An Exemplary Life
With catlike grace, James Vanden Bosch earns Calvin's top teaching award
by Myrna DeVries Anderson ’00

Prof. VandenBosch

Calvin English professor William Vande Kopple was recalling one vivid classroom moment in 20 years of teaching the interim in English grammar: the time two young women leaped from their seats and stormed out of the room, yelling that they couldn’t take it anymore and sweeping all of the books off the front desk. “There were 15 or 20 grammar books on his desk—just about gave me a heart murmur,” Vande Kopple said, “and he was up there, laughing.”

“He” refers to Vande Kopple’s partner in grammar teaching, Calvin English professor James Vanden Bosch, who had orchestrated the classroom revolt. “He has a different approach to people wanting to leave class early. He tells them, ‘Just so you do it dramatically … ,’” Vande Kopple explained the incident. “He is just so stinkin’ much fun to have around.”

Vanden Bosch, the founder of the grammar interim, is this year’s winner of Calvin’s Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching. “He can probably teach more different classes than anyone in our department … ,” wrote Vande Kopple in his recommendation letter for the award. “He teaches with sprightliness, with a sense of wonder, with curiosity, and even with joy.”

Making grammar hot
English professor Gary Schmidt wrote: “I think that every rational person on the globe must acknowledge this: That a teacher who can make a course in grammar one of the most sought-after courses in a department … has done something remarkable. Jim has done this.”

Students in classThe recipient of the teaching award, however, claimed to be rather nonplussed by the honor: “When (Calvin President) Gaylen (Byker) called me and told me, I said, ‘Now Gaylen, you’re not playing a cruel joke on an aging English professor, are you?’” he recalled, laughing.

Vanden Bosch grew up in Zeeland, Mich., playing softball and football in the yard next door and reading his way through the family bookcase. Both of his parents had eighth-grade educations, and both were dedicated to the idea that their children would graduate from college—preferably Calvin College. “It was an enormous advantage to me to have parents who were happy and optimistic and encouraging, but also parents who instilled that work ethic: When you took on a job, you knew that you were going to do your best,” he said.

At the age of 4, Vanden Bosch went off to kindergarten at Zeeland Christian School, “and already I was aggrieved,” he said, “because I knew my reading skills were good enough that I could have started when I was 3.”

He still values his teachers, both at Zeeland and at Holland Christian School, among the great blessings of his childhood. There, he learned Latin in sixth grade and in high school and began his mastery of English grammar.

Doing the work
Calvin was Vanden Bosch’s destination after high school; in fact, “it was absolutely assumed.” He went in 1966 and added new names to his list of good teachers: George Marsden, Nick Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw, Clifton Orlebeke, Stanley Wiersma, Ken Kuiper, George Harper, Harmon Hook. He also met his now-wife, Maria Hiskes Vanden Bosch ’70, when he joined the Radio Choir. “I said, ‘Who’s that soprano over there?’” he remembered.

From Calvin he went on to graduate school in literature, first at Ohio University and then, in 1972, at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He left the program in 1977, short of earning a PhD, to teach English at Northwestern College in Iowa and moved on to Dordt College in 1978.

It was while he was at Dordt, serving as chair of the English department, that Vanden Bosch got a call from Calvin about replacing retiring English professor Richard Tiemersma. During the interview, Tiemersma, the department’s acknowledged guardian of English grammar, asked him this question: “Mr. Vanden Bosch, we here have found that the retained object is the pons asinorum (bridge of asses) of students in freshmen composition. Please define and describe the retained object for us with some examples.”

Vanden Bosch answered: “The retained object is the spouse of someone who gives everything to the college, with nothing left over for the family.” “They just howled,” he said, adding, “I wonder if that answer should have taken care of everything.” He got the job and Tiemersma’s office as well.

In the 27 years since then, he’s taught on both the language and literature side of the English department curriculum. He has taught in Russia, China and Hungary and represented Calvin at conferences in Italy, Spain, Russia, Hungary and England.

Enjoying language
“He frolics in language—with a catlike grace,” said English professor Elizabeth Vander Lei, “and students are entranced by that delight.” (Vanden Bosch has a history of asking students to describe him as possessing “catlike grace” in their course evaluations.)

“He sees things through a lens of linguistics, which I didn’t even know I liked or thought was possible until I had classes with him,” said 1999 graduate Meghan (Moreau) VanBeek. She remembered another of Vanden Bosch’s trademarks: “I remember him—and he still does it to this day—trying to crush my hand when he shakes my hand.”

JacquesColleagues and students alike bear witness to the handshake. “It’s bone-crushing,” said Vande Kopple, who says the habit is symptomatic of Vanden Bosch’s competitiveness—a competitiveness that extends to the racquetball court. (“I played him once,” said 1998 alum Andrew Zwart. “He was merciless … Has anyone mentioned his crushing handshake yet?”) It extends to the classroom. “He competes with me to see who can pass out papers faster,” said Vande Kopple. It extends to the football field, where for decades, as a member of the Faculty Fumblers team, he has taken on Les Jacques de Chimes challengers: “He’s been playing since before I came to Calvin,” said computer science professor Joel Adams, “and he’s the one who—how shall I say it politely?—challenges the students to show their stuff on the field.”

Colleagues and students give other details: He describes himself as an alpha male. He regularly volunteers for extra duty, including reading the names of graduates at Commencement. He has a large collection of dictionaries, and he reads them. He never refers to his students, either inside or outside of class, by their first names.

Nevertheless, Vanden Bosch is also known as a friend of and counselor of both students and colleagues. “He watches out for people and remembers what’s going on in their lives, asks about troubles, asks about how he can help,” Vander Lei said.

And showing up …
“I try to do my part,” Vanden Bosch said, and he emphasized that Calvin has been a great place for him as a teacher and a scholar. “Showing up is important,” he said. On Thursday, Feb. 11, he showed up at the Prince Conference Center to collect his award, which comes with a custom medallion and a financial stipend, funded by the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment Fund. “I’ve told my colleagues for years that I’m in this for the glory and the big bucks, and now it’s all come true,” he said.

“He has this twinkle in his eye that suggests that he holds the secrets to the universe,” said Zwart. “And I’m not sure about that, but I suspect he holds many of them.”

He knows one secret in particular, said 2000 alum Kelli Klaasen Scholten: “If there is one characteristic that defines him best, it is his ability to spread joy to the people around him. It’s hard to be unhappy in the presence of someone who always seems to be having such a good time.”

Vande Kopple tried to summarize his colleague’s appeal: “He just came and taught in such a way and interacted in such a way that we could hardly imagine the department without him.”    

Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s senior writer.