Six Student Snapshots: A Day with Writers Chen Chen & Hilary Plum

On March 7th, the poet Chen Chen and the writer Hilary Plum visited Hope College as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series. They visited classrooms, dined with students, answered questions, and read from their latest books. Chen Chen read from his acclaimed first book of poems When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, and Hilary Plum read from her new, celebrated first memoir Watchfires.

It was a cold day, even for an early March in Holland, Michigan. The spirits of the students were very much warmed, though, by the visits of Chen and Plum. Alongside many others, Kellyanne Fitzgerald, Ceilidh Holmes, Sarah Kalthof, Leah Asen, Sarah Simmons, and Allison Lindquist had meaningful meetings with the two visitors. Let their reflections below lead you through the day…

Kellyanne Fitzgerald ’19
Chen Chen Classroom Visit

Chen Chen visited our Advanced Poetry class, and led us in a series of generative ekphrastic activities. First, he asked each member of the class to contribute one verb. Then he pulled up a picture of an abstract painting by Paul Klee of what looked like several jumbled dominoes walking together. We spent about ten minutes working on potential titles for the picture. “Write one long title, and one short title. You can have fun with it, or be more serious,” he said with a smile. Good titles can be very difficult to generate, even for an accomplished poet like Chen Chen.

Later, Chen projected a painting by René Magritte and a second by Paul Klee. Chen closed the class with a prompt: use the verbs we’d written down at the beginning of class to make a poem about our own invented backstory for one of the paintings. I enjoyed having a class period just producing work in response to prompts, and Chen Chen’s presence was creative, upbeat, and friendly.

Ceilidh Holmes ’19
Hilary Plum Classroom Visit

Hilary Plum visited our Advanced Nonfiction class, and we were all very excited. We’d hoped to absorb as much from her talent and experience as possible. Students posed a variety of questions, and Plum shared her insight. Our conversation topics included the purpose and use of an argument in writing, specifics about Plum’s memoir, Watchfires, the process of its creation, and details about getting the book published. We talked about the events and themes in her memoir, like the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Hilary Plum’s visit to the class was very insightful. We left feeling filled with new ideas.

Sarah Kalthof ’20
Lunch with Chen Chen

A few other students and I had the delight of sitting down with poet Chen Chen for fish ‘n’ chips and conversation. He shared with us his undergraduate experience at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. We bonded over the small community feel and the fondness for the humanities there and at Hope. Just like in his poetry, Chen was fascinated with the little details. He wondered with us over the Gaelic phrase on the wall of the restaurant, talked of a double-decker grocery store not far from his home, and recommended a Chinese film, Happy Together, which he loves. Chen was positively wonderful company.

Leah Asen ’19
Chen Chen & Hilary Plum Q & A

In an engaged question-and-answer session, Chen Chen and Hilary Plum shared ideas with us about the writing experience. One of the most interesting similarities was the challenge they both faced in their writing: opening up while remaining authentic, yet trying to write against expected norms. Chen said “it is easier to know what I don’t want from my writing than what I do,” and Plum agreed. Both said they have ways to “trick” themselves into writing. Chen tries to lower the stakes by addressing his poems to people and acting as though he is writing to friends. Plum tricked herself by writing her memoir, Watchfires, in the third person, even though it was all about her own experiences. Chen and Plum encouraged us to work against modern expectations. Hope College is so lucky to have hosted such incredible writers.

Sarah Simmons ’19
Dinner with Chen Chen and Hilary Plum

Our dinner at New Holland was served with a side of lovely conversation with Chen Chen and Hilary Plum. We chatted about the menu, bonded over our love of cheese, and made jokes about the chili Chen Chen ordered—The Spicy Poet Chili. Hilary Plum had just bought a house over one hundred years old, and was looking forward to moving in. She had just moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and enjoyed the Midwest.

I sat next to Chen Chen, and later in the meal we touched on deeper subjects. I asked Chen about his view on religion. I found his poem “I’m Not a Religious Person But” particularly interesting. Chen’s parents had taken interest in God through intellect, and he continues to find those ideas interesting, but he explained how the poem set the tone for the rest of his book with its hints at connection with a higher creative power. He recommended Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon to me after I explained my interest in exploring the divine through my current poetry in progress. It was both a tasty and enlightening mealtime.

Allison Lindquist ’19
Chen Chen & Hilary Plum Reading

The reading showcased a collision of two brilliant minds. Most striking for me was the difference between these two writers. Chen’s subtle sass and self-aware delivery contrasted drastically with Plum’s serious and intimate tone.  On the surface, these writers didn’t seem like they would get along, let alone connect. But it was clear once they both finished the reading that their mutual respect created an instantaneous bond in both craft and topic.

