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A Delightful Inheritance

As Jessica Bratt blogged on Monday, her father (and my colleague) Ken Bratt had his retirement reception that afternoon.  I just want to note here that, contrary to Jessica’s prediction, no “roasting” occurred.  A little ribbing, perhaps, but even that is probably too strong a term.  To be honest, Ken has simply been far too upstanding a citizen at Calvin to allow anything beyond mild teasing.  So we showed a powerpoint of him in ‘80s glasses and “dad” sweaters, made fun of his love of a daily ham sandwich, gently mocked his millions of slides.   

And we celebrated his countless contributions to our college.  Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that today (Tuesday when I’m writing this) is “Thank a Teacher Day.”   Ken was never my instructor in the undergraduate classroom, but I did work with him for many years in the honors program as the associate director.  And in that role, he did teach me a great deal about administering a program, about working with faculty and some of our brightest students, about understanding institutional history and politics.  Most of all, he modeled dignity (the word “gravitas” was invented for him, I think) and good humor and generosity and servanthood in spades.  His example has called us all to be better colleagues.

Actually, I’ve been very fortunate in the teachers in my life.  Their names come back so easily (many of them assuming almost mythic status in my family’s lore): Anquanita Ash and Gary Ross, Judy Rogers, Donna Hansen, Harriet Linkin, Darlis Miller, Donna Gerstenberger.  And there were many, many more.  I count myself supremely blessed in the number of teachers in every one of the eleven schools I attended who took such a strong interest in me, who so deeply invested in my life.  For someone who moved often in my growing up years, I had a constant in church and in teachers.  They saw the nerdy, exuberant kid and figured out how to channel all that energy and curiosity and intellectual drive.  They made me gleeful and unapologetic about pursuing the life of the mind.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the oldest definitions of “teach” not as imparting information or giving instruction, but as (I think a subtle difference) providing direction:

1)   to show, present or offer a view

2)   to show or point out (a thing, the way, a place) to a person

3)   to direct, conduct, convoy, guide; to send away

I like these earlier definitions as metaphors of what all of us who teach try to do in the classroom: helping students to see something new, to guide them on their way, to assist them in being attentive to “the thing, the way, a place” as they journey.

But I like the other antiquated definition that the OED provides even better.  In shipbuilding, according to the example provided from W.H. Smyth’s 1867 Sailor’s Word-book, “To Teach, in marine architecture, is applied to the direction which any line or curve seems to point out.” In other words, the teaching is following the line to where it seems to go—and learning, one presumes, all along the way.  Of course, as the book of James famously warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  Pointing someone in the wrong direction is serious business indeed.  But most teachers I know understand this only too well.

Wednesday, as you are reading this, I’ll be teaching my last classes of this academic year.  And I’ll be hoping—as I do every year—that I did right by this year’s crop of students and praying that the lines we’ve traced together will continue to guide them in the right ways. 

And I’ll be thinking with gratitude about all those who taught—and are continuing to teach—me. In the words of Psalm 16 (NIV): “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.”   

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Lovely post, Jennifer. Thank you. I am more amazed every year at the enormous dedication, wisdom, and skill of my colleagues here at Calvin. Ken is primus inter pares in the best sense and deserves every praise we can give him. I hope we can all continue to be inspired by him and others like him at every institution of learning.

  • Jeff Bouman says:

    Thanks, Jen.
    You have put brilliantly to words the reason I am so very uncomfortable with the common question, "what do you teach?" We undervalue and simplify this word, teach, at our peril. Kudos to Ken for modeling so many excellent ways to teach in so many different contexts.

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