Ralph Williams has been teaching religion and literature courses at the University for years. His presence in the classroom is one of a kind as he has entertained countless students all the while teaching them the likes of Dante, Shakespeare and the Bible. The Michigan Daily caught up with Williams to ask him what makes him so unique.
The Michigan Daily: Congratulations on winning Best Professor.
Ralph Williams: I am genuinely and deeply honored, and will do my very best to try to deserve it. I love every hair on my students’ heads, and am wholly in love with the materials I teach: My life is hugely privileged in those ways.
TMD: When did you know you wanted to be a college professor?
RW: Do you know I’ve always enjoyed the study of literature, but that existed in a larger network of interests. In many ways, coming to be a college teacher was something that simply happened. There are probably six or eight lives that I’d have enjoyed living. I’d have enjoyed being a doctor. Loved to have been a lawyer. Well, in college, I applied to graduate school and Michigan’s English department came up with something marvelous called a fellowship, which paved my way to study more. While doing that, I discovered that one of the chief things that one did was become a teacher.
TMD: Academic freedom is very important to you; have you ever been deprived of it?
RW: No. And I would leave the profession immediately if I were. It’s enormously important to me. One needs to hear the views of all with whom one has to do intellectually and otherwise, as they wish to express it.
TMD: Is anything off limits in your classes?
RW: Yes, there is. Abuse of other speakers. The views of other are open to inspection from all quarters, but there will be human respect within the classroom for those who are present.
TMD: Are any topics off limit?
RW: In general, no – but, pragmatically, there is a restraint that I place on myself. It’s my understanding, my commitment, that I, in the sense of commitments or antagonisms to commitments, am not the point of my Bible class. The point of the class is the material that draws us together and the discourse, as it is constructed by you, by me, by all of those there. Off limits for me in the classroom is the sort of expression of points of view, which intend to produce commitment to my own views.
TMD: What do you think makes you such a popular professor?
RW: I’d like it to be the fact that in my presence, students are received with respect, with human affection, their intelligence; nourished, drawn out, drawn on, their ability to receive and to challenge; extended, and their sheer joy in their human being and abilities; enhanced.
TMD: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one work of literature with you, what would you choose?
RW: Well let me say then Shakespeare because the works show the pressure of the Bible and then Shakespeare’s own work foliates out into the works of almost all others in the Western tradition and in many others as well. I choose him because his works themselves are more extensively and deeply human than virtually anything I know.
TMD: Have you ever written a book?
RW: Yes. The book, which emerged from my doctoral dissertation, is one on a neo-Latin poetics. It drew together for me, at that point, various forms of learning and touched on a number of interesting issues about tradition. My best writings are the ones ahead. There is one in formation on Primo Levi on whom I teach a course. There is one, which deals with the ways in which the Bible has worked through world cultures. There is one called Five Florentine Chapels.
TMD: Where is a good place to get dinner in Ann Arbor?
RW: I’m homesick for Italy so much. I’ll go to this Italian restaurant on the other edge of town. I’m Canadian born, but I just fell head over heals for Italy. You’re born in a certain place and in a certain sense that’s home, but then if you are fortunate in life, you get to chose a home of the spirit. For me that place is Italy. There is a bend in the railroad when I come up from Rome. When I pass it, I am home.
TMD: So much is made of your commanding hands, there must be some metaphor there, what would it be?
RW: I’ve heard people comment on my hands. I’ve heard people comment on and question my style. In a certain sense, my hands are a given. I can’t help my looks. I’m given my hands. If I were to move toward a metaphor, I suppose I’d want it to be reach and grasp, a reaching out toward, a wish to grasp. But what you see in me is not premeditated style, what you see is my body thinking.
TMD: How much free time do you have every day?
RW: This may be a self-criticism: I don’t think I understand free time. I’m 61 and there’s necessarily limited time and I have limited abilities and I am going to get every second out of that time and every bit out of those abilities that I can before time ends for me. So I open my eyes between four and five in the morning and I get up and I start going and I usually stop between 11 and 12 at night. I’m not good at the concept of leisure.
TMD: After you leave the University, how do you wish to be remembered?
RW: There’s a line of Dante which I’d like as indicated that by which I’d like to be remembered, if I ever earned it, I’d like it as an epitaph: “Intellectual light, full of love.”
TMD: Thank you, Prof. Williams.
RW: No, thank you. It is a joy to talk with you.