I was impressed that both Chen and Plum refused to romanticize difficult topics. Each focused on their honest, confusing, weird, and strikingly specific experiences of chronic illness, family difficulties, and sexual orientation.  I am honored to have experienced the intimate headspaces that each artist so carefully and openly invited us into.

Fall into English

We’re so proud of our Fall 2019 lineup of courses! Students, ready to dive into literature? To plunge into creative writing? Trust our English faculty to lead the way. Here are some highlights to look for when registering:

Shakespeare’s Plays – ENGL 373-02
MWF 12:00-12:50 with Dr. Lunderberg

Many of Shakespeare’s plays explore what it means to be treated as an outsider. Studying these plays can guide us in questioning the justice of societies where women are treated as possessions, Jewish merchants are ridiculed, and military commanders are questioned because of the color of their skin. In this course, we will work our way together through several plays, reading and watching and studying and arguing about the meaning we find in them. We will examine both the historical and literary contexts of the plays, studying the plays as literature and as performance pieces, and assessing insights into the plays from various critical approaches.

Note: Students are welcome to take multiple seminars with the same number (e.g. 373) if the title is different.

Introduction to Literary Theory – ENGL 480
TR 9:30-10:50 with Dr. Gruenler

Literary theory equips you to think better about how to read and why, and maybe to enjoy it more too. Tour major schools of thought from Plato to the twenty-first century, such as formalism, structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonial criticism, ecocriticism, and disability theory. Meet theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, René Girard, Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler, Edward Said, Chinua Achebe, and Wendell Berry. Connect literature to other disciplines such as philosophy, theology, and the social sciences. You’ll have a chance to write and talk critically about whatever texts you like—stories, poems, films, TV, games, etc.

Intermediate Creative Nonfiction Writing – ENGL 358-01
TR 1:30-2:50 with Dr. Burton

Make art from experience.

Memoir is the literary craft of understanding where we’ve been.

Prerequisite: Multi-Genre Creative Writing 253.

Crime and 19th C. Fiction – ENGL 373-01
MFW 1:00-1:50 with Dr. Salah

Have you ever sympathized with a clever criminal? Rooted for a vigilante seeking justice outside the law? This course will take you back to where our cultural fascination with true crime, detective stories, and forensic investigation began: the nineteenth century. Slink down the foggy streets of London with Charles Dickens and his suspense-writing friends. Meet charming thieves and peek into the tormented minds of killers. Learn how Poe’s great detective, Dupin, was surpassed by Conan Doyle’s masterful catcher of criminals, Sherlock Holmes. And get ready to discuss along the way: why do we humans like this stuff so much?

Advanced Fiction Writing – ENGL 454
TR 3:00-4:20 with Dr. Childress

Have you written a short story or a novel? Do you want to? How could you work towards writing both—at the same time? In Advanced Fiction Writing, we’ll focus on linked stories, also called story cycles, and how they work as a kind of Super Novel. We’ll read Pulitzer- and other award-winners like Love Medicine and Olive Kitteridge. We’ll be writing—slowly, steadily—and workshopping roughly 40 pages of your linked shorts. Be ready to read and write—a lot of both! Be ready to kick it with linked-story lovers and fall in love with the story cycle.

Children’s and Young Adult Literature – ENGL 375
MWF 2:00-2:50 with Dr. Postma-Montaño

Welcome to a discussion on the importance and popularity of children’s and young adult literature. The recent flowering of kid lit has meant for a tremendous growth in the genre, with many texts moving into film, as the recent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse phenomenon testifies. At the same time the importance of the field to literary studies, to literacy, and to teaching has never been greater. Scholars and educators are looking at classics like The Cat in the Hat with new eyes, asking questions like: is this picture book racist? Together, we will consider this and other critical questions. We will think about race, ethnicity, language, gender, and disability in children’s lit and what is at stake for readers, parents, and educators. This course is perfect for anyone interested in reading kid lit, teaching, and scholarship.

Modern English Grammar – ENGL 360-01
TR 12:00-1:20 with Dr. Burton

Want to know the difference between lay and lie? Between who and whom?

Modern English Grammar.

Sixteen weeks of diagramming.

Grammar competence forever.

