Students who never had the opportunity to take a class with the popular English Prof. Ralph Williams will get the chance to do so next semester.

Williams, who taught his first class at the University in 1970, will return to the classroom next semester after retiring in April 2009. Williams will teach two courses next semester: Apocalypse Now? — Arts of the Apocalypse and a course on author Primo Levi, who wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

Williams taught two courses during the Summer 2011 term. He said he is returning to the University next semester at the request of the Department of English Language and Literature. As long as the department wants him to teach, he is happy to do it, he said.

Faculty members do not often come out of retirement, but Williams was an extremely popular professor so the University made an exception in his case, according to Katherine Teasdale, the undergraduate administrator of the English department.

“This is a highly unusual arrangement for Professor Williams, acknowledging his unprecedented success in the classroom,” Teasdale wrote in an e-mail interview. “But because of Professor Williams’s reputation and expertise, we thought it would be an incredible learning experience for our students.”

Williams said he loves interacting with students, which is one of the reasons he was drawn back to teaching.

“They sort of tug and pull and pry at my mind and lead me on, and both preparation for lecture (and) discussion … are a mode of my own growth and it’s marvelous, it really is,” Williams said.

Williams is renowned for getting to know his students, despite teaching many large classes.

“Remarkably, he knows the names of his hordes of students, and remembers things about their lives that are important,” Teasdale wrote.

Williams said he tries to understand his students because they each have a different and important point of view. He explained that if students do not share their perspectives, the history and culture of those students are not recognized. This, he said, is the reason he recognizes all of his students, even if it is just with a glance or a gesture.

LSA senior Kimberly Grambo said Williams delivered a number of guest lectures to her Great Books course during her freshman year, and the classes she took with him were memorable.

“Part of it was hype,” Grambo said. “Everyone showed up for this lecture that he was in. The place was packed, and it was just the energy. He walks in, and it’s like every single lecture is a performance.”

Grambo said she expects Williams’s return to be a big deal for the institution.

“I think (his return) means a lot,” she said. “I heard that he was coming back, actually, and it reminded me of Michael Jordan.”

While Williams has lectured at other universities, he remained a professor at the University of Michigan for the entirety of his career after a brief stint at Cornell University in the late 1960s. Williams said he thinks the University is the “best public university in the land,” and he appreciates how much he has learned from other departments within the University.

“One of the lovely things about Michigan is that whatever is studied is studied here and well, so I tried to learn from people all over the University,” Williams said.

Throughout his time as a professor and during his hiatus, Williams undertook a number of projects to improve the educational experience at the University.

One of the projects was collaborating with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which he worked with for a number of years. He said he believes Shakespeare productions are not only educational, but also contribute to the University’s culture. Williams said University alumni fly in from all over the United States and the world to see some campus productions. Williams also said he hopes to connect visiting alumni with students through a project called “The Stadium and the Stage” so alumni can maintain their connection to the University.

Williams also pioneered the “Chevrutah” approach to teaching at the University, where students are paired with another student for the entire semester to discuss the material together each class. Williams uses the format instead of the typical discussion model, in which some students speak more than others, a style that goes against his teaching philosophy. Williams said he would like to continue developing the teaching format at the University during his return.

Williams summed up his feelings about the University and teaching in one line in Italian: “If I were ever to have an epitaph and deserved it, it might be one from Dante, a line of his I particularly like, but it’s one which I would like to see characterize this University — intellectual light, full of love.’”

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