“When I started teaching in the English Department, we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have internet,” said Dr. Sharon Coolidge, gesturing to the computer on her desk. “I remember running off things on a mimeograph machine — with purple ink!” Of all the items which have accumulated in Coolidge’s office since she became chair of the English department 20 years ago, the computer is far from the most interesting. Coolidge has vibrant hanging ferns, which will look familiar to any student who has attended one of her famous “Mennonite Dinners.” Her shelves are packed with Arthurian literature and a Medieval-style chess set sits by a sunny Blanchard window. But what stands out the most are the two welcoming chairs where she has conversed with hundreds of students over the years, a reminder of Coolidge’s hospitality and warm presence in the department.
With the Christ at the Core curriculum taking off and two new English faculty members being welcomed to the department, Coolidge said it feels like the right time for new leadership. Dr. Davis, director of the Writing Center and Interdisciplinary Studies, will be stepping in as new department Chair, and newcomer Dr. Weber will take over courses in Medieval and Early Modern Literature.
Dr. Coolidge has been a pillar of the English Department for four decades. After attending Wheaton as an undergraduate and achieving her master’s and doctorate from Duke University, Coolidge joined the faculty as Professor of English in 1977. Coolidge has served as the English Department Chair for the last 20 years — founding the Writing Center in 1986 — and three years ago was the recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Service to Alma Mater Award. Ending a long run of accomplishments as a faculty member, Coolidge is retiring at the end of the semester.
Coolidge still plans to be involved in campus life through weekly “Mennonite Dinners,” which she and her husband, professor of economics emeritus Norm Ewert, have been hosting for the better part of 40 years. The Mennonite Dinners began as small after-church gatherings but have transformed into an important place for student-faculty interactions with a regular attendance of 30 to 50 students. Attendees are welcomed into the Ewert’s home, file into their kitchen for plates of Coolidge’s homemade dinner and then pack around tables in the plant-filled solarium. Dinner begins with an introduction from that night’s guest, after which students are encouraged to ask questions and start discussions. Coolidge and Ewert have hosted a range of speakers from visitors such as Canon Andrew White to Wheaton’s own including Dr. Milliner, Dr. Kalantzis, Chaplain Blackmon and Dr. Johnson. “Being able to have a conversation with is exciting,” Coolidge said. “We get to build a dialogue about the global church and what we can do as a part of it.”
Coolidge and Ewert hope to stay connected to the student body through these weekly meetings. “I’m stepping out of an active role, but I don’t feel like I’m saying goodbye to Wheaton,” Coolidge explained. “I’m not moving away.”
Reflections on Teaching
Dr. Coolidge has seen thousands of students pass through her classes and has taught courses ranging from English writing to Arthurian Literature. Her favorite? “My favorite texts to teach are Chaucer and Dante,” she told me, holding up her battered copy of The Divine Comedy. A lifelong learner, Coolidge has re-read the text alongside her students every semester she has taught Dante — over 40 times — a reminder that students have no room to slack in her classes. I have had the opportunity to take both her Classical and Medieval courses, and she has a talent for transforming conversations about Dante into powerful meditations on the nature of God. Coolidge’s passion for interacting with students is clear even in her attendance sheets, which come with pages to use for an in-class forum wall, where students write everything from comments on Medieval symbolism to invitations to President’s Ball. Coolidge concludes her Medieval course with a banquet, hosted at her home and featuring student-led Medieval entertainment and cuisine. Her teaching style is not only immersive — it is also fun.
Besides teaching, Coolidge has also been instrumental in shaping the school through hiring many faculty members, including President Ryken. While Coolidge was serving as vice-chair for the department, the Board of Trustees asked her to be part of the presidential search committee. Coolidge described the search as a cherished memory and a spiritual experience, as the committee prayed together and were able to see God’s hand in the process. Coolidge has continued to value community and prayer as department chair, and she has hired all but one of the English department faculty.
Last fall marked the most difficult point of Coolidge’s experience as chair. “We lost two faculty members in one week,” she recounted sadly. Wheaton College took a huge blow in 2015 with the passing of Dr. Roger Lundin and Professor Brett Foster. “Roger had been my friend for many years — he came to the Department one year after I did. That hit hardest, I think, because it was totally unexpected. But then also to lose Brett, with the giftedness he had — it was a tough week. A really tough week.”
Hopes for the Future
Although Dr. Coolidge is transitioning from her role as professor of English, she has high hopes for Wheaton College. “I’m very excited about the new Core curriculum. In some ways, I regret that I won’t be a part of teaching it,” Coolidge said. She hopes that the English department will continue to both prepare students for excellence in graduate school and remember the way literature touches people on a deep level. Her vision for the department is that it will remember how literature is an important resource for making us think about their own lives and how God is working in them.
Dr. Coolidge says this doesn’t feel like goodbye, but that she hopes Wheaton continues doing what it does best — shaping students to become who God wants them to be. “No one person does that for students: we all do our own parts in different ways,” Coolidge reminds us. “We have new people coming in, and they will do it in their own way. But I hope that I have done it well, faithfully, and with integrity.”