Angela Dominguez and Diverse Children’s Literature: A Faculty Feature by Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño

This past week, English Department faculty members Susanna Childress, Jesus Montaño, and I, along with student Sarah Herrera, met children’s book author and illustrator Angela Dominguez for lunch at a downtown Holland restaurant. Perhaps you know Angela from her bilingual Pura Belpré Honor Books María Had a Little Llama and Marta! Big & Small, or her fabulous middle-grade chapter book Stella Díaz Has Something to Say. We all were thrilled that Angela was willing to meet with us for a brief visit between her many readings at local schools and the Herrick District Library.

During our lively conversation, the literature professor in me had to ask Angela about her intended audience: “Whom do you think about when you create your books?” Angela shared with us her desire to engage young Latinx kids who may not often find themselves mirrored in books typically housed in classrooms or libraries.

Her words made me think of the power of diverse books for young Latinx readers. I have always been interested in how certain readers become experts (or “cultural insiders,” as some kid-lit scholars put it) when they read or listen to stories from their culture. In other words, they know more than the other kids during story time. Their cultural knowledge and language abilities (in this case, reading Spanish) give them the upper hand.

In this way, diverse books that “translanguage”—scholar talk for using a mix of words in multiple languages—invert the common host/guest power dynamic, where (here in the United States) Spanish speakers are often the guest and English speakers are the host. Inverting this dynamic plays a significant role in affirming children’s identities, given the ways linguistic and cultural identities are interwoven.

Along with thinking about Latinx readers, Angela shared that she also thinks about majority kids when she creates her books. She hopes that they will see kids in her stories who are different from them, with different skin tones and languages, not as other, but as potential friends. There are pleasures, as we know when we travel, in being the guest.

In a goodbye chat with Angela following our lunch, Sarah mentioned that she first came across Angela’s books in her mom’s preschool classroom. From this experience, Sarah had seen first-hand the significance of these books to Latinx children, the ways that kids find affirmation in books with characters that look and speak like them. Further, she found in Angela an inspiration for herself as a writer. Sarah told me: “Meeting with Angela Dominguez gave me a new sense of inspiration. Listening to her talk about her work was extremely humbling. In my time at Hope, I had never had the opportunity to meet with an author who uses her writing to validate identity, especially for young children.”

If you are interested in diverse children’s and young adult literature (including Angela’s!) and live in the Holland area, check out Diversity Rocks the Book!, a city-wide program addressing the lack of access to diverse books this month. And if you are a Hope student, I invite you to continue this conversation in my fall 2019 course ENGL 375: Children’s and Young Adult Literature!

One Class Can Change Everything: Alumni Interview with Angie Hines ’18

Today we’re excited to interview recent grad Angelique Hines, class of ’18, who’s here to tell us a bit about her new life in Memphis! What have you been doing since leaving Hope, Angie?

I actually spent my last semester of college doing an off-campus program as a means to get used to the workplace, starting as an Education Intern in Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s office in Washington, DC. I was required to attend hearings and briefings, finishing by creating notes on what the meeting entailed. I was also often entrusted with obtaining signatures, answering phones, addressing concerns of constituents, and giving tours of the U.S. Capitol.

Before and during my time as an intern, I was preparing to transition into my new position as a corp member of Teach For America. I’m currently working as a 4th grade Literacy teacher at Believe Memphis Academy. As a teacher, my job requires me to be able to understand curriculum, accurately plan a lesson, identify possible misconceptions and ways to address them, and then finally, teach of course.

This experience has been like a roller coaster. From teaching myself how to create a budget to spending hours internalizing lesson plans and grading papers, I have been stretched in more ways than I can count!

How did your Hope English education shape you?

Being at Hope, period, shaped me in more ways than I can name now as an alumni. For instance, being an English major at Hope developed my intellect. The amount of reading, discussion, and writing that each of my English courses required shaped my mindset in such a positive way.

Being a reading teacher, there’s a large cognitive load that goes into planning any of my lessons. I am able to see through the lines of stories to ensure that any misconceptions get addressed ahead of time, along with finding additional information for the kids who may be ahead of their peers. I can correct my students’ work grammatically along with looking for the correct answer. Lastly, I can hold discussions that are engaging with my students.

As I type this, I ponder upon professors like Dr. Dykstra, Dr. Parker, and Dr. Hemenway, who always made the content rigorous. That is also something I am incorporating into my own classroom; rigor places the thinking on the student, so that they can create their own learning experience. Overall, being an English major made me the teacher that my students deserve.

What advice would you give to current English majors or students considering an English major?

I would tell them: “Take one class. Engage with the material and in the class to your fullest extent. It will change everything.” I think that everyone should take one English class above 113. That is where, for me, English became this magical and wondrous thing. I flourished to my highest capacity because I began to understand and discuss a text in a way that I had never done before.

