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"Come with me, class"

Paying tribute to a fondly regarded and highly esteemed English professor, Dr. E. Beatrice Batson, on her retirement.

By Nancy Arnesen '80

Dr. Beatrice BatsonWhile she can never remember not wanting to be a teacher, Beatrice Batson admits to at least one other early ambition: she wanted to be “a woman baseball player.” But by age 12, she had made up her mind, and announced to her father, “I'm going to be a university professor teaching against evolution.” Dr. Batson hastens to explain that she had no idea at the time what “evolution” was, but she did and does know something about teaching. As every Wheaton student since 1957 can testify, that would-be baseball player from Nashville, Tennessee was to become one of Wheaton's most dearly loved and highly respected teachers. President Chase calls her “one of the finest classroom teachers in the history of Wheaton,” and former president Armerding describes her as “an inspiring example to the rest of us.” Baseball's loss was, unquestionably, Wheaton's gain.

The 12-year-old Beatrice was only partially right, though. Her subject was to be literature, not evolution. And it was a subject she already knew something about. As a child, Beatrice was a voracious and indiscriminate reader, who loved “the feel of books and everything about them,” and who read everything she could get her hands on. Among her early favorites were Louisa May Alcott, the Bobbsey Twins, Bulfinch's classical mythology, and later the Brontës. She somewhat sheepishly allows that she was captivated by the “adventuresome spirit” of Zane Grey's western stories, and she remembers “prowling around” her uncle's library and finding a volume of Karl Barth, which she read despite her uncle's suggestion that it might be a bit heavy.

Dr. Batson earned the B.A. from Bryan College, the M.A. from Wheaton, and the Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and in 1957 came to teach at Wheaton. That fall, frisbees were the latest campus craze, students dressed up for the dining hall on Monday and Thursday evenings, and the English department “East Enders” abandoned their broom closet offices for spacious, newly ­renovated quarters in Blanchard's west end. Despite offers from other schools, Dr. Batson came to Wheaton because she was impressed by its commitment to the mission of Christian higher education, a mission she would help define and promote.

If Dr. Batson was impressed by Wheaton, the feeling was mutual. Her classes in Shakespeare, Milton, seventeenth-century literature, and literary criticism were soon filling to capacity (a phenomenon unchanged in 30 years), and in 1963 she was honored as Wheaton's Senior Teacher of the Year.

In 1975, Dr. Batson became chair of the English department, and since then has provided strong and gracious leadership. Although she would never define herself as an administrator, Dr. Batson excelled at organizing and defining the task of the English department in both a pragmatic and a visionary way. Her office door was almost always open, and she spent much of every afternoon talking with students about graduation requirements or that B+ on the last exam. During her tenure as chair, the number of literature majors increased steadily, and several new faculty members joined the department. Dr. Batson also engaged outstanding scholars and literary figures as visiting professors. One of those visitors, Frederick Buechner, comments on her administrative style:

In the musical “Oklahoma,” there is a song that goes, “I'm just a girl who can't say no.” Beatrice Batson, on the other hand, is a girl you just can't say no to. Apparently nobody can. During my semester of teaching at Wheaton, I would often go into her office for what I though was just a friendly chat only to discover by the end of it that I had agreed to take on about six extra tasks which in my right mind I wouldn't have touched with a ten foot pole. I soon found out from my English department colleagues that they too were putty in her hands.

Those powers of persuasion also helped Dr. Batson to engineer the Writing and Literature Conference, an annual program of lectures and seminars on such topics as “Faith and Imagination” and “The Truth of Metaphor.” The conference was annual evidence of Dr. Batson's concern that intellectual pursuit and Christian faith come together at Wheaton. She consistently brought to campus internationally renowned speakers—M. H. Abrams, Cleanth Brooks, and Walter Ong, to name but a few.

At the same time that she has demonstrated what her colleague Leland Ryken admiringly calls “audacity” in drawing major scholars to Wheaton, Dr. Batson has herself been a compelling speaker both at Wheaton and at campuses across the country. Several times each year she takes off for parts remote to speak in defense of the humanities and the liberal arts. Even those Wheaton students who never enrolled in one of Dr. Batson's courses will remember the chapel talks in which she so persuasively conveyed her vision of a Christian liberal arts college and of the costly involvement of the dedicated student. “I know of no one who can summon one as compellingly as she can to live the life of the mind,” says fellow teacher Rolland Hein. And Dr. Batson defines the life of the mind not as a sequestered pursuit, but as a task that entangles us in the perplexities of the world. “This college,” she insisted in one chapel talk, “is not or should not be a protective place for us to safeguard a few private beliefs, or a comfortable spot that avoids the ambiguities with which life confronts us.”

Dr. Batson exemplifies as well as she articulates the rigors and joys of academic inquiry. Even in the midst of preparing lectures and grading papers, devising course schedules, and organizing the conference, Dr. Batson found time to pursue her own academic interests. She has been a regular visitor at libraries such as the British Museum and the Newberry Library; she has written numerous reviews and articles, and has published several books. Her John Bunyan: Allegory and Imagination is the culmination of many years of study on the tinker of Bedford, work she undertook “because I thought someone should come to his rescue!” She was perturbed by simplistic dismissals of Bunyan as a Christian didacticist, and discovered that he was far more artistic than even she had expected.

