Listen To Article

“What we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how…”
–William Wordsworth, The Prelude

I’m starting to see a lot of first day of school pictures in my Facebook feed. I don’t start teaching for another couple of weeks, but I’ve already been prepping for some time for the new semester. Nerdy I realize, but I’m always excited when a new school year approaches—so much possibility.

This fall, I’m teaching all “intro” classes—first year composition and core literature. At many institutions, faculty at my rank and level of experience (read: old) would rarely, if ever, have such a schedule. More often these days, when 70% of the teaching faculty nationwide is made up of adjunct labor, first year students might not even see a senior professor. Indeed, many in academe have traditionally seen the movement away from intro classes as a “reward.” And to be sure, they are hard classes to teach—much harder in many ways than classes in one’s specialty. Which is exactly why I believe the most experienced professors should be teaching a sizeable percentage of them (and why I remain so grateful to teach in a department and at a college with a strong commitment to all of us teaching “gen ed” students with the same commitment and quality we teach our majors.)

Here’s a couple of reasons why:

1. Appreciation
I adore the enthusiasm of first-year students. Even when they are scared and overwhelmed by all that is new in the college experience, they are raring to get going to change the world. They’ve got a million ideas and the idealism to match. In a world where cynicism can be a default, they are a tonic. They’re also so talented (even as they don’t always see it in themselves fully yet—which is also charming) that I can never despair about the future.

2. Hospitality
I get the honor of being one of the people who helps students learn how to “do” college. Intro classes—especially something like 1st year writing—are not simply about academic content but about teaching habits of mind and instilling modes of self-discipline that will bring students success beyond the “gen ed” classroom. It’s giving students ways of being, instilling a lifelong curiosity and love of knowledge and, hopefully, a little confidence in themselves as learners, too. And maybe convincing them that they could like subjects (writing and literature) for which they may think they have little aptitude. Certainly, first year students can be naïve and clueless (and prone to not read the syllabus)—but no one comes to college knowing how it all works. Education is not ever just the what, but the why and the how and the when. And everyone needs a guide to encourage and inspire.

3. Fundamentals
I love introducing students to the broad sweep of literature and to the power of story, to the magnitude of language and to themselves as meaning-makers. Here is where we get to invite students into the wonder of our disciplines. Here is where we get to equip them to begin to think and write well. Here is where we get to challenge them to grapple with difficult concepts and difficult texts. And here we get challenged professionally to see if we can communicate the essentials to smart young people. Anyone can lament about “kids these days” and all they don’t know—but to connect core subjects with what students actually bring to the college classroom and make those subjects relevant and meaningful is a much more difficult task. Few things are as rewarding, though.

4. The Pastoral
We all know that the early years of college can be trying ones—so much change, so many new stresses, so much struggle with big ideas and big demands. Students mess up, miss deadlines, procrastinate, self-sabotage. After all my years in the classroom, I’ve seen most things before, but of course, for students this is their first time through—and it can feel calamitous. I see younger folks get dismissed all the time as “snowflakes” or get mocked for their fragility. But it is a fragile time—a time where truth and grace need a very careful balance from we folks who are walking alongside, a time where students need to be given space to try and fail. And fail again. It is not condescending to acknowledge that young adults are both young and adult. And if we who teach are given the opportunity to speak into an emerging adult’s life in an office hour or a mentoring session, we should count it only privilege, not get annoyed because they don’t know better already.

5. Learning
Like many teachers, I started off teaching people not that much younger than I was. Those days were now very long ago. Instead, every year brings students who come with contexts of which I have little to no experience. (That was probably always true, but our pop culture connections perhaps obscured deeper diversities.) The joy of having students who come out of so many different backgrounds—and often who have nothing in common with me in terms of intellectual or any other kind of interests—is that each class brings new eyes and hearts to our work. Indeed, I have never had a semester pass when students did not help me see anew the subjects to which I have devoted my life.

