Albion College has a small campus with countless professors. The college fosters education in diverse departments, and its professors have equally diverse backgrounds. In order to get to know the faulty who make Albion’s education what it is, The Pleiad’s Between Classes article series will feature a staff member sitting down to have coffee and talk to the different professors who make up the college.
Featured in this week’s Between Classes are English professors Jess Roberts and Nels Christensen. While Roberts is the director for the Albion Big Read, and, according to both Roberts and Christensen, Christentsen is the avid “wingman” for the program. The two believe that the The Big Read helps build a sense of community within the college and the town.
Roberts, Christensen and I met in a small, warm room on the second floor of the library, lit only by the natural light coming in from the window. We sat on firm blue chairs angled in toward one another.
The line to purchase coffee was fairly long, so Roberts opted for water instead. Christensen held an empty coffee cup and occasionally sipped from Roberts’ water as well. With my own cup of water in hand, I asked them questions about Albion as a college and as a town.
Irene Corona Avila: What brought you to Albion?
Nels Christiansen: I found a powerful, amazing woman, convinced her that she wanted to spend time with me, and I followed her around and benefit from her greatness. I followed her here, and she got the job at Albion College, and I then managed to get one too.
Jess Roberts: I chose Albion because we found out about this job that was within striking distance of Ann Arbor. That’s where we lived at that time. Nels was working in a program at the University of Michigan called Wiling Literature program, which was a really important part of his life, and a really important part of our life. We were interested in figuring out how to maintain a relationship with that program. So, then I saw that there was a job at Albion, I thought, “Oh, it’s in Albion,” I was excited about it because it was within fifty miles of Ann Arbor. But when we came out here, I remember the moment, standing in Victory Park by the Kalamazoo river, when I thought “I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is the place I want to be.” We were really interested in being in a small, walkable, racially diverse Michigan town, and there just aren’t that many small, walkable, racially diverse, Michigan towns with a college in it. It was a feeling I felt. The folks in the English department made us laugh and feel comfortable with the things that we brought with us.
NC: It was a feeling we felt, but it’s also not like some kind of fairyland. I think we have feelings all the time, and then we make decisions based on those feelings. I think we had the feeling that this is the place we want to be forever, so then we decided that it was going to happen.
JR: We lived here for a long time before we really became a part of the community here. I think that started when [our daughter] EmmyLou started going to school in Albion. First step for her was going to Johnson’s daycare with Kevin Metz’s kids, Olapade’s kids, Lyons-Sobaski’s kids and lots of kids who are in the Big Read program, and kids all over the community. So, that connected us with the community. She went to the schools and we certainly knew more and more people, and we started to become differently involved. Then, I managed a Destination Imagine team for the fourth graders at Harrington Elementary School, and that was a major turning point for my relationship to the community. This is all to say, what Nels said, we felt this feeling, and we made decisions so that we could build a life so that we would continue to feel that feeling. I think for us, it was like a mini-part process where we figured out how to make decisions that would allow us to live here. We figured out, then, how to make decisions that would allow us to become an increasing part of the community.
ICA: Can you describe that feeling?
JR: I think I felt what was in some ways an irrational sense of home. And I say irrational because it made no sense in the moment. This was the first time we were in the city of Albion, maybe it was the second time. It could’ve just been that I love the river, and I felt really good on the campus, and someone had said something really funny. But there was that feeling of belonging, and that stress inside me released. And, [I thought], maybe this is a place where I [can] be more fully part of who I am that I had not been able to be in grad school. Those are significant [feelings] when you’re on the academic job market, because the academic job market is horrible. Hundreds of people are applying for single jobs, and so there’s all kinds of horrible stress associated with the job market. So, looking for a job and then finding a place that made me feel so at home, that was amazing.
NC: For me, was just feeling like I was in a place that was real. I remember [when] Jess was here for her interview. She’s in Vulgamore Hall talking to the people interviewing. I’ve got EmmyLou strapped on my back. I’m walking around town. It feels strange and interesting, and then I end up at the Whitehouse Nature Center. I’m walking along the Kalamazoo and seeing deer and turkey. So that, the landscape at the river, was a big deal to me. Being able to live in a town where from our house we can see the Kalamazoo, it’s amazing. That river is that thing that brought people here, Native American people and white settlers for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.
ICA: What is your favorite memory from Albion so far?
NC: There’s some kind of program where our first-year seminars combined to do this thing called the Humanities Lab. A couple years ago, Jess and I and Alli Harnish, who’s an anthropologist, found ourselves in this park in downtown Albion called Washington Park. It’s right on the river. The point was to get the students in the first-year seminar out into the town and experience the town. EmmyLou was with us, tiny little kid, five or six years ago, and she was eight or nine. One of my favorite people in Albion is there, this guy named Mr. Reed who runs a hotdog stand. [He’s] the shortest guy with this big white beard and a red and yellow umbrella over his hotdog trailer. He was there handing out hotdogs to us. All of a sudden, some of my students got into the river, and they’re swimming in the river. EmmyLou was there. She didn’t get into the water, but she was totally into it. People started throwing things back and forth. I was on the bank. I was throwing things with these dudes in the river. Some Albion person was on the bank, and somebody in the river threw [a thing] to this guy and he made this amazing catch and everyone was [yelling]. People were like, “How’d you do that?” and EmmyLou said, “He’s from Albion.” It was a beautiful Albion moment. It was like our college life was happening in off-campus, in the town and in the river. People like swimming in the river, having fun, earning college credit. And EmmyLou is just a part of it.
JR: One of my favorite memories is sort of like a moment not where we were having a college experience in the town, but were we were having an experience that wasn’t connected to the college, and then a college student became a part of it. In a way, that was beautiful and amazing.
We attend Lewis Chapel, Ame Church. I think this happened in the summer of 2017. A student name Rich Anorak was a college volunteer for his first time in the Big Read that year. He volunteered this past year also. We were at church, and there are so many amazing, powerful human beings who attend Lewis Chapel who I just think the world of. That was the first year several of the kids at Lewis Chapel were a part of Albion’s Big Read. After service on this Sunday, we were having lunch in the park. There was a barbeque and all kinds of amazing food. We went over, and we were sitting in the pavillion. And Rich, I think, probably had gone to church that day. But after church, he certainly came to the meal. Here are all these Albion people who I love, and then Rich comes over. Then, I watch Hazel Lias, who is this amazing woman, give all kinds of love to Rich. So, Rich is feeling all this love from these human beings who have lived in Albion for decades, who have made some of the most important changes for social justice in our community that will ever be made. I see him in this place where the community is putting its arms around him, and then I also see the boys and girls who go to Lewis Chapel see Rich in this new setting. So, I get to see his relationship with those kids in that setting. Then, it turns out that [those kids are] kids who he mentors at Harrington.
It just felt like Rich, at that moment, had had various points of contact with the Albion community. Then he shows up in this place where, all of a sudden, all these points of contact that he had in the community are in a constellation around him. I felt like I was watching something that was really important and beautiful about the way that Albion, the town, loves on Albion college students who step toward the town and become a part of it. It just felt like this sort of beautiful amazing display, an act of love that was going in on all kinds of directions.
ICA: Where do you see yourself in five years, or after Albion?
JR: We’ll be buried in Albion. In five years we will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of Albion’s Big Read.