancing at the work from another angle, seemingly transported in the exchange.

“Green Tara.” Hope College Collection; image courtesy of Kruizenga Art Museum

The poems that follow are a sampling of that day’s work, no two alike, even though you’ll see that two students selected the same painting to write from.   A few added a preface to their work, while others let the poems stand alone; all hope you’ll enjoy their creations. We’re also working on a podcast project called “Finding Our Common Humanity”—stay tuned for more on that.

And if you’d like to make some interesting creations of your own, know we’d be happy to see you in English 253 next semester!


From Gillian Skiba: “The painting Madame Cezanne by Grace Hartigan depicts the wife of artist Paul Cezanne amid splatters of paint to comment on the many women who are influential in the art world and do not receive credit. When I first saw it, I didn’t realize that there was a human figure under the splatters, and when I did see it, I thought that it was a man at first. Once I saw her, though, it felt like she was calling out to me. It felt like she wanted me to choose her painting and share her story, so I did. 

“She Speaks” by Gillian Skiba

She speaks to me
a faint little whisper
so quiet I almost miss it.

From deep in the background
barely visible
covered by those who don’t want us to see.

She speaks to me
calling me forward
to search where most would ignore.

Is it actually a woman I hear?
The figure is hard to make out
distorted and hidden in shadow.

They wouldn’t want me to see her if it is.
They’d have put her there on purpose.

They don’t like us.

But it is a woman
and unyieldingly she reaches out
pushing, pushing, pushing.

The
dots
part.

Distance gives clarity.
After too long ignored, she stands tall
behind nothing, second to none.

She speaks to me.
She has no mouth with which to speak
but she speaks to me.

“I
am
Here.”

*

From Noel Vanderbilt: “The artist is Hendrik Willem Mesdag. His main focus was painting scenes near his home in the Hague. This piece, an oil painting titled Return from Fishing, shows a man riding into the waves to gather ropes from a fishing boat that will be used to haul the craft ashore.”

“Return from Fishing” by Noel Vanderbilt

In the Hague,
Grey clouds tremble
Across a wild sky
Pregnant with unknown.

Gulls dive and screech,
Swooping
Among herds of fishing boats
Straggling home.

Tattered sails whip in the rising wind.
Smooth prows slice the waves.
Figures crouch among the nets,
Flashing their silvery catches.

One vessel
Looms nearer

Where I watch,
Wheeling my father’s horse
Along the sandy beach.

A voice calls out across the troubled waters
Slipping through the salty air:
“Ay, ropes man!”

His voice stirs deep inside.
Bitter waves of recognition swirl
In my soul.
The impossible.

The smooth leather of the reins is taut
Within my clenched fingers.
Krijgen chomps, strains at the bit,
Prances, muscles rippling beneath his glossy coat,
Eager to plunge.

I tremble, wanting the distance of this shore,
Wanting to turn and flee,
But in a wild leap

Krijgen surges forward, drawn by the call, hooves pounding against the beach
Carrying me into the waves with a splash.

Icy water numbs my legs
And the numbness creeps higher, lacing its fingers around my chest,
Squeezing.

I cling tighter, dark mane and rein jumbled in my groping fingers.
Ahead, out of the sea looms the sail,
Tarnished, brown, weatherbeaten like my father’s face.
To me the face that lived only as a memory.

Numbness rises inside,
The ache of fear and pain
Mounting, throbbing in my ears
And on my cheeks and in my skin.

Bone-chilling water whirls over Krijgen, over me.
The man shouts again: “Krijgen!”
His voice probing like fingers reaching into lockboxes of yesterdays gone.
Krijgen snorts, swimming harder, faster, frenzied with excitement.
The numbness swells and bursts with pain to wild passion

Mijn vader!

But he doesn’t even see me.

