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.

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.