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Excellence on a Long Journey
English department still golden after all these years

Recently it was reported that Yale University graduate students working as teaching assistants were striking for more pay. If the assistants were not back to work within a few days of the report, professors would be forced to grade end-of-the semester papers and exams.

Professors grading papers: a newsworthy occurrence at Yale University; an every day occurrence in Calvin College's English department and something that hasn't changed in the more than 100-year history of the department.

"I still have nightmares that it's the last day of a course and I haven't graded all of the papers yet," said Richard Tiemersma, retired Calvin English professor.

Students still have nightmares about getting them back.

"I was known to be such a terror on papers and bluebooks because I put so much work into grading them," he said. "I wanted to bring students up to the point where I knew they could be."

Pushing students to their greatest potential has always been the philosophy of the Calvin College English department despite the many changes that have occurred in faculty makeup, backgrounds, curriculum, scholarly emphasis and technology.

It started back with J.G. Vanden Bosch when, in 1894, there were 33 students in the literary department of the Theological School. Vanden Bosch designed the first English major. He taught at Calvin for 50 years.

"For almost 40 years he was the English Department," wrote Vanden Bosch student and later English professor emeritus John J. Timmerman in Markings on a Long Journey.

"That he was genuinely eccentric, generally effervescent and quite often frightfully opinionated did not make him less interesting or impede his endeavor to let my Christianity speak in the classroom.' This very able man did that with clarity and fervor in an astonishing variety of courses for 50 years," wrote Timmerman.

Over the next 20 years such longtime Calvin professors as John H. Timmerman, Richard Tiemersma, Steve Van Der Weele, Peter Oppewal, Ken Kuiper, Mary Ann Walters, George Harper, Stanley Wiersma and Henrietta Ten Harmsel joined the Calvin English faculty and helped mold the department into what it still is today--a strong teaching department.

"In interviewing here, teaching ability is always a matter of great concern," said Ken Kuiper, who joined the faculty in 1963 and retired in 1995. "The department wants to be reassured that the students will be well served in their classes. We encourage variety in method, but the teaching has to be strong."

A positive reflection on that strong teaching emphasis was Kuiper's receipt of the first Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching in 1993.

"I have always felt that a teacher who channels his reading, research and thought into fine teaching, fulfills his obligations to the college," wrote Timmerman in a history of the department.

While that focus has not changed, many other things in the English department have, beginning with the names on the placards hanging on the office doors.

In the last ten years, many new faculty members have been hired to replace many of the previously mentioned Calvin longtime professors. Black-and-white photos of Timmerman, Tiemersma, Van Der Weele, Oppewal, Kuiper, Harper and Ten Harmsel all hang in the department's conference room as a tribute to those retired from the department.

New names in the department include Dale Brown, Dean Ward, Gary Schmidt, Roy Anker, John Netland, Susan Felch, Lionel Basney, Karen Saupe and Mary Dengler. Only one of which is a Calvin graduate.

"That is a big change for the department," said Ed Ericson, hired in 1977. "I was the first person brought in as a regular appointment that did not grow up in the CRC."

Ericson had previously taught at Hope College "and was living and moving among Dutch Calvinists."

"The department was not ready to take me straight in though," he said. "I was first brought in only to teach an interim."

Ericson was permanently hired at the same time as Calvin graduates John Timmerman, Jr., and Char Otten.

"I was the only 'outsider' for a time" said Ericson. "The fact that many of the lunchroom conversations were in Dutch didn't bother me. It was people in a culture trying to hold on to it. I liked it."

Today the balance has shifted to nine professors from outside the CRC and Calvin and eight from inside. Among those nine is Dale Brown, a 1987 addition to the staff.

"Ten years ago I had never heard of the Christian Reformed Church," said Brown. "Sometimes I still feel like I'm at somebody else's family reunion. I've been asked to spell my last name on more than one occasion. Overall though, I have found acceptance and encouragement here."

Brown came to Calvin because he was "interested in begin at a place that emphasized Christian dimension without being overly doctrinaire and that was serious about intellectual pursuit."

"I was pleasantly surprised to find both here," he said.

In his eight years on staff Brown has succeeded at helping to raise the awareness of the works of Christian authors.

"I was frustrated by what was available in Christian literature so I spent six or seven years interviewing Christian authors about their work," he said.

He then began asking them to come to Calvin for a Christian writers conference, which has become a biannual event and is again scheduled for April 11-13, 1996.

Along with Brown, relative newcomer Dean Ward has also strengthened the department by using his talent to help develop an all-college writing program. Ward has worked with colleagues in other disciplines on writing across the curriculum.

"Generally, it's something a lot of colleges are looking at," he said. "The ability to articulate an idea enhances learning and it is something that will work here because people are dedicated to teaching."

The contributions being made by professors like Brown and Ward and others are obviously beneficial to the department.