*

A Sonnet on Hendrik Willem Mesdag’s “Return from Fishing” by Grace Alex

The rustic ships come to the gloomy Hague
I ride to meet them on my brown small horse
Wide brimmed boats finishing their course
The catch is here, lifting the tired fog
Waves of green and grey come tumbling in
The clouds of purple beckon them to begin
Unload their catch upon the murky coast
The red and yellow sails billow a toast
To health and wealth and all things Scheveningen
Beautiful beach, such wide and dark ye lie
My princess in these ships do die
The gorgeous fruit of my demise
O help me wind to carry out my endeavor
Help these ships to port in winter
To hold until the wind doth tide
The sailors pull their sails beside
Let the sweet Hague fill the space
Of this here painting, a picture of my face

*

From Ty Overhiser: “The name of the sculpture is Lords of the Cemetery. The artist is unknown, but it is a Mongolian work. As soon as I saw the piece, I could see them dancing and moving; there was something behind the eyes.”

Untitled by Ty Overhiser

Skeletons dance in the night
Prance through your cultural routine.
Bones of the dead, clack together
Echoing through the empty dark.
Could they be lovers rising from the dead
Or is the figure in blue the brother of the one in red?
Their slack jaws fall in a smile
Celebratory over the matters of death.
Empty rib cages, seemingly gutted.
Lined with red remnants, the hollow shell.
Not broken nor beaten the skeletons dance
‘Tis no dream or a joke. The dancers are alive.
The rattling I hear cannot be in my head,
nor the clubs in their hands, or stalks of grains,
or the perched-out knees, that stay firm.
No, it’s the lords of the cemetery,
The dancing of the dead.

*

From Andrew Gibson: “This piece is the one with all of the bees in it and has to do with colony collapse disorder, a condition that is killing off bees. I wrote this poem with the intention of making the reader think about bees but without outright stating that it was about bees.”

Buzz
A Buzz buzzes buzzingly
Black brightly buzzes and blinks
Yellow, is yellow
Yellow and black, black and yellow
Buzz buzz buzz
Buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz Buzz
Buzz

*

“Landscape With Cattle” by Katy Smith (inspired by the painting “Landscape with Cattle” by Jules Dupre)

as the storm rolls in, I feel
jumping, leaping
catapulting in my Heart.
The clouds scream, a battle cry of
lifting, a profession of support.

before the storm arrives, I lament
my body — raped, burned
branded and claimed.
Simply a possession of the Farmer, 
a fearless man just looking to feed
his family.

once the storm comes, I will grab
Freedom, 50 white stars
for everyone — including me — and seize it as my own.

*

Want to see the images that inspired these poems? They’re hanging in the Kruizenga Art Museum (and entry is free…).

“Mt. Fuji at Lake Yamanaka, Japan” by Shin-ichiro Sawano. Loan courtesy of the artist; image courtesy of Kruizenga Art Museum.

Freshly Picked: Spring English Courses!

Not sure which English classes to take this coming spring? We’ve got you covered. Here are just some of the courses we will be offering for the coming semester:


ENGL 213.01 – Expository Writing – TR 3-3:50 PM – David James

In this workshop-oriented course, students will make all their own choices about both topics and nonfiction genres, depending on their needs and interests.  In the process, everyone will focus on clarity and style to suit intended audiences and purposes, not the prof’s idiosyncrasies. Optional revising with further feedback will then lead to a semester’s end portfolio for the final grade.

Also available as an on-campus May Term!


ENGL 231 – Literature of the Western World 1 – MWF 11-11:50 AM – Stephen Hemenway

Image courtesy of WarnerBros.

Aesop’s fables and Homer’s tales of war and adventure start you on an odyssey of ancient literature. Frowns and smiles accompany your dramatic responses to Greek tragedies and comedies. Ancient Roman and medieval Italian epics send you on a spiritual journey that also embraces excerpts from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Chinese Tao Te Ching. Chaucer takes you on a pilgrimage with the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, and Cervantes inaugurates a quest for an impossible dream with Don Quixote. Sappho, Lady Murasaki, Margery Kempe, Marguerite de Navarre, and Sor Juana de la Cruz go places where few females dare to tread. Michelangelo, Columbus, and Shakespeare lead you through the Renaissance and Reformation and prepare you for the modern world. As you investigate and explore these authors and works, you read and take tests or written test alternatives, write journals and short papers (or a longer research project), and engage in lively discussions about these masterpieces of Western literature in a global context.