If you could teach any college English class, what would be the title?

“Migrating North, and the Troubles Ahead.”

In Dr. Parker’s “Black Women Writers” course, we read a book titled The Warmth of Other Suns. That course and book pushed me to move down South. It also opened my eyes to certain things about the Midwest and Northeast that I had never thought about before. In my course, we would dive into the section “The Kinder Mistress, in which the reader learns about the things happening in the North that were not being highlighted in the news because the South was more popular in the media. We would dissect this section through discussion and writing. I think a course like this, at Hope, would be DOPE.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

My favorite book recently read has to be a tie between Sister Souljah’s No Disrespect or Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.

Hey, you’re the second alum in a row to recommend The Hate U Give. Readers, take note! And thanks so much to our own Angie Hines for taking the time during a very busy year for this interview.

She Bites Back: A Faculty Feature from Dr. Kendra R. Parker

In today’s post[1], Dr. Kendra R. Parker explains the inspiration for her new book, She Bites Back. She offers us a snippet of her book and of her upcoming colloquium presentation on Thursday, February 28 at 3:30 PM in the Fried-Hemenway Auditorium.

Image by Mandela Wise

I began working on this project in 2011 while a graduate student at Howard University.  The idea came from a seminar paper, “Vampirism and Political History in Octavia E. Butler’s Fiction,” and over time it transformed into my dissertation, “Biting Back, Biting Black: Black Female Vampires in Literature and Film” (2014).

In 2016, I began to consider seriously revising the dissertation into a book; I’d been at Hope for three years and encountered a number of Black women students who were navigating misogynoir and the burden of representation. At eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, they should have been exploring their lives through the liberal arts curriculum; instead, they were grappling with being called “oreo,” “ghetto,” “threatening,” and “angry” by their peers, and being silenced, ridiculed, and mocked by their instructors.

They were stereotyped as predators for daring to exist and claim space in a predominantly white institution. They were experiencing what Dr. Koritha Mitchell calls “know-your-place aggression.” I observed them; I listened to them; I created courses for them. I wanted them to hold fast to what they knew deep down—that they were complex beings. But at Hope, they were socialized into thinking that they were flat, one-dimensional.

Such one-dimensionality is not ahistorical. As public intellectuals like Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Melissa Harris-Perry, bell hooks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and others have recognized, the flat constructions of Black American women as Mammy, Jezebel, Black Lady, Strong Black Woman, or Angry Black Woman render Black women both hypervisible (always seen) and hyper-invisible (never seen).

But what, you must be asking yourself, does any of this have to do with vampires?

In the mythology of the vampire, the vampire is more than blood-sucker; it is a socially constructed body that becomes a scapegoat for sexist, racist, and homophobic value systems. There are many ways the vampire becomes a scapegoat, but I will give you one: the vampire had the potential to be a political threat—a threat that needs eradicating.

If you replace “the vampire” with “Black women,” this statement remains true. Let’s take the 1898 political cartoon, “The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina,”[2] pictured below, as our example.

In this image, a Black male vampire with “Negro Rule” on his wings hovers over white men and women, grabbing at them with his claws. The vampire is stomping on a ballot box. This fear of “Negro Domination,” as Ida B. Wells-Barnett describes it in her 1895 work A Red Record, is just one way Black bodies were coded—and in this case explicitly represented—as vampiric.

With the ratification of the fifteenth amendment in 1870, which granted Black men the right to vote, the fear of “Negro Domination” or “negro rule” was rampant, so much so that lynching—a systemic tool of terror used to maintain white supremacy—was the norm. These fears, as the cartoon illustrates, became transposed into the political discourse of resistance, hate, and eventual obliteration.

Although this photo depicts a Black male vampire, Black women were, too, imagined and treated as predators when they involved themselves with Black Americans’ advancement efforts. One such example is the burning of Wells-Barnett’s property in 1892, after she denounced lynching and its supposed justifications. The 1918 lynching of Mary Turner, a Black American woman who protested the lynching of her husband, is another example. Walter White, NAACP President, described in detail Mary’s murder:

At the time she was lynched, Mary Turner was in her eighth month of pregnancy [ . . . ] Her ankles were tied together and she was hung to the tree, head downward. Gasoline and oil from the automobiles were thrown on her clothes and while she writhed in agony and a mob howled in glee, a match was applied and her clothes burned from her person. When this had been done and while she was yet alive, a knife, evidently one such as is used in splitting hogs, was taken and the woman’s abdomen was cut open, the unborn babe falling from her womb to the ground . . . and then its head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel. Hundreds of bullets were then fired into the body of the woman…[3]

White’s description of Mary’s desecrated body, and his emphasis on the use of a hog knife to gut Mary, is intended to highlight the ways the white elites devalued her. As per the description, the white mob did not consider Mary human; they viewed and treated her like an animal simply because she dared to bring her husband’s killers to justice. This group of men did not appreciate Mary’s questioning. Their use of the hog knife to gut her was to make a point. In murdering Mary, these white elites reemphasized their importance as social, political, and economic leaders. Through Mary’s death, they demonstrated that they were not comfortable with a Black woman challenging their system.

