A Christmas Treasury from the English Faculty

December can be dark and dreary in Michigan and other northern places, a season of cold and clouds and final exams. The holidays we celebrate during this time bring warmth and light we often badly need. But if we’re weary or chilled, in body or soul, how do we get in the spirit?

When I was a child, if I wanted a dollop of condensed Christmas cheer, I’d often crack open a large hardback volume, bound in red fabric, that my mother gave to me. I forget its exact name, but something like A Christmas Treasury. This book collected scraps from longer texts and stand-alone pieces. They were old and new; funny and sad; earnest and cynical; poetry, lyric, and prose. They shared only one element: Christmas.

Sometimes I paged through this volume in search of the familiar, and found Christmas gift-giving chapters from children’s books my parents had read to me, like Anne of Green Gables and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.

Other times, I hunted out hidden gems, like the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Christmas Bells,” from which the lyrics of the holiday tune “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” are excerpted. Written on Christmas in 1863, while Longfellow’s own son was fighting in the Civil War, the poet wrestles with deep grief and ringing trust in the familiar angels’ phrase: “peace on Earth, good will to men.”

Not everything that warms my heart at this season is found in that old red tome, though. Nothing, for instance, could be warmer or more wonderful than the chapter “Dulce Domum” from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, when the Mole, who has been living an exciting life abroad, finds himself by his own snug burrow again just in time to welcome caroling field mice. Good food, hot drinks, and song: how is it that even reading about these lifts the spirits so?

“Surely I’m not alone,” I thought, “in turning to literature again and again as this time of year comes around?” So I reached out to colleagues in the English department, and of course, many had favorites to share. Here is our own Treasury for you:

♦        “Around Christmas,” says Dr. Peter Schakel, “I often think of two essays by C. S. Lewis: ‘Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus’ and ‘What Christmas Means to Me.’ Both are in the Lewis collection God in the Dock, as well as other places. They’re his indirect, irreverent, and funny response to the commercialization of Christmas.”

♦        Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño shares: “When I was a child, I loved reading The Christmas Dolls by Carol Beach York. It is about Tatty, an orphan girl who fixes up the disregarded dolls that no one wants. It’s still a favorite!”

♦        “One Christmas poem I love,” Dr. Curtis Gruenler says, “is ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ by Christina Rossetti, especially as set to music by Gustav Holst and sung by Julie Andrews.” Hot tip: it’s available on Spotify…

♦        Dr. Rhoda Burton confesses: “all the works that are supposed to give us a good Christmassy feeling don’t, except maybe A Christmas Carol. The only one I get a proper Christmas feeling from is On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder—remember the Christmas church scene in which Laura receives the snuggly fur muff?”

♦        For Dr. Mike Owens, nothing can beat the opening lines of the Gospel of John, starting with: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Says Dr. Owens: “In very beautiful, striking, stunning language, it captures the Incarnation story, and gives the reader a profound theology.”

♦        Dr. Kathleen Verduin shares that “John Updike’s 1963 novel The Centaur is a tribute to his father, an impoverished, self-mocking, rather zany, but magnificently charitable man recast as the character George Caldwell. In one chapter, Caldwell and his adolescent son pick up a hitch-hiker, a garrulous drunk who batters them with stories of his resentments. After they drop him off, they discover that Caldwell’s new gloves, a Christmas gift, are gone. ‘It’s all right, Peter,’ Caldwell tells his son. ‘He needs them more than I do.’”

♦        A special text for Dr. Ernest Cole is Aminatta Forna’s novel Happiness. It’s “not exactly in the buoyant spirit of Christmas, but its message of redemption and transcendence connects to the Nativity. Forna uses the metaphor of forest fire to signal hope for amputees of the civil war and for post-war Sierra Leone to reclaim a meaningful existence. In spite of its devastation after a fire, a forest has the capacity to grow again.”

♦        Dr. Susanna Childress recommends the anthology Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, especially four poems: “Nativity” by Li-Young Lee, “Advent” by Enuma Okoro, “The Adoration of the Infant Jesus” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and “Incarnation” by Amit Majmudar. Regarding the last, she notes: “I admire the word-play and syntatic and aural fireworks here; this poem is a joy to read out loud but also makes me think, reflect, and wonder.”

♦        And Dr. Stephen Hemenway has this literary memory to share: “About 15 years ago, when my dad was 90, the two of us read aloud the entire Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens to the residents of his assisted living facility.  This was done in one multi-hour sitting with frequent coffee/cookie breaks and bathroom breaks for the listeners.”

Perhaps next December, we can convince Doc Hemenway to reprise this reading with the Hope community. For now, we wish you safe travels, good reading, and good cheer!