ENGL 270.01 – British Lit II – MWF 2-2:50 PM – Stephen Hemenway

“Lady Lilith” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti via MetMuseum

This delightful, daunting course will acquaint you with major movements and must-read writers in Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Commonwealth during the Romantic, Victorian, Early Modern, and Postmodern Eras (roughly 1770-2020). The literary canon of vital male poets (Blake, Keats, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, and Auden) will be augmented by wondrous women warriors (Austen, Shelley, Woolf, Mansfield, and Atwood), Irish giants (Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Heaney), and fresh Commonwealth voices (Rhys, Soyinka, Munro, Rushdie, and Zadie Smith). Approximately equal time will be devoted to poetry, fiction, and drama. Forging links between geographical centers, between genders, between genres, between races, and between critical approaches will be among the impossible dreams of the teacher.

Format: lecture, discussion, improvisation, collaborative learning.

Reading: moderate but meaningful.

Writing: 3 tests/test alternatives, 3 out-of-class papers or nonpapers, short journal-type reaction pieces, etc.


ENGL 248.02 – Monsters, From Beowulf to Beloved – TR 1:30 – 2:50 PM – Jesus Montaño

What if we read Beowulf, an early medieval text written in Old English, through the lens of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel about a ghost and about slavery? What would we learn about ourselves? About others?

This course is about monsters. It is a course on literature, because tales and stories are where monsters find form, where they find life. In this, monsters are bound up in our imagination, in what we find abhorrent, frightening, horrifying. And. To a large extent, what we most fear is the Other. This, then, is our task: to look at monsters through “dark” lenses that allow us see the devaluation of humanity in the making of monsters: in other words, the making of Others.

Along with Beowulf and Beloved, we will read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The House of Asterion,” a short story told from the perspective of the Minotaur.


ENGL 354.01 – Intermediate Fiction Writing – TR 1:30-2:50 PM – Susanna Childress

Image by Free-Photos via Pixabay

According to Flannery O’Connor, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” She also said, “I write to discover what I know.” And also: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”

So this is your chance: discover what you know by saying something that can’t be said any other way, make every word integral in the saying, and also, of course, let your weird out! This is a course where we’ll experiment with a wide variety of styles and techniques in short fiction, using daily writing exercises to deeply develop your characters, push your plot lines, play with point of view, and make your dialogue do good and gritty work. We’ll read and we’ll write—a delicious lot of each! And we’ll engage in several sets of in-class critique, also known as “the workshop.”

Come discover what you know, and let the truth set you strange…


ENGL 356.02 – Creative Writing in the Community – TR 12-1:20 PM – Susanna Childress

Image via MLA.Org

How old were you when you wrote your first poem? Who first encouraged you as a storyteller? Has writing ever helped you in a season when everything else seemed doomed?

Okay—two more questions: What if you could introduce others to the power of writing? Or, put another way, how might your own love for writing connect with others to make a difference in this world?

Richard Hugo famously suggested that a creative writing class “may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters.” In this course, we’ll explore the ways that creative writing classes within the community—and on its margins—might have powerful, beautiful, and long-lasting impact not just for participants but also for facilitators.

Whether you’re a future teacher or someone who cares about hearing from voices that are often silenced, this course is for you! (Seriously, you don’t need prior experience in creative writing to take this course; i.e. no pre-reqs.) We’ll explore what it means to enact a creative writing curriculum in and for the community, why we would seek to do so, and where you—yes, you!—are interested in engaging. You’ll have a chance to connect with a community partner, create your curriculum, and facilitate classes with real, live participants.