One of my favorite hymns has always been “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” For a long time, the song mostly made me reflect on the possession of a “goodly” heritage—in the long history of Christendom or in the testimony of my immediate ancestors. But the older I get, the more I think about the next line. In teaching at a faith-based institution, I share in the “ages past” with my students, but it is in our time together in the classroom as they prepare to do God’s work in God’s world that the assurance of “our hope for years to come” shines brightest.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? 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 the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

19 Comments

  • Kent says:

    Good morning, Jennifer. Thank you for the thoughtful post. As a fellow teacher whose new students arrive tomorrow morning, I appreciate your perspectives, and I am reinvigorated by them. As someone who arrived as a first-year college student nearly four decades ago, I still warmly remember my intro to lit prof whose love for words and literature changed the course of my life.
    Blessings to you and your students! Your task is awesome.
    Kent

  • kate kooyman says:

    You did all these things for me (though it was *many* years ago, haha). You are so, so good at what you do. I’m so grateful!

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Terrific piece … underscoring the power of a teacher/professor to make all the difference in the world for first-year students. That was my experience a loooooong time ago at Calvin, with Mrs. Winifred Holkeboer, who challenged me and inspired me to get my act together, if you will, and I’ve been a lifelong devotee of grammar with a ceaseless determination to use words well. God rest her soul. And God bless yours.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Great piece, Jennifer. I had the privilege of taking English 100 from a great teacher, Prof. Henny TenHarmsel. She was brilliant and passionate, with a great sense of humor. But let me take your post as the occasion to make a confession somewhat relevant to your post. One of our requirements was to read Middlemarch. I refused! (What did I know.) I wanted to read Dooyeweerd and Kuyper etc etc. I hardened my heart and my mind. I’m still amazed that she let me through with a C. Thirty-seven years later, last month, at the cottage, I finally read Middlemarch. What a magnificent book, what a mind in the author, what powerful prose, etc. etc. I have to say, I think it would have been wasted on me in 1971, but maybe not. In any case, the whole time I was reading I was thinking of Prof. TenHarmsel and considered it the payment of a debt to a great teacher.

  • Kathy Sneller Davelaar says:

    Love you, Daniel. And you often make me smile 😊

  • Kathy Sneller Davelaar says:

    Jennifer: i greatly appreciate your great words here! Thank God for professors like you!

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Jennifer – You make me wish I was a first year student at Calvin this fall. How fortunate those students are.

  • Rodg Rice says:

    Well said, Jennifer. Couldn’t agree with you more.

  • James Schaap says:

    Have a blessed year, Jennifer. I’m guessing you will.

  • Eunice says:

    What a beautiful description of great teachers. It also gives me more reasons to wish my grandson were moving into a dorm at Calvin College instead of a large state university. May God bless you and all first year college students.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    In September 1958 I had the Department Chair, John Timmerman, for Freshman English. In 1962, when rapidly expanding enrollment forced the college to hire the likes of me as instructor in Freshman English, I felt sorry for my students. I’m glad that you old ones are still teaching the core courses. I make sure that college applicants know that about Calvin.

  • David E Timmer says:

    Thanks, Jennifer. This was a good read waiting on my computer when I got back from teaching my first class of the term. I remember my first semester at Calvin in 1969: Rich Mouw for Intro to Philosophy, Dale Van Kley for Western Civ, George Monsma for Principles of Econ, and Cornelius Hegewald for Introductory German. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t realize what an intimidating line-up this was!

  • Willa Brown says:

    Jennifer, your students are fortunate to have you as a professor. Thanks for sharing your insights/wisdom with all of us; even if we aren’t teachers what you have said can be helpful to all of us who work with people. Loved your reflections about the song.

  • Marcia Carter says:

    This is exactly why I taught kindergarten for over 30 years! Their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn was unlimited. Just being around them gave me the inspiration and energy to be the best teacher and role model for them that I could be.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Oh lovely. Grateful to have you as a colleague. I share these thoughts and feelings, but so grateful you put them into words. We are blessed to do what we do.

  • lee tanis says:

    This brings me back to Stanley Wiersma 1983 – second semester English 101. ALL THE THINGS I LEARNED!

    And to CALL classes with you, Jennifer. You bring light and love and literature everywhere you go.

    Thank you.

  • Debbie Boelens Visser says:

    Thank you for your words, Jennifer. You articulate what I’m feeling as I prepare for a new and exciting semester!

  • Marjorie Brink says:

    Jennifer, I so wish I had you as my professor my first semester at Calvin. I would have felt much less intimidated by my college experience and better prepared for the rest of my classes, not to mention eventually “meeting the world of teaching”, myself. How fortunate your students are to glean information and learning from you each week!

Leave a Reply