Do you have favorite seasonal poems or stories? Pass them on, please…

“A Gesture, A Face, A Life”: A Faculty Feature from Natalie Dykstra

I am terrible with good-byes.  When I used to spend the summer on my uncle’s Iowa farm, feeding calves, mowing the large swaths of grass, driving tractor for the hay balers, I would hide in the barn when it was time to return with my parents to a Chicago suburb.  I didn’t want to say goodbye – to my cousins, to the barn cats, to my favorite maple tree near the horse pasture.  I so dreaded leaving my third-grade classroom, I fake-fell off the playground equipment and “sprained” my right arm.  Anything not to have to say good-bye to my teacher.  Fourth grade could NEVER be as good as third grade – no way.

Similar feelings stir in me while I prepare to travel back to Boston in a few days, where I live with my dear husband, Mike.  I’m used to this end-of-the-year transition, having taught at Hope College only in the fall semester for the last five years.  And, make no mistake, I’m eager to be home again.

Yet this transition feels different than the others, because I won’t be back to teaching until Fall 2020.  I have received a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award, allowing me to work full-time on my next project.  I’m writing another biography, this time of the art collector and museum founder Isabella Stewart Gardner, a woman of the same generation and social circle as Clover Adams, the subject of my first book.  Clover and Isabella – they were very different women, but they were both passionate about looking at art and making beauty.

Author photograph of the third-floor chapel at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA.

On a cold Christmas Eve in 1901, Isabella held a midnight service in the third-floor chapel of her Venetian-style house museum, which she’d filled with her art collection. A large 13th-century French glass window (left) glows as its centerpiece.  The Boston Globe reported that “shortly before midnight the altar of the little chapel was lighted most brilliantly, and the services were begun at the midnight hour. … The chapel is quite small … and is similar in character to the chapels which were a feature of the Italian palaces of the 15th and 16th centuries.”  Isabella loved the holiday season, its drama and spectacle.  Five years later, she wrote that the service “in my little chapel here was beautiful and emotioning!”  One of her neighbors near the museum would later remember lifting the apartment windows at the midnight hour, with holiday music coming in along with the whoosh of cold air.

***

Author photograph of her office in Lubbers Hall.

My favorite space on campus is also the one where I spend the most time – my office in Lubbers Hall.  Henry Bosch, the campus carpenter for many years, designed and built its wooden shelves that line the walls, floor to ceiling.  His precise handiwork reminds me to pay attention to details.  I will miss opening the door to my office.  I will miss my dear Michigan friends and colleagues.  I will surely miss my wonderful students.  But I’ll also get to do what I love – write about people in the past, finding narrative lines that sketch the contours of a gesture, a face, a life.

I have a home to go home to.  I have more art to look at, primary sources to understand, and many, many stories to tell.  Goodbyes are so emotioning.  Better get going.

A blessed holiday season to all!

“How I Got My Start in Publishing”: An Alumni Feature by Melanie Burkhardt ’18

During a recent job interview at Baker Publishing Group in Ada, Michigan, the interviewer asked how I had become interested in the position of an acquisitions assistant. Trying to appeal to my audience, I made the classic joke, “Well, I was an English major. So eventually I had to ask myself the question, what am I going to do with this?”

The comment was met with a few chuckles from the room, identifying the fellow English majors. And while it was nice to get a laugh, it also made me sort of sad. Why has studying English become the punch line of a joke? And especially one made by English majors themselves?

The reason I studied English was because I love stories. Analyzing them, reading them, and writing them. But I majored in English because I believe in stories. I believe they have the power to change peoples’ lives and have an impact on our world. Stories—in the form of books, specifically—have long been a source of comfort, information, and exploration for me.

Being a lover of books my whole life, I was intrigued by the publishing world. What happens before a book ends up on a shelf in a store or a library? Who gets to decide which books are worth publishing and which are not? What is it like to journey with a story from initial manuscript to printed book?

By my senior year at Hope, I had my eyes fixed on publishing as a possible career path. And yet, I knew nothing about the industry. As a student, I had held a couple of different on-campus jobs, including working as a TA in the English Department and conducting research with Prof. Natalie Dykstra for her next book, a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner. My experiences were meaningful, but none directly related to publishing, and I worried I was too late to join the field.

On learning about my new interest in publishing, Prof. Dykstra invited me to Boston, where I would conduct research at the Houghton Library at Harvard but also have lunch with her publicist from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to talk about publishing and possible opportunities. Besides having a wonderful time in Boston, I gained valuable advice from this lunch meeting, the most important being to simply gain experience. In other words, I was told that the publishing world can be tricky to break into but that I just needed to get my foot in the door.

On returning to campus, I set up a meeting with Hope’s Career Development Center to gather a list of alumni contacts who either currently worked or had worked in the publishing industry. I soon began setting up phone meetings with these alumni to try and learn more about the field and the different types of jobs available. One of these connections led me to my eventual post-graduation internship with Eerdmans Publishing Company, a smaller academic publishing house in Grand Rapids. My internship was in the editorial department and consisted of learning the ins and outs of project editing. I proofread and copyedited manuscripts and indexes and participated in meetings. My foot was officially “in the door” of the publishing world.