…which means you’ll gain some “real-world” experience and a legit line on your resumé! You’ll also get to do some writing of your own as we read poetry, creative nonfiction essays, and short stories in conjunction with the visiting writers series.

So come with your heart for justice, your love of writing, and the hope to help create places where your and others’ lives matter—in this class and well beyond.


ENGL 373.03 – J.R.R. Tolkien & Medieval Literature – MW 4-5:20 PM – Curtis Gruenler

Image by Erik Stein via Pixabay

J. R. R. Tolkien is not only the most influential author of fantasy literature but also one of the great scholars of medieval literature—and each of these interests fed the other. This course will weave together the development of Old and Middle English literature with Tolkien’s career as an author and the chronology of Middle Earth. We will read medieval works that Tolkien studied, both well known and lesser known: Beowulf and other Old English poems as well as Middle English stories such as Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Death of King Arthur, and some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And we will read Tolkien’s Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and several shorter works, both creative and scholarly. Seeing how medieval literature inspired Tolkien’s work will guide us in better understanding both. The many ways in which he responded to the works he loved—scholarly articles, poems imitating old forms, sequels, translations, reconstructions of fragmentary works, drama, and, of course, his own fantasy novels—will be models for our own responses.

All medieval works will be read in modern translations, often by Tolkien himself. There will be opportunities to explore medieval literature in languages other than English (such as Welsh and Old Norse), how all these works respond to the Bible, and other topics of individual interest. The course will be conducted as a discussion-based seminar. Students will write a portfolio of pieces that will include critical writing as well as other interpretive and creative genres.


ENGL 375.01 – History of the English Language – MWF 12-12:50 PM – Curtis Gruenler

How did English come to have—by far—the largest vocabulary of any language in the world? Where did the idea of standard English come from, and who says what it is? How does English vary around the world? What is its likely future?

This course follows the whole story of the English language, from its pre-history as a member of the Indo-European family of languages to the closest thing the world has known to a global language. Our focus will be on what used to be called philology, the linguistic tools for the study of English literature in its Old, Middle, and Modern forms. As we approach the present, we will use these tools to look at the many varieties of English around the world (and especially in the United States).

Throughout the course we will also consider the relationship between the language and the history of those who use it, from the Norman Conquest to the impacts of computers and globalization. At each phase, we will analyze the various linguistic aspects of the language—sound (including Prof. Cole’s favorite topic, the Great Vowel Shift), vocabulary, grammar, writing—with a particular eye toward how this kind of analysis is important to understanding literary works. You’ll learn enough Old English to be able to read a passage of Beowulf with reference aids, but more important, you’ll have an idea what’s behind a modern translation and the choices a translator makes. We’ll analyze the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare and discuss controversies such as those over standard English usage and African-American Vernacular English. You’ll learn how to analyze the origins and development of English words and understand their range of meaning at any point in time.

Three of the greatest English philologists of the 20th century happen to have been part of the literary fellowship called the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield. As a sort of subplot, we will consider their ideas about philology, some of their philological research, and how, in Tolkien’s case, philology inspired his creation of Middle Earth and its languages.

For students of literature, the history of the English language gives you both fundamental philological tools and an overview of literary history. For writers, it provides further mastery of your medium. Recommended for those who plan to study literature or writing at the graduate level and those who plan to teach English at the secondary level or above.


ENGL 375.02 – “The I’s Have It” – TR 1:30-2:50 PM – Rhoda Burton

The goal of this class is to deepen our understanding of American literature by focusing on the role of the first-person narrator. We’ll read across two genres, memoir and fiction, in order to demonstrate that the first-person narrator has deeply impacted the trajectory of our literary canon. The class explores why so many of our canonical texts feature a first-person narrator—even when the narrator plays an ostensibly tiny background part, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. How do authors establish or undermine the credibility of their first-person narrators? And has that process changed since the advent of confessional poetry and the uptick of memoir? What’s up with all the first-person narrators who seem to play the role of creepy voyeur? Why do memoirs typically outsell novels? Together we’ll discuss the unique contribution of the first-person narrator to the trajectory of American literary cultures.


