On the first day of literature class, Jennifer Holberg shows her class a painting by Dutch and Flemish Renaissance
painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. She doesn’t tell them the title, but asks what they see. The first answers are expected: a lake, a man, a boat, a plow.
“Wait a minute,” one student says, leaning in, “are those legs sticking out of the water?”
It’s the comment Holberg has been waiting for. The painting, unbeknownst to the students, is called “Land- scape with the Fall of Icarus.” The student who noted the tiny legs, bare and flailing out of the sea, has uncovered something that Holberg wants them to understand about literature. And it’s something she wants them to under- stand about the Christian life.
It’s important to notice the details, to notice what—and who—is on the margins.
Right before the scene in this painting, Icarus is falling out of the sky, plunging toward the sea. Yet everyone has their head down or turned away,” she tells the class.
Holberg pulls up a poem by W.H. Auden about the painting and shares, “Auden says that for the people in the painting, Icarus falling from the sky was ‘not an important failure.’”
She looks out at the future nurses, software engineers, parents, and social workers. “This painting is why you’re taking a literature class at Calvin University. I’m asking you to look to the margins and notice the things that are not the most obvious things. Pay attention.”
If you’ve taken a class with Holberg, you might recognize and appreciate her gentle challenges. A student favorite, the 2002 senior class selected her for Professor of the Year.
Her appeal might be because she’s been championing “student-centered learning” long before it was trendy. “The whole point of English 101 is teaching students to trust their own instincts. They’ve lost confidence or they never had confidence in their writing. It’s my job to encourage them.”
That encouragement often comes in the format of one-on- one conversations with students. Instead of marking up students’ papers with red ink, Holberg sits across from them and they talk through how to make the work better. It’s her favorite part of her job.
“I actually really like college students,” she said. “I like them as an age group, and I love Calvin students in particular because they’re earnest and want to do good in the world.”.
It’s no surprise that she’s one of those professors who stays in contact with students long after they graduate. “I love seeing where their lives go,” she said. “I get to have this tiny little contribution to what God is going to do in their life, and hopefully give them a tool or a way of thinking or even just encouragement.”
Holberg is also chair of the English Department and co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.