Since my internship ended in August, I had the aforementioned interview at Baker and landed the position of acquisitions assistant. This experience has opened my eyes to the inner workings of a publishing house, as I daily work with the many changes that books go through just to get on a shelf. And while it has been thrilling to learn about the industry and these processes from the ground level, what fuels my work and the work of Baker as a company is the same belief that I stuck to when studying English: that stories have the power to impact our world and people for the better.

I am only at the very start of my career, and I don’t know for sure if I will be in publishing forever or if life will move me in a different direction. I’ve found it’s important to remember that not all career paths are going to look the same, and English majors may have a bit more of a winding road ahead of them. But just like any good book, life is more fun with a couple twists and turns along the way.

Who Was A. J. Muste?

Professor of English Kathleen Verduin shares her insights on a Hope icon, prior to the dedication of Muste’s sculpture on November 13 at 3pm at Van Wylen Library.  

Tell me you’ve heard of him: Abraham Johannes Muste (1885-1967), labor leader, world-renowned pacifist, and probably Hope’s most famous alumnus.

Born in the Netherlands, Muste immigrated to Grand Rapids with his family in 1891. He graduated from Hope College in 1905: valedictorian, captain of the basketball team, president of his fraternity (the Fraters, of course), and already an acclaimed orator. He studied at New Brunswick Seminary and was ordained as a pastor in the Reformed Church in America in 1909. From there, he served the Fort Washington Collegiate Church in New York City, but found himself increasing uncomfortable with the doctrines of Calvinism, and moved on to a Congregational Church near Boston.

The year 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, was a dramatic watershed for the young man: despite social pressures around him, he adopted a position of radical pacifism.

Muste had already joined over sixty fellow pacifists to found the American wing of the international Fellowship of Reconciliation. Next, abandoning his pulpit, he turned toward labor organization as a theater where his commitment to issues of peace and justice could find expression.

In 1921, he became educational director of the Brookwood Labor College in New York and laid foundations for the Conference for Progressive Labor Action. Frustrated with the church, he was drawn for a time to Communism, even visiting the noted Marxist Leon Trotsky in 1936. “What could one say to the unemployed and the unorganized who were betrayed and shot down when they protested”? he asked himself. “What did one point out to them? Well, not the Church … you saw that it was the radicals, the Left-wingers, the people who had adopted some form of Marxian philosophy, who were doing something about the situation.”

And yet A. J. didn’t have it in him to stay away from Christianity for very long. That same year he wandered into the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris and experienced a reconversion: “Without the slightest premonition of what was going to happen, I was saying to myself: ‘This is where you belong.’” On his return to the United States, Muste headed the Presbyterian Labor Temple in New York and then became Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In 1949 a very young Martin Luther King, Jr., then at student at Crozer Seminary, heard Muste lecture on non-violent resistance. It may even be fair to say that King would not have achieved his ambitions had he not had Muste as an example.

In his years of “retirement,” Muste was more vigorous than ever, participating in a string of activities: the anti-nuclear walk to Mead Airforce Base, where the seventy-five-year old climbed over the fence into the grounds; the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace, the Quebec-Guantanamo Peace Walk, the Nashville-Washington Walk, and the Sahara Project to oppose nuclear testing in Africa.

In 1966, in the heat of the Vietnam War, he led a group to Saigon, where he was immediately deported, but shortly thereafter flew to Hanoi to meet Ho Chi Minh. Less than a month later Muste died of an aneurysm. The great American linguist, philosopher, and social critic Noam Chomsky called Muste “one of the most significant twentieth-century figures, an unsung hero.”

During the summer of 2017, I had the great privilege of accompanying David Schock on a series of cross-country trips to interview and record the memories of people who knew A. J. or had written about him. It was an unforgettable experience, and the footage is priceless. We heard the stories—often expressed in tears—of working with Muste, observing his deft administration, and wondering at his dedication. What is the cost of a life like Muste’s, a life that so realizes the imitatio Christi?

Surely Muste paid a price: his family’s finances were chronically precarious, he was often away from home, and he endured the suspicion of many with whom he had grown up. One person we interviewed estimated that Muste had probably owned no more than four suits in his entire life, and his shoes often revealed patches in the soles.

Yet Muste was a happy man. I love this story from his co-worker Barbara Deming, who was with him when he was arrested in Vietnam: “None of us had any idea how rough they might be,” she recalled, “and A. J. looked so very frail.” She went on: “I looked across the room at A. J. to see how he was doing. He looked back with a sparkling smile and, with that sudden light in his eyes which so many of his friends will remember, he said, ‘It’s a good life!’”

Though Muste wasn’t an English major, he was a lover of poetry, so it seems fitting to end with some of the lines that most inspired him. These words, from Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great,” were read at his memorial service: “I think continually of those who were truly great. / Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history / Through corridors of life, where the hours are suns, / Endless and singing.”

Visit Digital Holland for a timeline of Muste’s life, and be sure to check out Hope’s A. J. Muste Web page.