Don’t forget about Summer Courses!

Vienna Summer School – May 04-29 and June 01-26 – Stephen Hemenway

This summer’s two sessions (May, June) offer eight college credits (four each session) in numerous academic fields: “Austrian Art and Architecture,” “Modern Austrian History,” “Empires of the World and Mind,” “Vienna’s Musical Traditions,” “Literature and Self—Vienna and Beyond,” “Economic/Business Issues in Europe,” “Creative Writing—Nonfiction,” and a Senior Seminar (“Vienna: Values in Transit”). Field trips within Austria and excursions to neighboring countries add a significant dimension to the learning experience. The program, open to qualified applicants of any age who have completed at least one year of college before summer 2020, has a maximum of 54 students per session.

Vienna features everything from famous choirboys to fabled coffeehouses, from Sachertortes to the Spanish Riding School, from baroque churches to a modern United Nations complex. While in Vienna, art/architecture students explore museums and churches; students in history, literature, and “Empires” courses visit Habsburg residences and World War sites; music students attend operas and concerts; economics students meet with business experts; nonfiction students write memoirs about local people and places; senior seminar students question distinguished speakers daily. Several of these opportunities are available to all participants, and the cost of required field trips is included. Non-credit German-conversation classes meet a few afternoons each week. Beginners find these survival sessions beneficial, while those with German abilities gain more confidence.

More info and how to apply can be found here.

Helping Sick Kids Just Be Kids: Alumni Interview with Sarah Smith ’97

Sarah (Lepard) Smith (’97) is a former secondary English and Psychology education major at Hope. Currently she works at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. We asked Sarah to share some of her walk with us.

Share your work path in your pre-Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital years.

After graduation, I was hired as a high school teacher and coach in Alpena. I had the opportunity to teach 10th grade English, Introduction to Psychology (using Dr. Myers’ textbook), and Creative Writing.

In 1998, I moved back to West Michigan and began teaching in the English Department at Hamilton High School. Over my thirteen years of teaching in this district, I had the pleasure of working with many students across a variety of English courses. Perhaps my favorite course was Novels, where we could dive deeper into the literature and read simply because it is, as Mr. Moreau says, “a lifelong, pleasurable activity.” I learned so much from the students and staff in both of these professional experiences, for which I am forever grateful.

In 2011, when the new children’s hospital opened, I felt prompted to reach out and see if they had a teaching position. So I made a call to a former Hope grad (and my Child Life intern supervisor from my psychology days in the summer of ’96) to see if they had a teacher. It seemed the perfect blend of my experiences, bringing my two majors and my interests together.

How long have you been at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and what do you do there?

I began phase two of my career, at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, in July of 2011, just six months after the building opened. This was truly a leap of faith, jumping into such a unique role. As a hospital teacher/school liaison, I have the privilege of working alongside children and families as they look to find a balance between their medical and academic needs. Our hospital school program aims to bridge the gap between hospital, school, and home. We work to educate a child’s school and peers about his/her diagnosis and treatment and how those may impact classroom performance and attendance. We provide educational opportunities during treatment, and help our kids maintain involvement in normal routines within an abnormal environment.

How did a liberal arts education at Hope College help to prepare you for what you now do in service to the children with whom you work?

It is clear to me now that I was being groomed for this work during my years at Hope College. As a psychology major, I spent the summer before my senior year interning in Child Life, helping normalize the hospital environment through distraction and medical play. This was my first exposure to working within a hospital setting. The internship taught me the importance of building rapport with children and offering encouragement through difficult times by using distraction and honing into their developmental level to meet them in that moment.

As a hospital teacher, I have to be ready to work with children who are practicing their letters and crafting research papers. We study AP Biology and learn about the scientific method. We practice counting to ten, and we solve problems using imaginary numbers – sometimes with only an elevator ride in between. Thank you, Hope College, for providing a liberal arts education. Having a little exposure to many curricular topics has served me well.

