Faculty Profile: Elizabeth Vander Lei
May 30, 2008
Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of faculty profiles that will be featured at Calvin News & Stories over the course of the summer.
"Many would call it staggering around and falling into things. I look at that as God’s providence,” said Calvin professor of English Elizabeth Vander Lei of what life has thrown her way.
"It was certainly not an intentional path; it was much more like a drunken sailor stagger,” she added.
This stagger that is Vander Lei’s life walk began in the “muck-fields” of Byron Center, Mich.; she is the daughter of a vegetable farmer and a stay-at-home mom. “So that meant she did everything,” Vander Lei said.
Vander Lei unwillingly assisted on the farm, and her hobby became an effective means of eschewing work. “My favorite memory is reading in the living room and my mom walking in, and she [said] ’Beth, I want you to,’ and she’d pause and, ‘Oh you’re reading, I’ll ask your sister,’ and she turned and left.” Vander Lei said. “I mean, sorry, if you are nine this is like ‘Ah, I have hit the mother lode for avoiding work on the farm!’ So I read constantly.”
She exhausted her parent’s book collection, many times over. Her mom would drop her off at the library while she went to the grocery store. "They knew me by name … I would spend hours in that library.”
Vander Lei described herself as “lazy” in her college search, and she was confident that she was not going to Calvin. “If you are from this area and you are from a Christian School, everyone is sure they aren’t going to Calvin,” she said. But she missed a deadline for her first choice, Michigan State University. “It’s frighteningly mundane how I came to Calvin,” she joked.
Like her journey to Calvin, Vander Lei’s path to graduate school was also “happenstance,” she said, explaining: “I had met a guy at Calvin and decided to marry him, and he had a job in Phoenix. I went to ASU (Arizona State University) because I thought you went where you were.”
Vander Lei pursued a master’s degree in English as a Second Language (ESL) as she enjoyed her linguistics class at Calvin with William Vande Kopple. For her PhD, she shopped around ASU for the best program: Rhetoric and Composition. “I took one class and loved it. It fits me perfectly …,” she said. “It is exactly who I am; it is exactly what I like to do.”
In 1996, Vander Lei was walking up the steps of the Fine Arts Center at Calvin to attend that year’s Festival of Faith and Writing. She was stopped by a former professor, Clarence Walhout, who mentioned that the department had a position open for a Rhetoric and Composition professor and encouraged her to apply. “Frankly, I hadn’t considered it,” she said of the offer.
Taking a job at Calvin required a slight modification of plans on Vander Lei’s part. At the time, she was at home with her adopted sons, “We have these wide-open adoptions with their birth families. We had told them that I would be a stay-at-home mom and that we would live in Arizona,” she said.
The birth families supported Vander Lei’s change of plans. She thought that if she was going to try teaching while raising a family (Vander Lei later adopted two daughters from Korea) Calvin was the place to do it. She landed the position and began teaching in 1997.
"It’s the Vander Lei ‘drunken sailor’ and here I am …,” she said. “I am perfectly happy here. I could not do my scholarship with the same freedom other places.”
Vander Lei’s scholarship has explored the rhetoric of Martin Luther King. Recently, she began examining how religious faith works in the classroom. “The question of religious faith and the teaching of writing all of a sudden became white hot in 2001,” she explained. “I’m going to put African-American rhetoric on hold and do the good work I can do in this moment,” she said of her decision.
Vander Lei sees the need for a fine balance between scholarship and teaching. “To me teaching and scholarship are two sides of the same coin. I discover stuff and then I want to tell people about it,” she said. “I want people to know better, to think better, to be able to do better as a result of working with me … I love it when students look up, and you can just see that you got them. That is like the three bars on the slot machine.”
Vander Lei is the departmental director of English 101, a professor, a wife and a mother of four. She does not have a lot of free time. But when she does, she finds solace in woman’s best friend. “My dog is an enormous source of satisfaction for me … . I am so pathetically proud of that dog … . I embarrass myself with my pride over that dog,” she said. “Every day I take that dog for a long walk … . I have 30 or 45 minutes of peace and quiet. The dog, who is very, very smart when he’s not stupid, has not learned to talk yet,” she added.
Reflecting on her impeccable ability to wander into opportunities, Vander Lei said, “Life shouldn’t be this, I don’t want to say ‘easy’ because it is a ton of work, and I do work really, really hard for what I’ve accomplished—and parenting four children is no small feat. But in other ways, in the large things of life, it has all just happened. I can’t take credit for that.”
~by Katie Landan, Communications & Marketing