“Astronomy, Toddler Poetry, and Quality Management”: Alumni Interview with Katie Bode-Lang ’02

We’re delighted to have the chance today to catch up with illustrious alumna Katherine Bode-Lang. So, Katie, tell us a little about what you’re up to now, and how you got there.

I’m a working poet and mother: I write, and I’m the Director of Education and Quality Management in the Office for Research Protections (it’s a mouthful!) at Penn State University. We manage research compliance—making sure all research conducted with people or animals (or drones!) follows legal guidelines.

My book, The Reformation, won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in 2014, chosen by Stephen Dunn. After sending out my manuscript over a hundred times, I was honored to have the book land with APR and find an audience. And it was such a thrill to come back to Hope to read for the JRVWS that year with my dear friend and wonderful poet, Laura Donnelly (’01)!

I like to joke that poets need day jobs. After working in nonprofit administration, I earned my MFA in poetry at Penn State. I taught English full-time there for three years before making the leap to research administration.

My English major comes in useful in my current job: I try to communicate our work in terms non-scientists can understand. My boss teases that she hired a poet because she wanted someone who could say complicated things simply—and in a small amount of space!

I also love being a mom; our daughter, Clara, turned three last month. I recently heard the poet Naomi Shihab Nye read, and she said that if you’re around a toddler, you should just watch and take notes—it’s true. I write down something Clara said almost every day because her words are both honest and magical. Today when we took a walk to the park, she said, “Thank you, sun. It was nice playing with you today.” It’s toddler poetry.

How would you say that your Hope English education shaped you?

I’m a poet because of Hope. Back when I applied, I won one of the earliest Distinguished Artist Awards to support my study of creative writing. I studied with Jack Ridl my first semester of freshman year, and I didn’t look back. And classes with Kathleen Verduin, Jesse Montaño, Julie Kipp, and William Pannapacker surely influenced my view of the world and literature.

Hope was also my first interdisciplinary experience. I double-majored in women’s studies and T.A.ed for astronomy. That meant my interest in the sky could influence my poems, and my interest in writing led me to help rewrite the curriculum for an astronomy course. Being able to integrate my work was such an incredible opportunity.

I think you can still see those influences in my poetry: I write a lot about the female body, hoping my own experiences will give voice to the experiences of others. You’ll also find astronomy in my poetry. My senior year at Hope, “She’s Heard It Said if It Weren’t for the Sky We Would Go Mad” was published in the Beloit Poetry Journal. I still remember having that poem workshopped in one of Jack’s classes!

I love that some of my earliest poems made it into my first book. Another was “In the Back Field,” written while taking Dr. Pannapacker’s course on writing and the environment. A third was a response to an assignment to write about a photograph in English 355. Obviously, they were edited in the decade following.

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

I loved teaching poetry workshops and would happily teach them again. English 355, please.

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

Don’t limit yourself because you don’t know what’s out there. There are whole realms to operating a large university that I had no idea existed—and they are great places for English majors to work! I get to learn about interesting research, I make sure people are conducting their work ethically, and I influence the curriculum of our graduate students.

But if you’d asked me if I wanted to work in research administration, I wouldn’t have even known what that was! If you’re interested in jobs that use your skills, ask questions, network with alumni, and do your research. And working outside of an English department doesn’t mean you can’t be a writer.

Finding the balance of working, writing, parenting, and partnering isn’t easy no matter what discipline you’re working in. I’m always journaling and writing drafts of poems as they come to me. But this past year, I actually started taking vacation days so I would have dedicated writing time. I’m happy to “vacation” with my laptop at a coffee shop. And these vacation days have led to a manuscript for my second collection.

Also, join OPUS. It’s where I met my husband (Andrew Bode-Lang ’99). No joke!

Favorite book read recently or in college?

Hope introduced me to the poetry of Li-Young Lee, Jane Hirschfield, and Louise Glück. And I still remember Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia from a Latino studies class with Jesse Montaño.

Thanks for checking back in with Hope English, Katie! We can’t wait to read the next book, and hope we’ll hear a bit more toddler poetry.

Registering for Spring Courses? Fear not!

Registration for Spring 2019 is here, and English has just what you need, whether you want to curl up with a good book, work on your stand-up routine, or finally pen that perfect sonnet.  Scroll down for a taste of our offerings… and please visit plus.hope.edu for a complete list. We’d love for you to join us!

English 371-01: “Ernest Hemingway: Fiction and Film” – MWF 11:00-11:50 with Dr. Hemenway

For more than seven decades, people have asked me if I am the illegitimate son of Ernest Hemingway. No, I am not; we spell our names differently. However, I have come to terms with this mysterious and macho man. In “Ernest Hemingway: Fiction and Film,” I will present several of his short stories and novels and Hollywood versions of them to help you grapple with his “lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame” (New York Times, 1926) and the “technicolor adaptations featuring foreign settings and doomed love, and always at least half an hour too long” (Slate, 2007). English majors will encounter “Lost Generation” themes and techniques, Creative Writing students will imitate his economical realism, Secondary Education students will emerge with lesson plans for teaching such classic high-school texts as A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. Scientists, Women’s Studies and Psychology majors, Midwesterners, film buffs, travelers, and adventure-seekers will all find something of interest.

