Calvin English professor William Vande Kopple vividly recalls one specific moment from his 20 years of teaching an interim class in English grammar. It’s the time two young women leaped from their seats and stormed out of the classroom, yelling that they “couldn’t take it anymore” and sweeping all the books off the desk at the front.
“There were 15 or 20 grammar books on his desk—just about gave me a heart murmur,” Vande Kopple remembers, “and he was up there, laughing.”
“He” refers to Calvin English professor James Vanden Bosch, Vande Kopple’s partner in teaching grammar, who had orchestrated the classroom revolt.
“[Vanden Bosch] has a different approach to people wanting to leave class early,” Vande Kopple explained. “He tells them, ‘Just so you do it dramatically. . . .’ He is so much fun to have around.”
Vanden Bosch, the founder of the grammar interim, is the winner of this year’s Calvin Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching.
“He can probably teach a wider variety of classes than anyone in our department,” says Vande Kopple. “He teaches with sprightliness, with a sense of wonder, with curiosity, and even with joy.”
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.”
Vanden Bosch himself, however, claims to be 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 recalls, 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. “I had a very happy childhood,” he said. “I had no idea we were a poor blue-collar family. Everything was just gorgeous to me.”
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 considers 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.
Calvin was Vanden Bosch’s destination after high school. He started 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, and Harmon Hook.
He also met his wife, Maria (Hiskes), when he joined the Radio Choir. “I said, ‘Who’s that soprano over there?’” he remembers.
Vanden Bosch attended Calvin during the Vietnam era. “It was an interesting place to be in the late ’60s,” he said. “There were marches, demonstrations, teach-ins, pranks. . . . In our individuality we all wore the same jeans and long hair and loved the same music and opposed the same war.”
From Calvin he went to graduate school in literature, first at Ohio University and then at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He left the program in 1977, short of earning a Ph.D., to teach English at Northwestern College in Iowa, moving to Dordt College in 1978.
It was while 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 this question: “Mr. Vanden Bosch, we here have found that the retained object is the pons asinorum [“bridge of fools”] 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 recalls, 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 sides of the English curriculum. He has taught in Russia, China, and Hungary and represented Calvin at conferences in Italy, Spain, Russia, Hungary, and England.
“He frolics in language with a cat-like 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 “cat-like 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 ’99 graduate Meghan (Moreau) VanBeek. She remembers 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 it.”
Colleagues 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 ’98 alum Andrew Zwart. “He was merciless. . . . Has anyone mentioned his crushing handshake yet?”)
The competiveness extends to the classroom. “He competes with me to see who can pass out papers faster,” said Vande Kopple. It’s also evident on the football field, where for decades, as a member of the Faculty Fumblers team, he has taken on the challengers, Les Jacques de Chimes, the staff of Calvin’s student newspaper. “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: Vanden Bosch 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 class, by their first names.
Nevertheless, Vanden Bosch is known as a friend and counselor by 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.
“I try to do my part,” Vanden Bosch said, emphasizing that Calvin has been a great place for him as a teacher and a scholar. “Showing up is important.” In February he showed up at the Prince Conference Center to collect his award, which comes with a 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 he holds the secrets to the universe,” said Zwart. “And I’m not sure, but I suspect he holds many of them.”
Vanden Bosch 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.”
Calvin College at a Glance
Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Mich., is a comprehensive liberal arts school in the Reformed tradition of historic Christianity. Through our learning, we seek to be agents of renewal in the academy, church, and society. We pledge fidelity to Jesus Christ, offering our hearts and lives to do God’s work in God’s world.
Founded in 1876, Calvin is an educational institution of the Christian Reformed Church and one of the largest Christian colleges in North America, with more than 4,000 students and 100-plus academic programs.
- 4,092 students in 2009-2010
2,181 from Michigan
1,528 from other states
156 from Canada
227 from other countries
- Tuition of $24,645 for 2010-2011
92% of students receive financial aid
average need-based award is $16,000
60% of students receive academic scholarships
- 100+ majors and minors, ranging from Asian studies, biochemistry, business, and engineering to recreation, sports management, writing, and youth ministry leadership
Contact us at:
3201 Burton Street SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49546-4301
1.800.688.0122 (North America)
Trio of Professors Honored
At the annual Faculty Awards Dinner held earlier this year at the Prince Conference Center, the Calvin College community recognized more than one outstanding member of the faculty. Along with the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, which went to English professor Jim Vanden Bosch, the college also handed out a trio of new awards that recognize particular facets of teaching excellence.
History professor Frans van Liere received the Innovative Teaching Award for incorporating practices such as papermaking into his classes on medieval studies.
Political science professor Amy Patterson was awarded the Advising and Mentoring Award, in part because of her role as adviser to Calvin’s Model United Nations program.
And chemistry professor Roger DeKock was honored with the Student-Faculty Research Award for the role he has played in shaping generations of future chemists.
“It’s gratifying to be able to thank this number of faculty publicly and to highlight what they’ve done with their students,” said Calvin provost Claudia Beversluis, who presented the awards.
“And it’s gratifying to see what each one brings to teaching. If we have 320 faculty [members] per year, and you give one award for something that looks like a lifetime achievement award, then there are so many practices that don’t get highlighted.”
This year Calvin’s professional status committee created five new awards: the three that were awarded Feb. 11, the Community-Based Teaching Award, and the Teamwork/Collaborative Change Award. They also brought under the aegis of the provost’s office the From Every Nation Award for Excellence in Teaching, originally created by the Calvin office of multicultural affairs.
Asian studies professor Larry Herzberg recently won that award for his work in promoting Asian studies at Calvin. The teaching awards will be granted in differing combinations from year to year.
The recipients of this year’s awards were quick to share the honor with their students. “I guess that I see myself as being the biggest beneficiary in my interactions with students,” said Patterson, who recently was also awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study HIV support groups in Zambia.
“All of these unique opportunities challenge me. Students ask hard questions, and they have forced me to dig deeper into my subject matter and my faith. I interact with students because I see it as part of teaching and because it makes my life richer.”
And DeKock, whom Beversluis described as a pioneer in student-faculty research, was humbled by the award.
“I never expected to receive an award for anything that I had done at Calvin College,” he said. “I am sure the same thing is true of other colleagues who have received awards. In other words, I don’t think any of us are doing what we are doing with even the thought of an award in our heads. We are doing this work because it is what we love to do.”
About the Author
Myrna Anderson is a senior writer in Calvin College’s communications and marketing department.