“The most you can ever ask for out a job is to wake up in the morning and feel good about going to work, and I have for 40 years.”

That has been the experience of Bill VanderWolk, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow professor of modern languages and associate dean for faculty development, who will teach his last college class next Tuesday before entering retirement after 29 years of service to the College.

VanderWolk played an integral part in making the Department of Romance Languages what it is today, having taught a range of courses in French literature and theater, and having participated in the hiring ofcurrent faculty.

“He built the current French department,” said Charlotte Daniels, associate professor of romance languages.

VanderWolk first arrived at the College in 1984 on a one-year teaching contract, having previously taught high school French for eight years.

“I came to Bowdoin thinking I would only stay here for a year or two,” he said.
When he first arrived, VanderWolk explained, the College was a different place. “The department has changed from a bunch of old white men sitting around translating French poetry to a very dynamic group of people—we’re now all historians as well as literary critics,” he said.“I think the quality of student now is higher than it was when I first came here,” he added.

VanderWolk earned his bachelors and masters degrees from the University of North Carolina and Middlebury College respectively, and returned to North Carolina for his doctorate degree. A highly respected scholar of French literature, he has published works on Victor Hugo, Patrick Modiano and Gustave Flaubert.

“He has maintained an incredible commitment to his own scholarship,” said Daniels.
“It would be hard to esteem a colleague more highly,” added Tricia Welsch, director of the film studies program.

In addition to his research, VanderWolk teaches signature courses like Introduction to Modern French Literature and Resistance, Revolt, and Revolution, and created the French department’s teaching fellows exchange program. Every year, the department sends a handful of graduating seniors to teach English in the French towns of Brest, Clermont-Ferrand, and Nantes. Two French teaching fellows join the Bowdoin faculty every year as part of the exchange, assisting professors and leading discussion groups.

“He’s the pillar of the department,” said Katherine Dauge-Roth, associate professor of romance languages. “He’s the consummate teacher.”

Doug Leonard ’12, who worked with VanderWolk on his senior honors project on activist literature in 20th-century France, recalled how VanderWolk’s mentoring enabled him to be “fearless” in his academic inquiry.

“What I remember most about our discussions was his zest to discover some new revelation in the seemingly ordinary,” wrote Leonard in an email to the Orient. “Professor VanderWolk taught me scholarship. From him, I derived an ability to question and even overturn my own ideas, to uncover what I had truly learned from my research, to be fearless in revision and re-envisioning.”
VanderWolk is known for making his students memorize Charles Baudelaire’s poem “L’invitation au voyage” every year, and likes to tell the story of how one of his former students was asked to recite the poem on the first day of class in France during a study away program.

“Literature transcends boundaries, and that’s what I try to instill in my students,” VanderWolk said.

Danny Chin ’12, who took VanderWolk’s 300-level seminar Resistance, Revolt, and Revolution, remembered how VanderWolk inspired his students to apply literature to contemporary issues.

“As part of our study of revolutionary-themed literature, we found a cause we were passionate about and revolted against it. I chose the treatment of immigrants, and used Portland as a model. Traveling with other students who had similar projects, we visited a housing development in Portland, as well as a slowly gentrifying area of the city,” Chin wrote in an email to the Orient.

“He’s hilarious, warm, challenging, and supportive all at once,” said Kate Emerson ’10. “A few of my classmates who were French majors still refer to him as ‘V dubs’ ...I hope he’s cool with that.”
“He is the sweetest man, and he has taken me under his wing since freshman year,” said Helen Conaghan ’13, who studied abroad in Paris last year. “He is one of those professors who sticks with you and you respect him for all the extra time outside of class he puts aside to help you cultivate your French.”

For the past four years, VanderWolk has been splitting his time between teaching French and working as associate dean for faculty development, a new position created to help new faculty members integrate into the Bowdoin community.

“I’ve been a helper, a listener, a big brother, and it’s been a lot of fun. The incoming faculty are so full of energy and passion that it’s easy to work with them,” VanderWolk said.

After retirement, VanderWolk plans to do some consulting work, helping New England colleges find ways to efficiently mentor untenured faculty. His partner Michele Lettiere, who teaches English at the Waynflete School, plans to retire after the next academic year. Then, the pair plans to hit the road.

“I’ve never seen America—I’m always going to France. My goal after Michele retires is to get in the car and just take the backroads of America,” said VanderWolk.

He says he will continue writing, and that at least for next year, “I’ll be playing volleyball every Tuesday until I fall over.” Beyond that, VanderWolk said, “I have no idea, which is what’s wonderful about it.”