English 240: “Comedy Writing” – Tu/Th 12:00-1:20 with Dr. Pannapacker

This is a hybrid course about the history and practice of comedy writing that focuses on writers and performers of the last sixty years in their cultural contexts (e.g., Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer). You will write reaction essays and give short presentations on the comedians we are studying, and write one longer essay on a relevant topic of your choosing.  Additionally, you will develop at least one comedic persona — drawing upon the techniques of famous performers — using social media to develop “bits” for use in larger comedic “sets” that you will present to the class for periodic feedback. This is not a course in performance, but you are likely to develop stronger delivery skills. By the end of the course, you should have an organized understanding of the history of U.S. comedy writing, a repertoire of writing and delivery techniques, and an emerging “fan base” for your work that can be developed for careers in writing for performance, print, and other media.

English 354: “Intermediate Creative Writing: Fiction” – Tu/Th 1:30-2:50 with Dr. Childress

According to Flannery O’Connor, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way.” 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, and, of course, let your weird out! We’ll closely examine—as writers who are looking to steal their secrets—short stories from O’Conner and other literary giants in this genre, both classic and contemporary.  We’ll undertake exercises to develop your characters, push your plot lines, and make your dialogue do good and gritty work. We’ll engage in class critique. Come prepared to read and to write—lots and lots of each! You’ll write three short stories, try your hand at microfiction, introduce your classmates to a literary journal with fantastic short fiction, and turn in a final portfolio of roughly 30 radically revised pages.

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

English 282: “American Ethnic Literature” (focus on Asian American Literature) – Tu/Th 12:00-1:20PM with Dr. Cho

Asian American Identity? The birth of the fortune cookie? A people group which profoundly shaped immigration and naturalization laws?  The “hula-hula” dance, palm trees, and pineapples? The earliest known date of Asian migration to the US (1565, if you can believe it)? Japanese American internment? The origins of Korean adoption? The origins of surfing? Why TV shows Gilligan’s Island, Fantasy Island, and Lost were set in the Pacific? A Japanese American Black Panther? The origins of the term “Asian American?” Asian American Civil Rights leaders?  Interested?  See you soon…

English 375: “Young Adult Ethnic American Literature” – Tu/Th 12:00-1:20 with Dr. Montaño

In this course, we will analyze Ethnic American literature for young adults. The goal will be to explore a wide range of perspectives, from a young girl growing up in Chicago who refuses to be perfect; a young boy growing up wondering which parts are Chinese and which American; two stories about Hispaniola (one Dominican and the other Haitian); and two surrealismo novels of young adults caught between worlds as well as familia.

This course will emphasize critical issues surrounding the renaissance of multicultural literature. Due to the novel nature of this approach, time and weight will be given to questions of intercultural production, intertextuality, historicism, and diversity in America. By exploring literature for young adults in this manner, we hope to raise fundamental questions over the very essence of our world and how we see it.

Extensive reading and discussion required, as well as written responses through various critical perspectives, multimedia presentations, and a larger final project. Meets Hope College GLD credit.

English 455-01: “Advanced Poetry” – Tu/Th 9:30-10:50 with Dr. Peschiera

Poetry is at the absolute, razor-sharp, leading edge of art. It’s also where everyone goes to express and recall profound emotion. It is popular and populist, and also elite and exclusionary. How can it be both? We’ll answer that question. You’ll write poems and talk about poems, writing for both popular and elite purposes, thinking about how your poetry can fill both spaces. We’ll discuss structure, rhythm, and sound, all while further developing your poet’s voice. You’ll print a small collection of your work. We’ll have writers and song writers visit us in person and on video chat, and watch videos about our poetry and poetics. But mostly you’ll talk about each other’s work every day, and read poems and essays about poetry. Sharpen the pencils, refill the pens!

“Some Autumn Reflections”: A Faculty Feature from William Pannapacker

We teach because we are not immortal; knowledge must be passed down. We get older, but the students remain the same age. Every fall renews that understanding.

I started at Hope College in 2000; newborns from that year are appearing in my classes now. My three daughters have grown up in Holland, and my oldest is attending Hope. I’ve stayed in Lubbers Hall long enough to watch many colleagues complete their careers and retire, and I have seen a remarkable number of other colleagues die at a relatively young age.

Students may notice the painting at the western end of the Lubbers third-floor hallway; it was made by Susan Atefat-Peckham, who died, with her young son Cyrus, in a car crash while doing research in the Middle East.  Or they may consider the two framed photographs and artwork near the department office: they commemorate Jennifer Young-Tait, our beloved assistant professor of African-American literature who died in childbirth, and David Klooster, our revered English department chair, who died of brain cancer within months of Jennifer’s death.

