The year was 1968. The United States was one year away from putting a man on the moon. A gallon of gas cost 34 cents. Mattel introduced “Hot Wheels” toy cars. And Leland Ryken began his tenure on Wheaton’s English faculty.
Professor Ryken is among eight Wheaton faculty members who retired this past year, and of their combined 288 years of service, 44 belonged to Dr. Ryken. Here, the dedicated teacher and author answers questions about his decades at Wheaton, the epic poem that has never disappointed him, and why an English degree matters.
When did you know that you wanted to be an English professor?
I grew up in a humble agrarian milieu and did not even know about graduate school until my sophomore year in college. My sister (older by three years) intended to be a high school English teacher, and I just assumed that I would do the same. It wasn't even a deliberate decision. During my sophomore year in college my English professors told me that I should aim for college teaching, so I adjusted my plans accordingly.
Looking back, what stands out to you about your first few years at Wheaton?
I was dazzled by the brave new world that I had entered. Virtually everything made a vivid impression on me. I remember feeling spiritually stimulated and desirous of living a godly life. Being someone who is eager to please, I took on too many responsibilities at school and church as I set a lifelong pattern of saying yes to nearly everything that was asked of me.
How have you seen the student culture or campus life change over the years?
I would say that virtually everything has changed, and conversely that little has remained the same. If a student from the seventies were suddenly dropped into campus life today, he or she would experience culture shock. The technological revolution has triggered most of the changes. Except for a prevailing spiritual earnestness, my students today bear little resemblance to my students in the fall of 1968.
What stands out to you about Wheaton students?
Their immense range and diversity. The claim of a homogenous student body is a myth. The range extends to every possible area that we might name—family and cultural background, degree of spiritual and academic commitment, lifestyle, even conceptions of what constitutes the Christian life.
What is one of your favorite college events?
What advice would you give to a student who wants to be a professor?
Anyone who aspires to be a professor needs to undertake the process leading to it as a realist. If a person can finance a graduate education, and if the rigors of pursuing it would be self-rewarding, then graduate school education remains viable. Without doubt the skills that are inculcated by a graduate education prepare a person for many areas of life. The problem is that a graduate degree no longer guarantees a job in one's field as it once did.
Why do you think an English degree from Wheaton is valuable?
An English major is a preparation for all of life. My department has a handout that lists the professions in which our majors have found their niche. The list is all over the board, confirming the versatility of an English major.
What is your favorite course to teach?
The four courses that I have taught most continuously are all equally my favorite: survey of British literature (in recent years Literature 216), seventeenth century/Milton, Shakespeare, and the Bible as literature. Now that the end has come, I have been a little surprised to see that the course that I am saddest to terminate is the survey of British literature.
What is your favorite book to teach?
John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. It was the subject of my dissertation and my first published book, and it has never disappointed me.
What do you think is the most misunderstood piece of literature?
I will name two—Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. I regard both as Christian classics, but they have been much misrepresented in a secular age.
You are a prolific author; have your books and articles come out of your teaching experience?
Most of my publishing has been an extension of my teaching. However, early in my career I made a conscious decision that I would have a writing career as well as a teaching career. I remember the moment I came to that decision: I went to my office to write instead of attending a Saturday morning session of our annual writing conference, saying to myself, I am a writer, too. It is one of the best decisions I ever made. It has enabled me to pursue publishing free from anxiety about whether I am writing "in my field." As the data rolls in late in my career, I think it obvious that my publishing has been my greatest contribution to the Kingdom, though I did not know that as my career was unfolding.
What was your favorite book to write?
I am probably like other authors when I say that my favorite book is the one I am currently writing. I have also found that there is no predictable pattern regarding which of my books people have found most helpful.
You are notorious for bringing props ("technology") to class. Which of these is your favorite?
Here, too, I have many favorites, but surely the following are among the highlights: a croaking frog motion detector that I place at the doorway to startle late arrivals; a mechanical "pig of knowledge;" Larry the lobster, who flails his front legs with gusto; and a bright yellow duck that flaps its wings and jumps up and down as it sings "if you're happy and you know it."
You are one of the pillars of the Wheaton-in-England program; how does that program benefit students?
The Wheaton-in-England program has been a major part of the identity of the English Department and the English major for 35 years. It is hard to imagine our department without it. The benefits include seeing English literature as specifically English for the first time; experiencing the beauty and "otherness" of England; and forging friendships with kindred spirits in a once-in-a-lifetime group experience.
What are your favorite Wheaton-in-England memories and literary sites?
My favorite sites are (in random order) Salisbury (both the cathedral and the water meadow), Hampton Court, Penshurst Place, the Lake District, George Herbert's church at Bemerton, and the Warwickshire countryside through which we travel en route to Stratford-upon-Avon. Each summer the first evening meal at St. Anne's College in Oxford and the end-of-summer party there are always highlights. Every summer, the segment that I am saddest to see come to an end is the time spent in London at the beginning of our time in England.
If you weren't a professor, what would you be?
Since I have not needed to answer that question at an existential level, I never have.
What's an interesting fact about you that your students might not know?
I have been so uninhibited in the classroom that I think my students know it all.
What is next for you?
Quite a lot. Mary and I are headed for our last Wheaton-in-England fling this coming summer. I am scheduled to teach two courses in the fall and one in the spring. I hope to participate in Northwoods Adventure in September, and I am scheduled to write the weekly postings for an online book discussion sponsored by Gospel Coalition. I have written four reader's guides to literary classics that need to be seen through the editorial and production process for launching early next year. I have another book under contract as well. And Mary and I have agreed to serve as co-hosts for an Israel tour sponsored by the Alumni Association in June of 2013.