And can you speak to the impact of your English major specifically?

My dad instilled the importance of being a good writer and communicator, but my English professors truly contributed to my growth in these areas. Professor Portfleet challenged me to think critically and value the power of a story (and its teller), a trait I use daily in working within a hospital setting. Professor Mezeske reminded me of the importance of the writing process and the power of revision. This attention to detail helps as I draft documents for a student’s school personnel.  Professor Ellis encouraged me to be an out-of-the-box problem solver and to sprinkle life with moments of joy – something I strive to do on a daily basis for the patients I serve.

My true passion was within the realm of secondary education. I brought my hospital-acquired skill set with me as I began my student teaching the following school year under the guidance of my Teaching of English prof, the amazing Mr. Moreau. What a gift to have his support as an instructor of how to teach Shakespeare and Emerson and how to guide our students to grow as proficient readers and writers.

Do you have any highlights from your days at Hope that you’d like to share?

Mr. Moreau remains a mentor today in all facets of life. I have many fond memories from my days at Hope, but what I appreciate the most are the professors who provided unwavering support academically and extended support professionally, and those whom I can call upon as friends even today.

What do you like to read?

I enjoy a wide variety of writings; however, I tend to be most drawn to nonfiction books that offer glimpses into the human spirit – stories that embody resiliency, perseverance, and survival. Two favorites are Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Calahan and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I like to learn tough lessons from the characters’ experiences so that I do not have to learn them the hard way.

Is there anything else we should know, Sarah?

I am learning a lot from my students. It is tough to be them. Yes, they are incredibly brave, courageous, and strong. But, what I think they want the most is to just be kids – not kids with a medical condition. For anyone who may know people in this type of situation, please continue to walk alongside these children and their families by asking them what is most helpful. Allow them to just be themselves, to be sad, or to need space. Invite them and include them, even if they don’t feel up to it. Help them stay connected when they can’t (or don’t feel like being connected). It’s not personal; their bodies are just sick. Sometimes steroids make them behave differently and that’s not your fault or theirs. Just keep being the good friends we know you are by letting them be them. For this and so much more, I thank you, Hope College.

The Kid with the Book in Her Hands

On the second day of English 480: Literary Theory, I ask students to bring a “mirror paper” reflecting on their study of English literature thus far in their lives. As they read their responses out loud to the class this year, I was struck by how well they articulated a variety of perspectives — with some common threads — on the value of an English major. Maybe you’ll see a little of yourself reflected here too.

Here are the first two.

Annie Cerovich, “My Story through Stories”

The study of English literature, I feel, began when I was very young, before most would even consider it a “study.” I loved books as a kid (I believe not having a TV helped with that), and would mentally place myself into whatever story was unfolding before my eyes. I remember reading and getting this feeling that I truly was in the story, and I could not get enough. As the clock ticked later and later into the night, my light would still be on as I went on adventures with Laura Ingalls and galloped with the Pevensie children in Narnia. This period of literary study laid down the foundation of my love for stories and human expression through this medium.

 As I went into high school, my teacher did a wonderful job of guiding us into many different literary realms: the “classics” such as Catcher in the Rye and Shakespeare, dystopias like Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, scientific novels like The Hot Zone, ethnic literature such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, and many more. We were assigned lengthy essays asking us to dive into leading questions on the existence of God or why scientific inquiry is important or what it meant to be of color in post-Civil War America. These probes into deep topics were just the beginning of my interest in pondering how stories illuminate and give concrete examples for us to learn from.

Moving on to the academic world of college, I was unsure of where to focus my studies. Psychology, sociology, art, dance, languages… my interests were copious and hard to encompass into one field. Yet suddenly I was an English major, and found that I was still somehow studying all of these areas of interest as I dove into analyzing Charlotte Perkins Gilmore’s The Yellow Wallpaper through a psychological lens, how dance could interpret Virgil’s The Aeneid, or the cultural significance in The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich.