I am not sure that we ever will recover from those losses. And now we are grieving Jonathan Hagood, whose energy for the thankless work of administration seemed boundless. He departed unexpectedly, at age 43, just a few weeks ago.

There are few in Lubbers Hall whose lives have not been by impacted by grievous personal suffering: some of those burdens are public; more are carried in solitude.

In times of sorrow and loss, I have sometimes looked to the Book of Job. He has lost everything—possessions, health, and family—and he cries out to God for an explanation of why that has happened to him, when he is such a good man. God replies, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

It is not, of course, for us to question the mysterious workings of Providence. Everything, as some say, happens for a reason.

But such cold resignation finds a reassuring complement in the Gospel of John, where we read that “Jesus wept.” The Lord was, in that moment, responding like any suffering human to the death of his friend, Lazarus. Job might have asked, “What can an omnipotent God know of our pain, what it means to lose someone you love, to lie on a heap of ashes, despised and hopeless?” The pain of Jesus suggests that God is not an aloof, indifferent creative force, but a consciousness who understands our suffering and seeks to heal it.

I have spent much of my scholarly career contemplating the life and works of Walt Whitman.  The Civil War changed him from an arrogant nationalist, who urged his country to fratricidal war, to the “Wound Dresser.”  Whitman faced the blood and screams of the hospitals, and over several years, he learned to extend his empathy to the soldiers of the South as much as to those of the North: “Was one side so brave, the other was equally brave,” he wrote.

As the war came to end after the culminating sacrifice of President Lincoln—with 800,000 already dead—Whitman struggled to salvage a larger meaning from such loss, and to make a final peace from which the nation could move forward:

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

In this poem, “Reconciliation,” Whitman steps outside the conflicts of the American present, defined by transient political and economic interests, into a larger realm of self-transcendence and cosmic forgiveness.

Great losses can provoke a profound and needed shedding of the manacles forged in the first half of our lives, as Richard Rohr suggests in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. To lose everything—or at least many things—is to finally address the broken self you have become. Do you even feel confident before your own judgment? Are you now the person you hoped to become? What stops you from realizing that self in the time you have left?

This year is the anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, brother of an assassinated president, John, both brothers of Joseph, lost in World War II. By the time of his own run for the presidency in 1968, Robert was a man transfigured by pain, whose empathetic imagination had expanded far beyond his elite upbringing, and personal ambition, to include the poor and discriminated against, and the dispossessed of all kinds.

In his most memorable speech, following the murder of Martin Luther King, Kennedy paraphrased Aeschylus: “And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Robert Kennedy was assassinated within two months.

None of us can say what the future holds, but we—as a campus, and as individuals—can take some consolation in the unshakable truth that from pain comes wisdom, and that from loss comes renewed dedication to shared values and beliefs.

In that sense, the larger function of teaching cannot be fulfilled by any single person; it is the task of a community struggling, always, to reform itself, to reconcile its differences, to feel empathy across divisions, to embrace humility, and to collectively seek a higher purpose than the knowledge of our disciplines.

We teach by who we become more than by what we know.

“Writing Basically Constantly”: Alumni Interview with Matthew Baker ’08

Matthew Baker ’08 is coming to town, and the English department snagged an interview with our New York City-dwelling Hope alum and ascendant professional writer.

Baker’s works include the middle-grade mystery novel If You Find This (2017) and the story collection Hybrid Creatures (2018), from which he’ll be reading at JRVWS on Thursday the 27th. Three of his stories have been optioned for the screen by Amazon, an independent studio, and Netflix–the most recent causing a “bidding stampede”!

So, what are you doing now? We’ve heard the headlines, of course.

Writing—writing stories, writing novels, writing screenplays, writing comics—writing basically constantly.

Not bad advice for aspiring writers at Hope. Speaking of which, how did your Hope English education shape you?

I’m most grateful for two things: having had the opportunity to volunteer as an editor for Opus, and having had the opportunity to take Modern English Grammar, which at the time was taught by Rhoda Janzen [now Burton]. Every writer should take a grammar course and learn how to diagram sentences. I very passionately believe that. You can’t break the rules if you don’t know what the rules are to begin with.

I also did an independent study on graphic novels with Beth Trembley, which had an enormous effect on me as a writer. Curtis Gruenler’s course on the history of the English language was essential. Jack Ridl taught me sage wisdom about poetry. Heather Sellers taught me sage wisdom about fiction. Kathleen Verduin let me sleep in a spare room in her basement one summer when I didn’t have anywhere to live.

Also, Julie Kipp during class once made an offhand remark that films were literature too and that as students of literature all of us had an obligation to study film history (I think she was upset that nobody in the class had ever seen Apocalypse Now) and I actually took that to heart and I did—that summer I rented over a hundred classic films from Van Wylen Library, and I can say that despite being an unofficial assignment, that was probably the most important assignment I was ever given.

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

Subscribe to The Paris Review.

