Creators of Culture: The Impact of the Visiting Writers Program

Written by Nolan Ryan

Dr. Dutton Kearney, associate professor of English, remembers having dinner with novelist Ron Hansen when the writer visited Hillsdale College. Years earlier, Dr. Kearney had listened to a radio interview in which Hansen discussed his novel Atticus, and after that, Dr. Kearney quit his job to get a Ph.D. This dinner was a chance for Dr. Kearney to tell Hansen about his experience. And it was possible because of Hillsdale’s Visiting Writers Program.

Each semester, the English Department brings in a writer to lecture and read from their work. Dr. Kearney recently took charge of the program from Dr. John Somerville, professor of English, who ran it for about the last twenty-five years.

The program is an opportunity for students to meet some of the great—though sometimes overlooked—writers of our time. It has altered the way I look at my own writing, especially after having met and spoken with one of these visiting writers.

After giving a reading from some of her poems, Dr. Linda Gregerson stayed in the room to talk with students and faculty. As I waited in line, I pondered my surprise at encountering truly good contemporary poetry. While Hillsdale’s emphasis on the study of the Western tradition of the past is important, we might easily fall prey to the temptation that any contemporary art is of less value than that of the past. But here I was—confronted with art that shattered that idea.

In talking with Dr. Gregerson, who teaches at the University of Michigan, I discovered that our mutual love of poetry was kindled by the same person: John Donne, a poet and priest of the Renaissance era.

Our brief discussion turned to writing poetry in the modern context. Dr. Gregerson recommended I keep reading the poets of the past while recognizing the fact that I am living in my own time with its own way of expressing ideas. Every one of us who desires to write poetry must learn how to write in our own modern context, she told me, without sacrificing the things that made Donne and other poets like T.S. Eliot or John Milton universally appealing.

This was just one experience with the Visiting Writers Program. The program has had an influence on other students, and Drs. Kearney and Somerville emphasize the need for this outside-the-classroom series. Dr. Kearney poses this question to students: what culture will you create and participate in after graduation?

“After spending four years removed from the world to study the tradition, graduates have to go back into the world,” Dr. Kearney said. “Their participation in culture (as creators and consumers of it) has a direct relationship to their education. They can now make judgments about the world that are not rooted merely in opinion, but in truth.”

And the Visiting Writers Program, he says, gives students direct contact with artists who have set about the task of improving our culture. As the new director, Dr. Kearney looks to invite writers who are in a conscious dialogue with the tradition we study on campus.

Dr. Somerville notes that Hillsdale students are accustomed to hearing from conservative politicians and economists, but bringing in writers and artists is also essential to our development as pupils. Many of the past writers are probably on the left politically, but Dr. Somerville said the criteria has always been to bring in good writers who will impact students, regardless of faith or politics.

People might have the impression Hillsdale students are only interested in politics and economics, but that’s not the case. Even though we’re surrounded by southern Michigan cornfields, our campus and its students are culturally rich, Dr. Somerville says.

“I’m just happy we have a budget for us to at least bring in one or two writers every year so their voices are a part of that—just to have those writers’ voices as part of the cacophony or the conversation. For students to encounter serious and really gifted contemporary writers, to hear them read their work, to talk to them about issues, is kind of a revelation to a student.”

Dr. Kearney will continue to bring writers who take part in this conversation, and he hopes to see more interdepartmental participation. Another idea he’s had is to alternate semesters between emerging and established writers.

Illustrating the importance of the program, Dr. Somerville said that if we were living early in American history, he would be inviting writers such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.

Meanwhile, along with some new ideas, Dr. Kearney plans to maintain the relationships Dr. Somerville has established with past poets and novelists.

“These writers serve as models and contacts for students who are interested in making tomorrow’s world better than today,” Dr. Kearney said. “All of our students benefit from these writers.”

Nolan RyanNolan Ryan, ‘20, is an English major and journalism minor from the frigid heart of northern Michigan. If you want to have a long conversation about life and theology, just start by mentioning C.S. Lewis or Emily Dickinson. In the midst of his studies, he occasionally finds time to pursue his love of ’50s music and good coffee.

Published in October 2019