Mary Turner functioned as a political threat by questioning, challenging, and pushing back against white supremacy. As a result, she was stopped by whatever sinister means necessary. Ultimately, “The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina” demonstrates the danger of codifying Blackness (and, implicitly, Black femaleness) as something to be feared and eradicated.

Though my students were not physically harmed while at Hope (at least not to my knowledge), they did experience ostracism and marginalization any time they dared challenge systems that benefitted whiteness. One student, a few weeks before she was to graduate in May 2018, was called “subhuman” by a member of the Hope Academy of Senior Professionals (HASP). This student was, simply by existing, considered a threat.

I began writing this project as a requirement to finish my doctoral degree, but I wanted to finish this project for my Black women students. It was my way to affirm their Blackness, their humanity, in the face of the misogynoir they collectively experienced on Hope’s campus.

Intrigued? Want to learn more? Come to Dr. Parker’s presentation, “She Bites Back: Black Female Vampires in Life and Lit,” on Thursday at 3:30 in Fried-Hemenway Auditorium, located in the Martha Miller Center. She Bites Back was published in 2018, and is available for sale and at libraries.


[1] A portion of this post appears in She Bites Back and has been adapted with the permission of the publisher.

[2] “The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina,” News and Observer, Raleigh, NC, September 27, 1898. The 1898 Collection. The Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed April 25, 2018,

[3] Walter F. White. “The Work of a Mob.” The Crisis, 16, no. 5 (September 1918): 222.

“Loving English in Honduras”: An Alumni Interview with Laura Van Oss ’15

Today’s post takes us all the way to Honduras, to hear from 2015 grad Laura Van Oss, who studied English for Education here at Hope. Laura, what are you doing now, and how did you wind up doing it?

My graduating year, Nancy Cook in the Education department connected me with International School Tegucigalpa, a private Christian school serving mostly local students from preschool through 12th grade in the capital city of Honduras. I planned to teach abroad for two years, but I’m now in year four and absolutely love it.

I teach a literature-based English class to bilingual and English-language-learning 7th graders. I live with a great group of North American teachers, and I get to travel and have summers free to visit Michigan. Last year, I completed a master’s degree in Bilingual Education with a cohort of International School teachers, and I’m still enjoying literacy research and implementing new language-learning techniques in my classroom.    

Wow, you’ve been pretty busy! How did your Hope English education shape you?

When I first came to Hope, I was going to be a high school Spanish teacher. I wasn’t thinking about English at all until my freshman advisor told me I had to pick a minor for secondary education. I am so grateful for the role my English education has played in my career. I couldn’t possibly think of a better way to engage my passions than teaching English to Spanish speakers by convincing them to fall in love with Hatchet.

I’m especially grateful for my experience working at the Writing Center and for David James’ expository writing course. He gave me a hard time about my idealistic passion for teaching, but it turns out his techniques transfer very effectively to teaching writing skills to 7th graders.

What advice would you give to current English majors or students considering an English major?

One of my favorite things anyone has ever said to me came from a former student, talking about how much she loved reading. She said, “It’s because of you, Miss. And Wonder. And Paper Towns.

Teaching comes in many different forms, whether in higher ed or other job sectors, and might be worth considering even if you are not studying Education. If you can find a way to share your passion for books with others, you will be fulfilled not matter what.

You’re an English teacher already, but if you could teach any college-level English class, what would be the title?

“Storytelling Forms in Sitcoms.” We don’t consider TV often enough as a medium worthy of study, but I’m fascinated by how character development and humor functions in sitcom writing, and how those techniques have changed based on how we consume media.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

I mostly read Young Adult novels these days, and I am always happy to convince everyone they can be well worth reading. No question, right now everyone should read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Well, you heard it, Hope College. Get reading! Thank you, Laura.

Snowed In with Sophfronia Scott: A Memoir Writing Feature by Safia Hattab

I shivered, rubbing my palms on my pants as I sat in the lobby of the Haworth Inn on that first snow day. While my friends were warm in their dorm rooms, I had made the trek across campus to meet with JRVWS visiting writer Sophfronia Scott.

