He is a scholar of English literature and early modern drama—think Shakespeare—quite literally a Renaissance man. He’s one of the faculty advisors for AIC’s student newspaper, The Yellow Jacket. He teaches Composition I and Western World Literature, and has written about “Grafting and Ecological Imperialism in John Fletcher’s Bonduca,” published in the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies. In short, just what you’d expect from a college English professor.
But there are a few things about Dr. William Steffen that might surprise not only his students but anyone who thinks they know him.
He can ride a unicycle.
His older brother, Nathan, is an artist in graduate school at Savannah College of Art and Design, and his twin brother, Sam, is an up-and-coming folk singer in Philadelphia.
He once biked with a friend from Massachusetts to Wisconsin in fifteen days.
He met the Dalai Lama (but was too tongue-tied to ask him a question).
And he is the proud owner of a puggle (a beagle-pug mix) named Omar and a chicken his daughter christened Mackenzie.
“We don’t have a huge yard,” says Steffen, “and we live on a pretty populated street, so the chicken spends her days visiting our neighbors, all of whom feed her. She’s got a pretty nice urban lifestyle.”
Puggles and urban chickens aside, Steffen and his wife, Anna-Claire, are also busy raising five-year-old Calliope, named for the Greek Muse of epic poetry and music, and two-year-old Oscar, so named because it was the only boy’s name they could agree on. “When Calliope was born, my wife and I were both trying to finish our dissertations. We knew having a child was hard, but we also felt we needed to give birth to this muse,” he says. “She was supposed to help us get through it.”
Calliope’s melodious charms must have worked because both Steffen and his wife continued pursuing doctorates at the University of Massachusetts Amherst while juggling the demands of new parenthood, and Steffen successfully defended his dissertation last year.
With post-grad work behind him, Steffen now devotes himself to teaching and reaching his students in fresh, imaginative ways. “I strive to help my students understand the real-world applicability of their reading and writing skills, whether it’s choosing a strong verb to use in a cover letter or discerning whether or not an online source is credible,” he says. “I also try to make literature from the ancient, medieval, or early modern world relevant to young people living in the world today.
“I’ve challenged students to think about how Ovid’s representation of masculinity and power in his Metamorphoses carries more weight in the wake of the #MeToo movement. I also found that many of my students were able to connect with Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq more readily than with Lysistrata, the play by Aristophanes on which the film is based. I’m sure some of my students didn’t think we would end up talking about gun violence and racism in America’s urban centers when they came to class, maybe expecting another lecture on the Peloponnesian War.”
Steffen admits that the learning in his classroom is a two-way street. “Each semester, I am surprised by how much my students are willing to share with me, and how much I end up learning from them,” he says. “When I teach composition, I like to start the course by having students write a personal essay, and I am often amazed at what I learn about our students—who they are and where they came from and what it means for some of them to be here. It turns out I have had students who have bowled perfect games, who have left their families in other countries to come to AIC to play volleyball, run track, or play hockey—not to mention students who have faced loss and overcome incredible obstacles. I’m not sure our students fully appreciate how unique they are.”
One of the things Steffen fully appreciates about AIC is its inclusive environment. “We call ourselves an open access institution, and the thing I really like is the diversity,” he says. “And what I’ve discovered is that if you figure out what they want to write about, our students are willing to do the work and be encouraged.”
One of the ways he encourages his students is by helping them see their writing get published in The Yellow Jacket. “I work closely with our student editor-in-chief, Amber Ollari, and Communications Professor Kat Lombard-Cook, another faculty advisor for the paper this year,” he explains. “We publish four issues every semester, one each month; three in print and one digital. It has been very rewarding. I always tell my students that publication is the goal for when you write anything, and a student newspaper is a great way to do that.”
And speaking of publishing, Steffen has done plenty of academic writing, but he also has a few ideas for some fiction. “I get ideas for books all the time,” he says. “A friend of mine majored in screenwriting, and I’ve always thought it would be fun to write a screenplay with him. There still isn’t a good coming-of-age movie about ultimate frisbee, which we both played at Hampshire College.
“I’m not sure he ever said it to me directly, but my twin brother, Sam, has always inspired me to write every day. Since becoming a father, my habit of journaling has fallen by the wayside, but I can think of nothing healthier for the intellect than to cultivate the habit of sitting down with oneself and writing something—anything—each day.”
His singer/songwriter twin has inspired Steffen in other ways, as well. “My brother has written hundreds of songs committed to social justice, on topics ranging from climate change to prison reform,” he says. “I think the work he does with his guitar is the work I hope I am doing in the classroom. I am inspired by people who stand up to injustice, especially when it is unpopular or even unwise to do so. I think that’s why I have such admiration for my wife, my mother and, my brother.
“My wife works as a servicing representative for the United Auto Workers in Western Massachusetts, and she has taught me to see my privilege as a white cis man in my academic and professional career, which I would hope makes me a more responsible educator and scholar. My mom inspires me because of what she has sacrificed to give me everything I have, and because of how she simply refuses to let cancer get the best of her.”
Dr. Steffen’s parents are both ordained ministers who met at Yale Divinity School. His father, Dr. Lloyd Steffen, is University Chaplain at Lehigh, in Pennsylvania, and professor of religion studies and director of the Center for Dialogue, Ethics and Spirituality/Lehigh Prison Project. His mother, the Reverend Emmajane Finney, has worked as an advocate for public education through United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. In the United Church of Christ’s Penn Northeast Conference, Rev. Finney served on the board of directors, the Peace and Justice Task Force, and as a delegate to the General Synod. It’s clear where Will Steffen inherited his passion to leave the world a better place.
And then there are the cannibals.
Always full of surprises, Steffen teaches a class called Cannibal Fictions—cannibal studies being one of his research and teaching interests—and it’s gotten some attention around campus. “One of my colleagues, Dr. Lori Page, teaches Victorian lit, and she did a vampires class,” he says. “We like to joke that we really encourage our students to digest what they’re reading.”
No matter what, how, or whom he’s teaching, Steffen believes in the power of narrative to change an individual’s life and change the world. “Science can help us identify the problem,” he says, “but the humanities help us to think about the problem. That’s the importance of narrative, and those narratives can ultimately make a difference.”
By Ellen Dooley :: Photos by Leon Nguyen ’16