After thirty-one years at Westmont, English professor Dr. Randy VanderMey will be transitioning to a part-time position at the end of spring 2021. Satisfied with the years he’s been given in his profession and sensing a decline in his powers, VanderMey has chosen to retire on his own terms. A brief look at VanderMey’s experience at Westmont reveals some of the ways that Christian encouragement and community have affected his professional and artistic formation.
From the time he graduated Calvin College to the years he spent pursuing his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Iowa, VanderMey encountered a highly competitive arena of graduate schools. He recalled that the environment did “not reward Christian values, Christian relationships, Christian understanding, [or] Christian language.”
At Westmont, VanderMey found a contrasting environment — one where connection was encouraged and Christian community could flourish. The genial atmosphere VanderMey encountered is captured powerfully in his account of what he identified as the “single pivotal moment in my career as a professional teacher and writer”:
“[Professor] Rick Pointer, who was then Acting Provost … said to me, after I had just been granted a promotion to full professor, words to this effect: ‘What the Faculty Personnel Committee is saying to you, in sum, is this: Do what brings you joy.’ I trembled and wept over those words when I was alone. Pointer may have known that they would have special meaning to me as a teacher of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” where the pilgrim Dante hears such words from his guide and classical mentor … I would not put it past my wonderful faculty colleagues at Westmont to be so sensitive in that way.”
It was in this friendly environment that VanderMey could appreciate collaboration with colleagues as “a kind of breaking free … replacing fear of failure with desire for connection.” He noted, “Some of my highest moments at Westmont have come through collaboration with colleagues in other departments.”
One especially meaningful collaboration, done with professor of music Dr. Steve Butler, was “Kenosis.” VanderMey described “Kenosis” as a “song cycle about the experience of a Christian life,” consisting of twenty-four poems. These poems, inspired by Philippians 2:5-11, explore the concept of Christ’s “self-emptying.” They were set to “an hour-long contemporary musical composition for four voices, piano, and percussion,” composed by Butler.
VanderMey reflected that “[‘Kenosis’] was teaching me a new way of working — a communal way … Being a collaborator with someone was the very embodiment of the thing I was talking about … If kenosis means ‘self-emptying,’ in a sense you’re emptying yourself of your ego by allowing yourself to achieve success … in shared success with another person.”
Speaking to the collaborative process, Butler noted, “It was a bit of a challenge to me because I had done collaborations before with mixed results. My preference is to do things myself.” Despite this preference, Butler found one of the most enjoyable collaborations of his composing career. The collaboration “resulted in something beyond [VanderMey’s] ability as a musician to express … and beyond my ability as a person who speaks the English language to communicate.”
As a poet, photographer and creative writer, VanderMey has also made kenosis a part of his expanding consciousness and craft as an artist. “The large-scale change in my life … is that I’ve gone from being oriented toward professional criticism of literature to critically aware creation of literature.” In both writing and photography, VanderMey has tried “to achieve a kind of self-emptying in relation to the subject; to invest myself in the thing; to let the subject dictate to me what I do with it to connect with it — not to impose my will on it.” VanderMey identified his internalization of kenosis as one of his greatest spiritual advances during adulthood.
In addition to “Kenosis,” VanderMey mentioned a number of other collaborative experiences, including his involvement with Dr. John Blondell, chair of the theatre arts department, and Dr. Shasberger, professor of music and worship. From Blondell, VanderMey learned that “freedom from boring conventions is possible.” Collaboration with Shasberger resulted in what VanderMey deemed the “single most transcendent moment I can remember not just at Westmont but in my life,” when he sat “in the midst of a full congregation in that great worship space singing the words to my poem, “The Peace We Can’t Imagine.”
In addition to collaborative projects, VanderMey felt blessed to have colleagues who have regard for each other. Dr. Paul Willis, a fellow professor in the English department, demonstrated this regard when he remarked: “Dr. VanderMey is dependable and intelligent to a fault … He is also multi-talented. His art-form iPhone photos are truly amazing. His poems are penetrating.”
At Westmont, VanderMey’s various talents and interests have proved professionally useful. “[They] need people who can do many things at a small college like Westmont,” he explained, “and I do.” Summarizing much of what he’s done and taught at Westmont, VanderMey reflected, “This is the life I wanted. This is the life I envisioned. I’m just happy to have come toward the end of a career thinking that the way I had dreamed it might be is pretty close to the way it has been.”
While VanderMey’s involvement at Westmont may taper over the next few years, his time at Westmont continues to inform his decisions. When asked what he expects the next few years to look like, VanderMey answered, “I can only guess and hope that my life after full-time teaching will be a tasty stew of worship and church leadership, photography, musicianship, reading, writing of poetry and drama, part-time teaching, conscientious sharing of the resources of money and time, conversations and collaborations with my wife, hikes and more extensive travels, maintaining health and strength as I age, promoting ‘creation care,’ mentoring and coaching others as they manifest the need, investing more in friendship and family.” In sum, VanderMey will continue to “do what brings him joy.”