I had never met an author after reading his or her work. In Professor Rhoda Burton’s Advanced Creative Nonfiction Class, we spent a few weeks pouring over several pieces in Scott’s essay collection Love’s Long Line. There exists an intimacy in memoir—I’ve heard it described as a “warm, inviting voice that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear”—and Scott’s voice definitely holds that closeness.

She writes what she wants unapologetically, never shying away from bold topics such as her experience with the Sandy Hook shooting in her civil discourse essay “For Roxane Gay: Notes from a Forgiving Heart.” She even plays with different forms—like her essay “A Payoff Letter,” a piece that begins as a literal mortgage payoff letter, but twists into a serious commentary on our attachments to physical space.

As a beginner creative writer trying to figure out her own genre, I wanted some insight from Sophfronia Scott on finding that perfect balance: how does one successfully blend a warm memoir voice with the genre’s inherent exploration of colder subject matter? Since Scott offered to meet with a few creative writers to give feedback on their pieces, I couldn’t resist the urge to bring a piece I had written for class that was based on one of her essays.

Now let me just say: I have been studying creative writing for two years. I have studied memoir for a solid semester at this point.  I have written about pretty much every embarrassing, secret, awkward, dark moment I have ever had. Many of my classmates and professors have read these pieces. I figured at this point, I was over the whole shyness bit. Nope.

Sophfronia Scott and I ended up meeting in one of the rooms in the Haworth. For thirty minutes, we dissected the piece. However, it very quickly shifted from a critical analysis of the piece to an analysis of me:

“Why did you feel the urge to write this piece?”
“Why is this important to you?”
“You keep circling back to this metaphor. Why is that?”
“Why did you write about this now? Why not a year ago?”
“How many times have you written about this? Why so few?”

Suddenly a somewhat humorous piece about how much of a neurotic cleaner I am turned into a deeper analysis of who I was: someone who perhaps uses her excessive tidiness as a tactic to gain control of a situation in which I had none. Even the colloquial language I used to describe the situation spilled my subconscious intent: “the whole thing was such a mess!

“My piece ‘A Fur For Annie Pearl’ started out as a funny little piece about my search for the perfect fur coat,” Scott mentioned in our meeting, “but as I was writing it, I realized that it was so much more than that. My obsession with the coat stems from my relationship with my mother.” Perhaps the secret for the balance of a warm voice in serious conversation lies in a deeper understanding of the self; after all, humans don’t exist in a binary of light and constant darkness. Even our humor is seated in a deeper struggle, and writing is just a conversation between the reader and the writer about this inherent humanity in the humorous mundane.

Scott echoed this sentiment when she visited my writing class the next day. When one of my classmates asked for any advice Scott had for the beginning writer, she responded with: “Journal. It can be about everything and anything; it can even be about the weather. But journal. Notice everything—the snow, your emotions, your experiences—and keep a record of them. You get to practice your writing and you’ll learn about yourself along the way.”

Good thing it was a snow day that next day, because I took her advice, writing about the white landscape from the comfort of my warm bed.

So You’re Thinking About the Chicago Semester?

Hope English major Lisette Boer (’19) recounts why studying off-campus turned out to be one of her best college decisions.

When I decided to commit to the Chicago Semester last spring, I was both excited and terrified. Little did I know that living, learning, and working in Chicago would be an integral part of my growth as a Hope student and an individual.

Like many of the Fall 2018 students, I grew up in a small town in the Midwest without much experience in an urban setting, which made Chicago seem very daunting. However, upon arriving, the Chicago Semester staff helped us get acquainted with public transportation, city life—all the elements of becoming independent.

In classes every Wednesday, I was asked to question the limitations I had set on myself, both emotionally and spiritually. One of my favorite class days that the Chicago Semester provided was a Service Learning Day. That Wednesday, we learned about homelessness in Chicago and volunteered at Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter. Learning about the residents’ experiences and the prejudice that others have faced really prompted me to reflect on my own privilege and how my actions impact the world around me.

Each opportunity that I had in Chicago was invaluable, because it gave me hands-on experience outside the traditional classroom. I was able to talk to people face-to-face in contexts I may not have encountered on campus, which gave me a greater perspective on life outside of Hope.

A core part of the Chicago Semester’s program is interviewing and being placed at an internship, corresponding to each student’s major and interests. After several interviews, I accepted an internship at Open Books, a social nonprofit venture that promotes literacy programs in Chicago, within the Chicago Literacy Alliance.