Together with Clyde Kilby and Barbara Reynolds, Dr. Batson was instrumental in founding Seven, an annual journal devoted to scholarly essays on the seven authors of Wheaton's Wade Center. Dr. Reynolds remembers meeting to plan the journal at the ironically appropriate Seven Dwarfs Restaurant: “Who would believe, riffling through its dignified pages that it began as rough notes on the back of a menu, sketched out amid gales of laughter?” No one who knows Dr. Batson can be too surprised at this account, for her great dignity and sense of propriety are matched by a spirit of humor and a mischievous nature.

For all of her talents as administrator, lecturer, and scholar, it is as a teacher that Beatrice Batson has made her most profound, if least measurable, contribution to Wheaton College and to the lives of its students. Her classes are among those that students remember best long after they have left Wheaton. Lunging from behind the podium to make a point about metaphor, or lingering with that low dramatic voice over a line in Herbert, Dr. Batson made the matters at hand seem urgent, as indeed they were. Her love for literature was always obvious and contagious, and her vocation as teacher is one to which she felt "a compelling sense of a call." Yet Dr. Batson's own view of her success is strikingly modest:

If I have been a success as a teacher it is through long hours of work building fresh lectures and thinking through ways to engage the attention of my students, through love for my students and for the literature I was teaching, and through worn knees from asking for help from one stronger than myself.

In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan writes: “this book will make a traveller of thee.” Studying literature with Dr. Batson meant going on many such journeys with the liveliest of guides, a guide who often invited her students to “come with me, class.” She showed students the ill-fitting robes of Lear and MacBeth, and wondered with them at the peasant at the train station in Anna Karenina; she helped them envision Donne's struggles “about and about” truth's huge hill, and lead them through the symbolic landscape of Bunyan's dream vision. In short, she helped her students to cultivate an educated imagination.

Perhaps unconsciously, Dr. Batson has achieved what one student describes as “an almost mythic presence” on Wheaton's campus. That same student remembers her sense of incongruity at finding Dr. Batson shopping for cornish hen at Walt's; it was only slightly less surprising than finding Shakespeare himself there. Another student insists that seeing Dr. Batson do her laundry at Oxford was among the most memorable experiences of the Wheaton-in-England program. For all of this, however, Dr. Batson is a figure to whom students regularly turn with human as well as academic questions. Many a student has found her office a place for counsel and conversation.

That this professor, so fondly regarded and highly esteemed, should retire from teaching seemed unimaginable to many. But once Wheaton recovered from its collective shock, it bestowed upon Dr. Batson numerous honors. Of those, two deserve special note. Dr. Batson was named Kilby Professor of Shakespeare for spring 1988, an honor especially meaningful to her as it was the late Clyde Kilby, former chair of the English department and curator of the Wade Center, who hired her in 1957, and whom she fondly remembers as her mentor. In addition, the college has established the E. Beatrice Batson Shakespeare Collection, a major assembly of early editions and other materials pertinent to the study of Shakespeare. The collection is being funded by alumni contributions, and was initiated last spring with a fourth folio edition of Henry IV.

Despite her great love for Shakespeare, Dr. Batson has revealed no inclination to follow Shakespearean models of retirement. Unlike Prospero, who “retires” at the end of The Tempest, Dr. Batson has neither drowned her book nor buried her staff. In fact, she is as fully involved as ever in the world of books and of the imagination. Last summer, the first of her retirement, she completed not one but two books on Bunyan. In addition to her appointment as Kilby Professor of Shakespeare, Dr. Batson has graciously acted this year as interim chair while the English department seeks her successor. She talks with eagerness about her next writing projects: a study of Bunyan's use of the emblem in The Holy War, and a study of George Herbert's influence on John Wesley. She also looks forward to occasional teaching and speaking engagements, and to time for travel and reading.

In a 1982 chapel talk, Dr. Batson said: “the best we can give to any cause is ourselves. Let's make sure that that self is as strong and committed, as God-centered and human-hearted, and as well-endowed as is possible, possessing a mind that is clear-cutting, widely-ranged, and richly-stored.” It is just such a self and such a mind that Beatrice Batson has, for 30 years, given to the cause of Christian higher education at Wheaton College and to the thousands of students whose lives she has helped to guide. Perhaps like Bunyan's Pilgrim as he leaves the Interpreter's House, Dr. Batson's students might pause to say:

Here I have seen things rare, and profitable;
Things pleasant, dreadful, things to make me stable
In what I have begun to take in hand.
Then let me think on them, and understand
Wherefore they showed me was, and let me be
Thankful, O good Interpreter, to thee.

 

Nancy Arnesen earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1986, and is now assistant professor of English at North Park College in Chicago.