Looking back on all these now, I’ve learned that literature not only helps us grasp the experiences of others, but often helps illuminate our own experiences or questions. The Chronicles of Narnia helped illustrate my childhood faith. Catcher in the Rye not only illuminated mental health questions for Holden Caulfield, but also myself as we both navigated the changes and stresses of high school. Paradise Lost challenged my growing adult faith in college. These are just three of the many times literature has encouraged me to investigate what it means to be human and how I live out that investigation in my day-to-day life. 

Studying English, I have become passionate about not only these stories, but other untold stories that are waiting to be gracefully unfolded by someone who grasps the importance of conflict, antagonistic and protagonistic forces, the use of symbolism and metaphor… the list continues.

I have noticed that I tend to approach my study of literature through an analytical lens: always searching for the meaning of this symbol or why the author used that metaphor. I also find myself becoming very intrigued with character development throughout the work—how the antagonist/protagonist evolved to the place they are today, what motivated them to make certain decisions, or how they interacted with conflicts and challenges. My mind thinks in a very metaphorical way as I find myself, even in daily conversation, describing events with metaphors to help illustrate the path of my story.

In this way, I approach all literature with an eye for what could be interpreted as meaningful, and I believe that this approach arises from my desire to ultimately understand the motivation behind human actions. 

Hannah Jones, “Learning to Read, Reading to Learn”

I chose to study English because of my longtime love of reading. Once I learned to read, I brought a book with me everywhere I went. Reading, I believe, has shaped who I am today. Reading other points of view has helped me understand nuance and empathy, showed me the importance of being able to respectfully disagree, and opened my eyes to the experiences of people both similar and different to me. Reading, as cliché as it sounds, has transported me to places, times, and circumstances that I would never be able to experience outside of a good book. One of the things I appreciate most about literature is its unique ability to communicate those places, times, and circumstances in a way that makes us all feel as though they have been our lived experiences.

When I got older and started to understand the power of words and how to use them, I fell in love with another aspect of English: writing. I was fortunate enough to have phenomenal teachers in high school who showed me the more mechanical sides of writing (grammar, paragraph structure, how to write a good thesis) and who helped me find my own unique voice. English classes in high school pushed me the hardest and were always my favorite to attend.

These past years at Hope have encouraged me even more in the study of literature. Taking classes in the Women’s and Gender Studies department among others has opened my eyes to fascinating interdisciplinary connections. I’ve also had my literary muscles stretched in new ways by classes like Intro to Creative Writing. 

Overall, it is my love for reading and writing that has driven me to study English. I am a firm believer in studying what you are naturally drawn towards, regardless of all the people who say things along the lines of, “But what are you going to do with an English degree?” Ultimately, I hope to continue discovering interdisciplinary connections, particularly with courses in Women’s Studies, which is my other major. I hope to keep exploring the many ways in which reading and communicating in writing are crucial to other parts of life and the human experience in general.

The English curriculum in high school certainly was less diverse, but my professors at Hope have been intentional about choosing more diverse readings. I tend to be hyper-aware of classes that include few or no female authors, which happened in high school at least once. I have noticed a push lately for classes and anthologies to include more women and writers of color, which I’m grateful for. I’ve become increasingly aware of the need for representation in literature and beyond.

In my Children’s Literature class, we are learning about the importance of literature being truthful. This doesn’t mean that stories about magic or time-travel aren’t good literature because they aren’t entirely factual; rather, even the most fantastical stories can, and should, tell basic human truths. Part of Plato’s argument in The Republic connects to this need for truthful literature. Plato, speaking through Socrates, reminds readers of “the prime need to make sure that what they first hear is devised as well as possible for the implanting of virtue” (4). This is part of what makes literature such a powerful tool. When children (and adults) are exposed to diverse, truthful literature, they can be shaped into better, more empathetic people from a young age.

Photographer pictured in a mirror