"As long as students are favorably disposed to what Calvin stands for, I think it's a very good thing," said John Timmerman, Sr.

But there is something to be said for tradition and maintaining a proper sense of institutional memory, said Ericson.

"I really wouldn't want to see the balance swing any further in that direction," he said. "It was not part of our design to actively seek people who were not part of this tradition. Our intent is always to hire the best person, but I think there's a loss if we don't have people who can relate to the longstanding tradition. I wouldn't want to lose that entirely."

The swing in faculty balance has been mirrored by the student population in which more than 40 percent are now from non-CRC backgrounds.

"When I taught at Calvin if I referred to The Banner or The Reformed Journal most people knew what I was talking about," said John Timmerman, Sr. "Now if I said 'The Banner' they might wonder what football team I was talking about."

The change in make-up of both the student body and the faculty has had a positive effect in that it has brought about the need for more discussion about the integration of faith and learning.

"It was possible to assume more then than now," said Bill Vande Kopple, who joined the faculty in 1980. "There is more talk about what can and can not be assumed. It has enriched my own knowledge and made me much more explicit about it."

In addition, more diverse backgrounds among the English department faculty has led to more diverse interests in teaching and scholarship.

"There are many more areas being explored in a scholarly way," said Gary Schmidt, English department chairman. "I think it really is astonishing as to the variety of work going on here. We have everything from political to environmental writing, from children's poetry to adult fiction and from translating to textbook writing." (see box). The publication production from the department is many times what it was in the early years of the department.

John Timmerman, Sr., who produced Markings on a Long Journey and Promises to Keep: A Centennial History of Calvin College, near the end of his teaching career, explained why.

"We had no time to do research," said Timmerman. "Our normal load was 150-175 students compared to about 75 now and we taught five classes, some even on Saturdays. That explains why not much extensive scholarship was done before the 1970s and 80s. There was no time for it."

Courses currently being offered range from the Shakespeare, Milton and Literature of the English Renaissance from Timmerman and Tiemersma's era to Modern Canadian Literature, Introduction to Cinema and History of the English Language.

"It has gotten to the point that you really have to ask, 'What is English?'" said Vande Kopple. "Twenty years ago it was the study of high texts. Now, we've added linguistics and language and film."

Another recent addition to the department offerings is English as a Second Language (ESL).

"ESL is really at the heart of the mission of Calvin College," said Vande Kopple. "It's an area that we have really just begun to study."

The study of it has been aided by the use of new technology, another big change in the department over the last 20 years.

Vanden Bosch, who has been working with Vande Kopple in this area, is a subscriber of the ESL Internet mailing list.

"Through this you are able to ask specific grammar questions, learn about instructional techniques and books--it has made an international community out of those interested in ESL," Vanden Bosch said. "The computer makes possible what would be very difficult any other way."

Vanden Bosch also introduces the Internet as a research tool for his English 100 students. "This way students can find out all sorts of things just sitting at their desk."

New technology or not, however, Calvin has always been out in front as far as producing quality English majors.

In a recent report of national leaders among undergraduate colleges for production of Ph.D.s in English, Calvin ranked 22nd in the country with a total of 71. (For the years 1978-88 Calvin tied for eighth with 25 total).

"Who produced these people?" said Ericson. "It was the people who were already at work here diligently turning out these kinds of people. It's not like it was an all-of-the-sudden turn around from an unproductive place to a scholarly hotbed. It's always been this way."

The department has always been a place of collegiality and genuine camaraderie as well, all agree.

"Everybody here recognizes everybody else's gifts," said John Timmerman, Jr. "We are all supportive if somebody else does something."

Birthdays are recognized with hymns written by Vanden Bosch and performed by the department; annual summer golf outings, fishing and camping trips are organized; and of course, "friendly" games of racquetball are still an afternoon tradition.

Over the years many have been initiated into the department through this sport.

Brown, Vanden Bosch, Netland, Vande Kopple, Ericson, Baron, Timmerman, Ward and Anker are still regular participants on the roster.

"It gives the hostility a civilized venting," said Vanden Bosch, with a laugh.

Tragedy and loss in the department have also drawn it closer together. "I believe that this department has suffered from death probably more than any other on campus," said John Timmerman, Sr.

The untimely deaths of Henry Zylstra, Harmon Hoek, Stanley Wiersma and Howard McConaughy all touched the department deeply.

"That's a lot of loss," Timmerman said. "We've been hit very hard."

The deaths along with other serious illnesses have strengthened the bond in the department.

"In times of great grief there is much Christian love. In times of need there is generosity. In times of illness there is support," said Kuiper. "Ten years ago when I developed an incapacitating illness, I received magnificent support. The English department raised funds, said prayers and showered us with attention."

And so, as if to challenge Robert Frost's poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay, the English department which began more than 100 years ago as the literary department at the theological school, has remained golden.

Lynn Bolt Rosendale is Calvin's coordinator of publications.

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Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 1/9/97.