At Open Books, I was able to apply what I had learned in classrooms at Hope and practice them in a fast-paced professional setting. Four days a week, I facilitated reading mentorship programs in Chicago public schools and assisted with publishing the content of the organization’s creative nonfiction writing and performance workshops. Often I would travel alone to and from my classrooms and the Open Books office, which was frightening at first, but ultimately helped me to embrace having more independence.

Working as a literacy intern was significant part of my experience, because I felt like the work that I did was valued and going towards a larger cause in the Chicago community. On the last day of my internship, it was amazing to see the growth my students had made and all the work I had done through the semester.

Beyond the academic goals you complete during an off-campus program, I’ve found that the people you cultivate friendships with are vital to the growth you achieve. The friendships that I made fostered my confidence and pushed me to discover many different parts of Chicago. It was a lot easier to travel on public transportation and go to big events, like the Festival of Lights in the Magnificent Mile, with a friend by my side.

One important relationship I made was with my supervisor, who guided me through working in a third grade classroom at a Chicago public school, and at Open Books. I remember being so nervous about starting my classroom program. She helped me put together materials to help my students, along with walking me through the goals for the program before and after I started. After working with students who were sometimes resistant, and not always knowing what to do, it was just what I needed to have someone who pushed me to be the best version of myself.

So, you’re thinking of doing the Chicago Semester? Each day will be a discovery of the person you’re becoming and what you want to get out of life. In the end, you’ll be asking yourself how you got so lucky.

“Friendship, Knowledge, and the Liberal Arts”: A Faculty Feature from Curtis Gruenler

This post is an appetizer for Dr. Gruenler’s upcoming public talk in the Fried Hemenway Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 24 from 3:30-4:30pm!

The best thing about teaching at Hope, and in its English department, has been friendships with colleagues and students. Recently I’ve been thinking that friendship is not just icing on the educational cake, but an essential part of how we come to know what is true. The connection between friendship and knowledge defines the liberal arts at their best, and comes to the fore in the study of literature.

All knowledge we have words for comes from culture—that is, from relationships (something I learned from literary theory). None of us would learn anything without our parents and others spending time showing us the world and teaching us things like language. The question then is: what kind of relationships best enable us to cultivate knowledge that is true?

Friendship is our richest traditional way of talking about shared truth-seeking. Our most freely chosen kind of relationship, friendship brings to full flower our uniquely human capacities for shared attention and desire. As C. S. Lewis puts it in The Four Loves, “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”

The stronger the common interest, the stronger the potential for shared discovery—and for rivalry. Friendship, then, also means avoiding rivalry; both Plato and Aristotle cite the adage “friends have all things in common.” For Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, complete friendship, rather than mere friendship of pleasure or utility, requires making the shared object of desire the welfare of the other. Jesus himself, in John 15, invokes perhaps the Greek definition—or just the universal experience of friendship when he says to his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Christ’s next words in John 15 make an extraordinary claim that links friendship to knowledge: “I no longer call you servants, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learned from the Father.” Not only does friendship depend on shared knowledge, this sharing somehow extends as far as participation in the understanding between the Son and the Father.

Pursuing knowledge together fuels friendship because knowledge is an infinite object that transcends rivalry. Friendship pulls us out of ourselves through loving attention to an infinitely meaningful other, with whom we can share expanding knowledge of the world.

For all his wizardry, Gandalf’s most crucial knowledge comes from loving interest in all the creatures of Middle Earth, even those silly hobbits. Saruman, on the other hand, gets so caught up in rivalry for power with Sauron that he ends up deluded and alone—a contrast echoed by J. K. Rowling in the friendly insight of Dumbledore vs. the power-hungry mastery of Voldemort.

Like talking with a friend, reading literature takes you deep inside a perspective on the world, often taking you into another world entirely. In many of these worlds, we get excellent models of what friendship can look like. I don’t think it is possible to overestimate the value of reading literature for building the empathy and imagination needed to cross distances between people. We go back and forth between books we love and friends we love, each deepening our engagement with the other.

Of course, friendship’s common interests and knowledge also run the risk of exclusivity. As Lewis writes, “From the innocent and necessary act of excluding to the spirit of exclusiveness is an easy step; and thence to the degrading pleasure of exclusiveness.” Exclusiveness is always the quick and easy way to strengthen bonds with others—temporarily, and at the cost of narrowed perspective. Yet friendship can also be a means of overcoming the pull toward exclusion and scapegoating. Friendship becomes the most powerful engine of learning when two are open to the inclusion of a third, especially the other whom they would be most tempted to exclude.