Intriguing! Current students may be pleased to know that the Van Wylen Library subscribes, if they want to check out the latest issue. Tell us, if you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

I actually do—I teach an advanced writing workshop once a year at NYU, called Hybrid Fictions. It’s a workshop in which students exclusively read and write interdisciplinary fiction: stories that incorporate subject-specific language, forms, and concepts from other fields of study. For instance, Margaret Luongo’s “A Note on the Type,” which is structured as a series of notes about fictional typefaces, drawing on the field of typography.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

In college my most treasured book was The People of Paper, primarily because one of the characters in the novel is a mechanical tortoise that speaks entirely in binary, which is just marvelous.

Thanks to Matthew Baker for giving us a taste of what to expect on Thursday. Students, faculty, and community members alike: be sure to attend his free reading!

9/27 @ 3:30 p.m. – Q&A in the Martha Miller Center
9/27 @ 7:00 p.m. – reading in the Jack Miller Center followed by reception

25 & Counting: The Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series 2018 Preview

It’s been 25 years since Hope English professor Jack Ridl founded his Visiting Writers Series — JRVWS for short — and it’s time to celebrate! We have remarkable events scheduled for 7:00 p.m. on September 27th and November 13th. Will we see you there?

Hope College has a true legacy in creating a rich community of writers. Throughout the school year, students, faculty, and locals alike will have opportunities to engage these writers in conversation, hear them read from their work, and learn from their artistry.

How does one “humbly celebrate”? Not a paradox if you’re Jack Ridl…

To begin the season, here’s a sneak peak of this fall’s unprecedented gathering of artists, brought to you by the team behind the curtain: English professor and JRVWS director Susanna Childress, and JRVWS interns Shanley Smith (’19) and Annika Gidley (’19). In the words of Dr. Childress: “We hope you’ll join us as we humbly celebrate the rich legacy of years past and look forward to years to come.”

September 27: Matthew Baker, Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Meridith Ridl

In less than two weeks, Hope College will welcome back alum Matthew Baker for the Tom Andrews Memorial Reading. Since leaving Hope, he’s made a big splash, including a recent Netflix deal — look out for more details in our forthcoming interview here at the department blog!

Shanley Smith, who is helping to coordinate Baker’s visit, shared a bit about what his work means to her:

“During my first semester at Hope College, my professor assigned the short story ‘Rites’ by Matthew Baker. I clicked instantly with his crisp style and bizarre subject material. I discovered in class the next day that Baker ranks as one of Hope College’s most successful creative writing graduates.

“Ripe with philosophy and equations, his latest work Hybrid Creatures catered to my left-brain mindset. His specificity with topics such as Aristotle or trigonometry creates a paradoxical accessibility to individuals across various disciplines. Through the mathematical and scientific, his stories tap into the humanity of subjects such as memory loss and family conflict.

“For nearly four years I’ve admired Baker’s work, so it is with heightened anticipation that I look forward to welcoming this year’s JRVWS alumni guest.”

On the same evening, we’ll also welcome the creators of a beautiful book featuring two types of artistic collaboration! It’s not just a reading — Dr. Childress lets us know to expect the unexpected from Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Meridith Ridl:

“What makes Lake Michigan Mermaid unusual is not just the ‘tale in poems’ of a young woman trying to find where she belongs or the threat of losing connection with her family and their home, a ramshackle cottage on the lake. It’s also the voice of a mermaid speaking telepathically into such an urgent and pivotal moment.

“This poem-tale is a collaboration of Michigan co-authors Linda Nemec Foster and Anne-Marie Oomen, illustrated by the striking, mystical hand of Meridith Ridl. Such a summation of talent and connectivity brings us the fascinating, fantastical, and endearing story-verse and visuals of Lykretia and Phyliadellacia, which JRVWS-goers will get to experience as a co-reading with projected illustrations. In our series’ 25 years, there’s never been an event quite like it!”

November 13: Emily St. John Mandel

Partnering with the Big Read, JRVWS will be bringing Emily St. John Mandel back to the very lakeshore that provides the setting for her New York Times-bestselling novel Station Eleven.

Annika Gidley, one of the students making it all possible, gives us the details:

Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel and this year’s selection for the NEA Big Read Lakeshore, examines the search for human connection in a world where ninety-nine percent of the population has perished in a pandemic. The novel offers all the action and suspense that readers of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction expect. But more than that, it allows the reader to ruminate on bigger, more uplifting ideas, such as the importance of art and the power of relationships that develop in unexpected places.

“In a world where social media and ever-increasing workloads make authentic connection seem harder to come by, St. John Mandel offers readers a chance to reflect on and interrogate their own world, their own relationships.

“When she visits Hope’s campus in November, St. John Mandel will provide insight that readers can take with them as they put down the novel and step out into their own lives.”

Intrigued? Join us, and experience these unique opportunities for yourself.

Matthew Baker, Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Meridith Ridl will appear for a Q&A in the Martha Miller Center at 3:30 p.m. on 9/27. Their presentations are at 7:00 p.m. in the Jack Miller Center, followed by a 25th anniversary dessert reception.

