‘Out of love for Calvin and students,’ professors emeriti come back for another round


Larry Herzberg

From Chinese to History, retired professors are finding their way back to the classroom.

In a near-empty office down the corridor of the history department, James Bratt sits with a library book on abolitionism and grades his class’s reading responses. Bratt is a familiar face in the department. Retired since 2016, he’s now one of several of Calvin’s retired academic veterans to return in the past school year to teach and support students.

Out of the nine faculty members who retired in May of 2021, at least three returned to teach in the 2021-2022 school year.

I will always want to do some teaching and continue to do it on a volunteer basis … once a teacher, always a teacher!

— Larry Herzberg

“For a department chair looking for an adjunct to hire, an emeritus professor is often the first choice, as these are experienced and talented people whom we know well, not strangers who have to be carefully screened and interviewed,” said Professor Kate van Liere, chair of the historical studies department. “In this sense you could say everyone wins when a recently retired professor teaches as an adjunct.”

After five years of retirement, Bratt came back to teach as an adjunct upon van Liere’s request. Van Liere, whose time as head of the department saw the loss of the classics program and significant budget cuts that led to the loss of tenured history professors, said that these circumstances left the department like many others at Calvin without enough faculty to offer all the courses it would like to.

“I love the history department and am glad to help out when they have a need,” Bratt said. “I certainly don’t miss the bureaucracy and busy-work of the old routine which distracts from the core jobs of teaching and scholarship.” Bratt currently teaches a three-hour upper-level course on the social and cultural history of the U.S. with a focus on slavery and abolition from independence through reconstruction. “I continue to work mostly at home. . . but I’ve discovered that teaching a three-hour class one night a week is not for the feeble of body or faint of heart,” Bratt said.

 To make up for the loss of classics offerings, Professor Emeritus Mark Williams, a former member of the classics department, returned last fall to offer courses for classics and classical languages students who were left in the lurch by the elimination of their department and needed a way to finish their degrees. Among the courses he’s teaching is a Latin independent study with classics and philosophy senior Levi Yakuber.

“The experience is amazing because I’m given the opportunity to study texts, independently, with an expert of the text for two hours each week, and that’s a unique and valuable opportunity,” Yakuber said.

No longer stationed in Hiemenga Hall, Williams now resides in what he calls a ‘splendid office’ in the English department.

Professor Emeritus Larry Herzberg, former professor of Asian languages, similarly retired in May of 2021 and returned last semester to teach. Herzberg’s retirement came a month before the Chinese major and minor were cut. As Chinese 101 and 201 continued to be offered, Calvin hired Yue Zhuo from China as an affiliate professor for a one-year contract to replace Herzberg. Delays in visa authorization for Zhuo led to Herzberg substituting for two weeks last semester in courses he had taught for 37 years. Being an adjunct, Herzberg said, meant that he was not required to attend meetings, serve on committees, or publish.

According to Herzberg, “The trade-off for a professor who retires from a full-time position but returns to teach only a course or two when in their late 60’s or 70’s is that on the one hand they receive a lot less pay, but on the other hand do not have to expend anywhere as much time or energy in teaching when they’re up in years.”

Professor Emerita Karen Saupe, former chair of the English department, also retired in May of 2021 and continues to be active at Calvin, conducting Q&A sessions at the January Series, teaching an honors colloquium on the same and continuing to advise students of the English department. “I enjoy focusing on teaching without needing to worry about meetings, committee work, and such,” Saupe said.

But van Liere also noted the sacrifice that professors emeriti make when they return to teach. “We also have to recognize that it’s a real financial sacrifice for them. No one comes back to teach as an adjunct for the money. They do it mainly out of love for Calvin or love for Calvin students,” she said.

Many professors emeriti also still love their research. Williams keeps himself busy by building furniture and plans to build a wooden kayak when the weather warms up, but he also has two books in the works. “I missed teaching; I missed the students. Teaching keeps you sharp for other tasks, like research, which I will never stop doing,” Williams said.

Following retirement, Bratt, who won his third Fulbright scholarship in 2016, taught history at Xiamen University in China for a year. He has also taught for two semesters in an academic program on-board a cruise ship touring the world.

Similarly, Herzberg continues to live a life of teaching. He teaches Chinese to an inmate at a prison in eastern Michigan for two to four hours per week and volunteers to teach the language to a homeschooled high school junior and a freshman at Oberlin College in Ohio. “I will always want to do some teaching and continue to do it on a volunteer basis … once a teacher, always a teacher!” Herzberg said.