Great Teaching Feature: Anderson University English Professor Adopts Historical Personas
It is no secret that students learn from the brightest and most engaged faculty. It’s even better when classes are small enough that faculty know each student by name. But what about a college professor who not only knows a student by name, but interacts with his students as Henry David Thoreau, Winston Churchill, or C.S. Lewis? Since 1987, Dr. Kevin Radaker, professor of English at Anderson University in Indiana, has brought these three men alive for his students.
By day, Radaker leads classroom discussions in the subjects of Christianity and Literature or The American Dream in Twentieth-Century American Literature. In his spare time, Radaker hones his teaching craft and engages his own creativity by preparing monologues and character impersonations of great scholars.
Radaker discovered a powerful teaching method when he applied his acting skills to reading aloud certain passages important to the literary work of a particular author. “I realized that some students can be ‘drawn into’ a poem or a story or a novel if I help them to realize the dramatic tensions and nuances that are there in the literary work if they learn how to ‘hear’ them,” explained Radaker.
In 1990, Radaker joined the nationwide scholars search for Henry David Thoreau with the Great Plains Chautauqua tour, a program that combines history and theater as it travels the Great Plans. The Great Plains Chautauqua tour was the most ambitious public humanities program in the country at the time, touring for 10-11 weeks each summer to 10 or 11 towns throughout the Great Plains states.
“I knew that I would need to study the life and texts of Thoreau in even greater depth than I had when writing my doctoral dissertation on Thoreau, because the very best actor-scholars who offer portrayals of past historical figures know their figures inside and out,” said Radaker.
As of 2017, Radaker has toured 30 states and offered his portrayal of Thoreau more than 350 times. He has portrayed Thoreau five times in Concord, Mass., where Thoreau lived his entire life and where many of its citizens are well versed in his writings and life.
“Those performances were very special to me because of the degree to which the audience knew my character,” said Radaker. He has been invited to portray Thoreau this fall in Concord in a special performance honoring the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth.
“By giving such immense energy to researching, writing, rehearsing, and making himself vulnerable with these public presentations of such well-known historical characters, Dr. Radaker models for our students, and his faculty colleagues, what it takes to be a good student and scholar,” said Anderson University Provost Dr. Marie Morris.
Enjoying the work for 15 years of not only “becoming Thoreau” through monologue, but researching Thoreau’s nuances, brought forth a new challenge to present to audiences and his classroom: C.S. Lewis.
Radaker chose C.S. Lewis because he had “always admired his writings and his brilliant ways of conveying the Christian message in both his fiction and non-fiction. I knew that I would enjoy conducting in-depth research on Lewis and I felt that the public would like to see a one-man show devoted to presenting a variety of passages from his non-fiction because that side of his career and writings is not nearly as well-known as his fiction (especially The Chronicles of Narnia).”
Starting in 2007, Radaker began developing his portrayal of Lewis. He spent his spring sabbatical in 2009 reading and studying most of Lewis’ writings and many books about Lewis. He prepared two scripts that summer for a 40-minute show and an 80-minute show and spent the latter half of that summer rehearsing. By September, he was ready to present Lewis to the public.
In 2011, Radaker was invited to attend a four-day international teachers’ conference in Beijing, an annual event that brings together around 300 English-speaking Christian teachers and school administrators from throughout China. His time in China began with two days of touring the area before the conference began. “I met scores of people who attended my five lectures on C. S. Lewis and then saw my performance as Lewis on the final night of the conference,” said Radaker. He continues to maintain many of those friendships online.
After the experience of two characters to present to a community of scholars and students, Radaker ventured into a new portrayal in 2014: Winston Churchill.
“Even though history is not my primary field of study, I have always found history fascinating and often urge my literature students to consider the historical context of any literary work,” said Radaker.
Practicing what he teaches, Radaker embarked on studying Churchill in depth and taking on the challenge of depicting a man “larger than life” to the stage.
During a sabbatical leave in the spring of 2016, Radaker read and studied most of Churchill’s writings, including his memoirs pertaining to World War I and World War II, and several of the most highly acclaimed scholarly studies and biographies of Churchill. That summer, he offered a 40-minute dramatic monologue as Churchill for the four-week June tour of the Oklahoma Chautauqua, which was devoted to the first decade of the Cold War (1945-1955). He then moved to scripting and rehearsing a 60-minute monologue devoted to World War II to present to the public in the fall of 2016.
Radaker’s innovative portrayals have endeared him to audiences that have asked him to come back again and again.
“I have come to realize some of the particular ways by which they [Thoreau, Lewis, and Churchill] have been misunderstood by the public at large,” said Radaker. Due to misconceptions, he focuses on unique parts of each character’s historical and cultural impact on history. For example, Radaker makes certain his audience comes to understand how strongly Lewis resisted belief in God throughout his teens and his twenties. “Helping the audience understand this aspect of Lewis’ life makes it even more incredible for us all to ponder how he became such a determined and brilliant defender and explicator of the Christian faith,” added Radaker.
Regardless of where his travels take him, teaching is where his devotion remains.
“I enjoy the challenge of leading a discussion that will help students realize depths and innuendos within a literary work that they may not have fully realized before our discussion,” said Radaker. “At the same time, I greatly enjoy their ability to help me to realize aspects of the literary text that I had not noticed before in my own reading.”
Radaker explained that his students at Anderson University are earnestly seeking to realize their full potential, not only as individuals anticipating their full entrance into the workforce, but also as young adults choosing to challenge their minds and hearts by pondering some of the profound philosophical and spiritual questions that confront us.
“It is this sincerity that I have come to appreciate so much in them, and I am deeply thankful if I have managed to encourage and perhaps even foster that sincere search within them.”