Emily St. John Mandel will give an address to students at 11:00 a.m. on 11/13, and her keynote speech will be at 7:00 p.m. the same day in Jack Miller.

Hello! We’ve Got Some Catching Up to Do

At the end of Spring semester, the last exam lets out. Students scatter to all parts of Michigan, the country, and the world. Meanwhile, the professors gather canned goods and bottled water, select their favorite classroom, turn off the lights, and slip under a desk to hibernate for the summer.

Wait… can that be right?

Welcome back, returning Hope students! Welcome, first-years! The English department is delighted to see you, and we’d love to hear what you did on your summer vacation — though we promise not to make you to write an essay with that title. Here’s a glimpse into what some of us did with ours!

Over the summer, Dr. Kendra Parker completed her manuscript, She Bites Back: Black Female Vampires in African American Women’s Novels, 1977-2011, and the book is expected to be released in December 2018.
← Here’s a partial sneak peek of the book’s cover image. We can’t wait for She Bites Back to come out!

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Dr. Jesus Montaño and Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño spent the summer finalizing their book manuscript, Tactics of Hope in Latinx Children’s and Young Adult Literature, under contract with University of New Mexico Press. Busy people around here!  We’re all very excited to read Tactics of Hope, too.

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Bill Moreau shared this wonderful photo of him standing with his Education Department June Term group.  Students took either an elementary school literacy class (taught by Laura Pardo) or a secondary school methods class (taught by Bill), and spent two weeks in classrooms in Liverpool area schools. They also got to take fun three-day weekend trips, like this visit to the top of King Arthur’s Seat (an extinct volcano) just outside Edinburgh, Scotland!

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We’re impressed and proud of awesome office manager Raquel Niles, who shared this note: “Attached is a pic of me with my cool medal. I ran my first 5k and it was the longest 3 miles ever.”

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Dr. Kathleen Verduin told us that after a trip to Las Vegas (no, not really) and the Grand Canyon, she settled down to research not one but three essays in progress: one on the American literary historian George Ticknor (1791-1871) and his interest in Dante, coming out in the Massachusetts Historical Review later this year; another on James Russell Lowell (1819-1891); and an essay on John Updike (1932-2009) and stuttering that will be published in a collection on literature and disability. But, she confessed, she still didn’t get to clearing out the basement…

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Dr. Elizabeth Trembley had a very full summer. She got to sing Hope’s Alma Mater hymn with the Chapel Choir several times in South Africa! In her words, she had an amazing time “experiencing music and history and the daily work still done in South Africa to further the cause of justice, especially for marginalized groups of people.” She also worked on her graphic memoir, and traveled to Vermont for a workshop on creating book-length comics with Eisner award winner Paul Karasik. She’ll be on leave of absence this year to work on her book, but plans to stay connected.

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Dr. Curtis Gruenler and Dr. Matthew Packer of Buena Vista University, U2 fans and joint editors of the Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, were thrilled to visit the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater while in Denver for COV&R‘s annual meeting. Prof. Gruenler gave a paper on “Mimesis, Friendship, and Truth,” ideas he’d explored during his spring semester sabbatical. English major Annika Gidley ’19 came along too, and gave a very well-received paper on her summer research project with Prof. Gruenler, about René Girard’s mimetic theory and the Harry Potter series.

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Not only does Dr. Rhoda Janzen have a new textbook out from Flip learning, she teased us with some fascinating details about her next book project: “I spent my summer in CA with my head in the nineteenth century, researching this old house. It’s a bit like Bly — remote secrets, a hidden mistress, a Raisin Barron, a murder!”

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Another traveling researcher was Dr. Marla Lunderberg, who wrote an article about best practices for including Asian Studies materials in Western Cultural Heritage courses. (She invites everyone to ask her about Zheng He!) Between teaching two summer courses, she gathered with all four kids and their significant others to celebrate her oldest son’s wedding! In June, she meandered through Europe, biking in the Netherlands, visiting the Bayeux Tapestry in northern France, connecting with a Hope English alumna in Paris, reconnecting with a dear Swiss friend in the Alps, and participating in a John Donne conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. Whew!

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She wasn’t the only one in the Alps; Dr. Christiana Salah visited Switzerland in mid-July, but before doing some hiking like Heidi, she made a stop in Vienna, Austria and couldn’t believe who she happened to bump into while catching a train out of the city, boarding the same car, by the same door… our very own Doc Hemenway!

Doc directed and taught both sessions (May and June) of the 62nd annual Hope College Vienna Summer School, which he has led for 43 consecutive summers.   Seventy-four students participated this time! After it ended, he visited several of Hope College’s European graduates in Germany and Austria, participated in the San Fermin Running of the Bulls Fiesta in Pamplona, Spain, and attended the week-long 18th International Ernest Hemingway Conference in Paris, France.

So that was our summer. How was yours? Let us know in the comments or @HopeEnglishDept, or pay us a visit in Lubbers Hall!