Dr. Bill Engel creates joy in the classroom

Photo by Olivier Mbabazi (C’22).

Oliver Heffron
Contributing writer

Each semester Dr. William Engel, the Nick B. Williams Professor of Literature at Sewanee, rewrites a quote from Haim Ginnot on an index card and posts it on his desk, “I, as a teacher, am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate, it is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous; I choose joyous.” If you ever have the pleasure of speaking to Engel, it will become clear to you almost immediately that this man fervently loves his occupation; to teach literature.

Anyone who happens to walk by a literature class taught by Engel will likely hear his thundering voice, passionately urging his students to work on their “capers.” Capers, a star-shaped quotation analysis device based on Cicero’s Five Canons of Rhetoric, is an original concept created by Engel when he arrived at Sewanee to help his students organize textual evidence. He engages with each individual and tries to help them understand the powerful messages behind the text and share his enthusiasm for the process of analysis.

His passionate energy in a classroom is intoxicating, like a talented preacher whose passion can bring together a congregation. While describing his love for teaching, Engel revealed, “I do have a kind of proselytizing zeal about what I do, because I love it. I want that enthusiasm to be palpable because it’s sincere.”

Engel, as a highly respected professor at the University, takes every opportunity to empower the student body. When asked about his duties outside of the English department, Engel explained, “Of my committee duties and service to the University, I try to only accept things that enable me to be a student advocate.”  

His most appreciated contribution to student empowerment may be the retroactive pass-fail option, which allows students to go back and change two detrimental letter grades, in courses outside their major, to a pass/fail option, freeing student’s GPA’s from poor grades they received in classes that were not part of a student’s major. When asked why he advocated for this policy, he responded, “Why encumber their education? Give them that option.”

Born in Texas and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Engel has always been around literature. Recounting his early childhood, Engel stated, “In my crib, I had books. Even before I could read I was very interested in stories, I mean who isn’t?” His parents, neither of whom were academics, were avid readers of critically acclaimed literature and always had important books available for Engel to consume.

When it came time to head off to college, Engel chose Trinity College where he earned his B.A. in English and education. Making the cultural leap from Central Alabama to New England, Engel entered the competitive academic world of the Northeast with a southern accent and no winter coat. What he did have with him was an incessant passion for knowledge, and while he may not have graduated from a prestigious prep school like his classmates, he soon realized that he had every right to be there.

Once his foot was in the academic world, he shut the door behind him. After Trinity, Dr. Engel went on to receive his M.A. in English at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA) and his Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley, CA). In his time as an educator at Vanderbilt, he received the Ernest A. Jones award for his excellence in undergraduate advising.

In 1997, he began working for the Leonard Bernstein Center for Education Through the Arts in Nashville, with the goal of integrating the arts into the curriculum. Dr. Engel believes he has a responsibility to share his love for education to less fortunate people, “Like the Renaissance humanists I study, I believe, since I’ve been so privileged to get this kind of knowledge and teaching skills, that it’s incumbent on me to try and implement it across the board.” Dr. Engel went on to Harvard, as Visiting Scholar in the Philosophy of Education Program at the Graduate School of Education. While teaching grad school classes and professor training programs, Dr. Engel knew something was missing, noting his need to “get back in the actual classroom.” With his family based in Nashville, Engel began looking for jobs in the area. Wanting to move away from graduate teaching, he found Sewanee’s complete emphasis on the undergraduate student enticing. In the spring of 2004, Dr. Engel came to Sewanee to teach an entry level English course temporarily, “I had no intention of being here longer than a semester.”After the semester however, a spot opened up in the English department and Engel decided to apply. Needless to say he received the position, and never looked back. “I so love the students here, the administrators, the place! I mean you breathe in the air and it’s all ozonated and full of positive ions. This is a great place for me to ply my trade.”

While literature may be his professional passion, Dr. Engel is a man of many talents. An outdoorsman at heart, Dr. Engel worked for many years as an assistant director of Camp Horseshoe, a sleepaway camp for boys. There he oversaw the fishing, fencing, and wilderness programs. A nationally ranked fencer himself, Dr. Engel now runs the fencing program at Sewanee. His most passionate love of all may be for his Irish Terrier Rory, who you may find leading Dr. Engel around the perimeter. Dr. Engel finds his passion for life in literature, “Because ultimately I think the study of literature gives us models to help us become better versions of ourselves. I really believe that. If I didn’t, I would not be teaching.”


2 comments

  1. I had Dr. Engel the first year he came to Sewanee and everything in this article is true. He made my class so enjoyable and he helped a shy, struggling student have confidence in her own intelligence and public speaking! I teach high school English now and I came across his Caper Stars several months back, and I smiled. Those are the memories I cherish from college, and one of the many reasons I love Sewanee.

  2. Dr Engel is authentic, compassionate as well as passionate about his love of teaching. He did indeed have books in his crib, and knew dinosaur names by age 3…a genius and an adored soul by me, his big sister. We grew up in Birmingham but were blessed to benefit from workd travel with our parents. Bill knew every currency and language by the time the plane landed. He us truly amazing and I love him dearly.

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