Faculty Profile: Literature Professor Bill Shullenberger

  Professor Bill Shullenberger at a Sarah Lawrence holiday party a few years ago.   Photo courtesy of Bill Shullenberger.

Professor Bill Shullenberger at a Sarah Lawrence holiday party a few years ago. Photo courtesy of Bill Shullenberger.

William “Bill” Shullenberger doesn’t think he’s ‘that great of a teacher.’ While countless students and faculty would disagree, Shullenberger says he’s still baffled by the attention he’s received ever since he joined the Sarah Lawrence College literature faculty in 1982.

The ever-modest professor is proud of two aspects of his teaching. The first is his genuine passion for the material. The second speaks for itself. 

“It seems to me over the years maybe more and more important that as a student you’re being recognized for the person you are, and respected and valued for that,” Shullenberger said. “And that’s what I do. And I don’t try to force it. That’s how I see people and that’s what I try to make clear to them when I’m working with them that who you are and what you do matters.”

Shullenberger has impacted countless people in his 34 years at Sarah Lawrence. And in 2016 his love for the students and school continues to be shown. 

“If you love teaching this is the place to do it,” he said. “I get a lot of energy and a lot of insight and excitement from you guys. The way we set up opportunities to work closely and intensely on things that interest both of us ideally is just always been worth staying around for.”

He’s also seen the school go through “incremental changes,” most of which he says were for the better. 

“I know I have friends among the faculty who sort of think you know we’re going … in the wrong direction in some ways,” Shullenberger said. “[But] The unique phenomenology of the teaching/learning experience at SLC has continued for me, and I would guess for many people.” 

Among the favorite classes he’s taught are “Epic Vision and Tradition,” “Conscience of the Nations: Classics of African Literature,” and “Milton, Blake, and the Bible.” This term, Shullenberger’s teaching the lecture “Odyssey / Hamlet / Ulysses,” as well as the seminar “Slavery: A Literary History.”

Shullenberger says he would not be teaching the courses on African Literature and on Slavery had he not spent two years with his wife Bonnie teaching at Makerere University in Uganda. 

Shullenberger was inspired to pursue the “world-changing” and “eye-opening” opportunity after the 1991 fall colloquium when then-Sarah Lawrence president Alice Ilchman spoke of her summer visit to the university as part of her work with the Ford Foundation. With Ilchman’s support, he reached out to Makerere, which he says was in the midst of recovering and rebuilding itself after twenty years of civil war and state terrorism and rampant AIDS epidemic. They were unable to offer him a salary, but welcomed the idea of him teaching there. Shullenberger received a Fulbright grant, and was able to teach and be inspired by Makerere for two years.

“That became the basis for my wanting to come back and offer the courses I’ve put together on African literature just because that sense of obligation but also wanting to in some sense be a cultural missionary,” Shullenberger said. “To open people’s lives to this great literary culture and incredible kind of historical traumas that it has been born from, and the remarkable heroic resilience of the people we came to know and love in east Africa.”

Before Shullenberger taught African literature at Sarah Lawrence, he says he grew up in a white middle class family in a white middle class town, in the Midwest. However, he says his social conscience would develop at his successfully integrated high school, where Shullenberger became involved with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

“Even though we weren’t getting away on weekends to go down and march through the streets of the South we were involved in demonstrations, actions, pressure on the school board to break down segregation and to keep schools that well-integrated integrated … So we felt like we were really doing our part, and it was a really exciting to be a part of that part.”

Shullenberger would continue his activism at Yale University, where he became involved with the anti-war movement. When he wasn’t working, he studied literature and religion and was a member of the student deacon group of the Battell Chapel. His biggest inspiration at university came from his chief minister, William Sloan Coffin.

“He inspired a lot of us to recognize and understand that the life of faith can’t remove you from the world. It has to renew you to get involved in bringing about justice and peace and equality in the world.”

After he graduated from Yale, Shullenberger attended seminary for a year. However, he left to attend a City College summer teaching immersion program. He was then placed at Public School 54 in the west Bronx, where he served as an ‘in-house’ substitute.  

“You probably remember what happens to substitute teachers in elementary schools. And I felt like I was sort of earning my combat pay”, Shullenberger said. “But it was not easy. I’m not much of a disciplinarian so I discovered the best teachers were often ones who were able to command the respect of students without being punitive.” 

Eventually Shullenberger was put in charge of co-teaching a class of 8-10 boys who were either emotionally disturbed or had learning disabilities. After the year, Shullenberger went home to Indianapolis to take care of his ailing mother, where he took a job at a private school, also teaching young students with severe emotional disturbances and learning disabilities. During this time, Shullenberger met his future wife, Bonnie.

The following year the couple moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, where Bonnie finished her undergraduate degree and Bill attended grad school for literature.

After ten years of graduate study in the “Happy Valley”, Bill accepted a position at Sarah Lawrence College, where he continues to cultivate a legacy of kindness and respect.

Jamie Jordan '19