Think of Frodo and Sam faced with the trial of including in their friendship that most troublesome third, Gollum, and growing in wisdom and mercy as a result. Or the remarkable threesome of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, tempted at various points to fall into the more stable order of two against one, but always recovering the precarious, inclusive balance that makes them unstoppable problem-solvers. Their power of understanding depends on the same self-sacrificial love that makes Harry’s mother Lily, as Hope senior Annika Gidley argues, the most important character in the story.

The liberal arts are founded on friendship. Lewis again: “Mathematics effectively began when a few Greek friends got together to talk about numbers and lines and angles.” Something similar must have happened with the origins of the literary arts: friends talking about the works of Homer and Hesiod, Pindar and Aeschylus. All the academic disciplines have stories like this. Each sets up paths for new learners to join a community of knowledge, and discoveries flow from adding new perspectives to an ongoing conversation.

In the humanities, the books we read become a third that we work to integrate into our relationships with each other. In my teaching, I bring into the classroom a relationship with books I have studied for a long time, or sometimes just met, and invite students into the friendship. Literary texts, more than the objects of other disciplines, are themselves like friends, able to join us to an ever-expanding community of knowledge that goes back to the dawn of literacy and extends across the globe.

Dreaming in Comics: Alumni Interview with RJ Casey ’09

Happy New Year, and to all at Hope, welcome back for a new semester. This week we’re delighted to bring you an interview with RJ Casey, a Hope ’09 grad whose pursuit of English has taken him from Moby Dick and Walden Pond to the cutting edge of comics publishing!

RJ, we can’t wait to hear the details. Tell us, what are you doing now?

I work for Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, Washington. My business card says “Rights & Operations,” whatever that means. In publishing, especially working for a small publishing house, it’s all hands on deck, so my job changes from day to day. I edit books, manage the company’s foreign rights sales and permissions requests, and coordinate with our digital distributors, amongst other things that hopefully result in us getting our books in your hands.

I’ve written art criticism, book reviews, and articles about basketball for various sites over the last few years. My writing and interviews can now mainly be found at

I’m also the new co-managing editor of The Comics Journal magazine, a resurrection project I’m very excited to be a part of. Nearly seven years ago, The Comics Journal ceased publication after forty years of being the only real literary magazine looking at the comics medium with a critical eye. In January 2019, I helped to bring it back for a triumphant return with issue #303. It’s now a twice-a-year prestige magazine covering the cutting edge of comics, as well as unearthing artists or works we feel have been forgotten or overshadowed. It’s a true esoteric dream come true.

On a personal note, my wife Ann (Hope ’10) and I had a child last year and live in Tacoma, Washington.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

 It challenged me, first and foremost. It knocked me off of my cocky, spurious late-teens/early-20s pedestal and then built me back up into someone who is hopefully more knowledgeable and compassionate.

It gave me people like Dr. Pannapacker, Dr. Schakel, and Dr. Montaño, who would let me incessantly bug them about the writers I was interested in and would patiently sit through my grueling trying-too-hard-to-be-witty poetry. I remember running into Professor Rappleye in the Kletz and showing him (or accosting him with) a poem I had written in my frat house on a typewriter! I emailed Dr. Pannapacker asking for tips a night before driving to Walden Pond over a weekend on a whim!

I’m just so glad I had that time in the Hope English Department where professors met my bad short stories and wild enthusiasm with thoughtfulness and then guided me toward better writing, better opinions, and a better understanding of literature and the world at large.

What advice would you give to current English majors and students considering an English major?

Become something of a jack-of-all-trades. If your goal is to work in publishing or become an editor, you will have to know how proofread, copy edit, content edit, organize a million various schedules, and manage moody and unpredictable writers and artists.

If your plan is to become a moody and unpredictable writer or artist, you will need to know how to send invoices, file freelance taxes, organize another million various schedules, and deal with overbearing and erroneous editors and publishers. Knowing and accepting this in college will definitely give you a leg up after you graduate, I think.

If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

It would sure have a niche audience, but “Reconsidering the Comics Canon.” There are important, transformative works outside of Watchmen and Fun Home. Believe me!

Well then, we have to ask — such as…?

The uncanny humorous work of M.K. Brown, Richard Thompson, and Sasaki Maki; the pit-in-your-gut comics of Renee French, Carol Swain, and Phoebe Gloeckner; and the Hernandez brothers would make the backbone of my hypothetical syllabus.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

Some recent favorites have been “Mother’s Walk” by Lauren Weinstein; John, Dear by Laura Lannes; Mammother by Zachary Schomburg; and Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.

In college, the only thing that mattered was Moby Dick.