She knows what it is to have a lantern. “In Papua New Guinea,” Susan Felch said, “when the lights went out, and there were only the stars, you had a little hurricane lamp, and it only showed you the next right step.”

She knows what it is to have a lantern. “In Papua New Guinea,” Susan Felch said, “when the lights went out, and there were only the stars, you had a little hurricane lamp, and it only showed you the next right step.”

She knows what it is to have a lantern. “In Papua New Guinea,” Susan Felch said, “when the lights went out, and there were only the stars, you had a little hurricane lamp, and it only showed you the next right step.”

Passion for education

Felch, the daughter of missionaries, was born in Colorado. “Not the pretty part of Colorado—the part that looks like Nebraska,” she clarified. Her grandparents on both sides were Russian-German immigrants.

Her maternal grandfather, whose formal education ended when he came to the states at the age of 11, had a voracious hunger for knowledge, Felch remembered: “That kind of intellectual energy, curiosity and vigorousness—I didn’t realize until later how much it shaped me.”

Tiny student

When Felch was three years old, her parent attended a revival. “They were converted and decided to become missionaries, a vocational choice that was unheard of in their immigrant community in all sorts of ways.” she said. To prepare for mission work, the couple enrolled in Bible school, but they couldn’t afford a babysitter. “So there I was, sitting in a college classroom, with my own little notebook and my pencil.” Warned to be very quiet, Felch was chagrined when a professor praised her in class as “one of his most attentive students.”

Felch’s parents joined Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the family lived first in Mexico and then, for Felch’s 6th- through-12th grade years, in Papua New Guinea. Felch was educated via correspondence courses and, intermittently, with missionary children from Britain, Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, the Philippines, Korea and other countries at the missionary base in Ukarumpa. “A lovely way to grow up,” she summarized. “Part of it was being in an extended missionary family. Part of it was living, not just in another culture, but in several other cultures simultaneously.”

With the Yareba

Felch’s family shuttled between the highland base and the Musa Valley, where they worked with the Yareba people. Living with that tribe was a non-insulated existence, she said: “There were no screens between you and life; it was a very basic bodily existence. Somebody’s sick; somebody is dying; somebody is giving birth. It’s happening right next to you. You’re living in very close proximity to arguments, to death, to celebrations, to gardening, to storytelling.”

Customs and experiences

The young missionary child sometimes carried loads in a string bag suspended from her head. She swam in the river with the other children and one of her friends had a pet wallaby. These experiences are a treasured part of Felch’s childhood: “Let me tell you, it’s fun to pet a wallaby, but not fun to eat one,” she cautioned. “Their meat is smelly and very tough,” she said. “My cat, on the other hand, loved to eat wallaby—as well as crickets, roasted or raw. I preferred them roasted.”

Felch returned to the states to attend Wheaton College in 1968. She graduated with a degree in music and immediately went on to graduate school for a master’s degree in theology. It’s a path she doesn’t recommend to her students. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go straight from undergrad to graduate school,” she said. “I think it’s better to find out who you are outside of a school environment.”

Pastoring and teaching

Following graduate school, Felch went to live in Charlotte, N.C., where her husband, Doug, whom she had met at Wheaton and married in 1974, served as pastor to a Presbyterian church. “You’re on the front line of people’s lives,” she said of her role as pastor’s wife. Felch also taught music in a Christian school, and, eventually, she started teaching English.

Her first English class was made up of the starting lineup of the soccer team. “They taught me how to teach,” Felch said.

To entice the soccer players to read, Felch assigned the Merchant of Venice, and she always broke off her classroom reading of the play at a dramatic point in the plot and then collected their paperback editions of the play so the students couldn’t read ahead. She knew she’d helped her students connect with Shakespeare when she overheard them in the hallways slamming their lockers shut while having an intense discussion about the play. Felch also taught a weekly vocabulary word to enable the athletes to describe the soccer field as “verdant” or fellow students as “meretricious.” “They thought it was just a hoot to have this intellectual power over their friends,” she said.

Greater joys

Of the way her teaching career developed, Felch commented: “I meandered, and I meandered into greater joys.”

In 1988, after eight years, the couple moved on to another pastorate in northern Virginia. There Felch enrolled in a literature PhD program at The Catholic University of America. “There I am, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife with a full-ride scholarship to a Catholic University,” she said, laughing. She earned her doctorate in 1991.

Family first

Felch almost meandered away from a teaching career at Calvin. Her grandfather died in 1992, and Felch agreed to be a companion to her grandmother for a couple of months—a commitment that required her to cancel a scheduled interview with English faculty for an open position. She called then-English department chair Gary Schmidt to tell him that she couldn’t participate in the interview. Schmidt put down the phone, walked into the hall and said, “I think I just talked to the next person we’re going to hire. She’s willing to give up a job for her grandmother.”

"Normally, that takes somebody right out of the running,” Schmidt said of the canceled interview. “I felt that this was somebody who had her priorities absolutely in the right order, and you could see the effect. On paper you could see the effects of her scholarly abilities, but that decision made me see how her Christian life really works out.”

Leading and shaping

It was a good hiring decision, Schmidt said: “She is so central to the department, and she’s a leader in her scholarship and a leader in her teaching and a leader in the administration.” Felch has also had a shaping influence on the college’s bi-annual Festival of Faith and Writing, he said, by reading and recommending authors from every literary genre: “She’ll read the Christian mystery or the romance to see if this is someone who will speak to our conferees,” he said.

Felch, who served as director of the college’s Seminars in Christian Scholarship from 1997 through 2003, has recently been named director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, which supports faith-based scholarship from all disciplines. “I love working with the faculty, hearing about what they’re doing, learning about politics, arts and sciences, nursing,” she said.

At home in the classroom

The classroom, however, is the place she wants to be. “I love teaching,” Felch said. “I still do. I can go into the classroom with a headache and come out feeling better.” She particularly likes teaching in a Calvin classroom. “Something right is going on here,” she said. “Students here learn the boldness they need to take the next right step.”

Department
English

Education
Wheaton College, 1972, music
MA, Wheaton College, 1974, theology
PhD, Catholic University, 1991, literature

Research interests
• Sixteenth century British literature
• religion and literature
• cultural studies and literary theory

Selected publications
Elizabeth Tyrwhit’s Morning and Evening Prayers, 2008
Christian scholarship—for what, 2003
Bakhtin and Religion: A Feeling for Faith, 2001, edited with Paul J. Contino. 

Little-known fact
Wrote a 500-page dissertation which she now uses as a booster seat for visiting children.

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