Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

The wind is very much up

The “American project”

Conversation is a rare and wonderful commodity in today’s world of email, text, and Twitter.

In this episode of the Michigan Today podcast, “Listen in, Michigan,” we tap into that rare and wonderful commodity in the form of a chat with Ralph Williams, PhD ’70, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus in the Department of English, Language, and Literature.

Few conversational partners speak with such erudition and elegance. And even fewer can quote from the Bible or Shakespeare’s work as freely as Williams. As for topics, how often does one discuss the meaning of happiness, the future of mankind, or the “paradox” at the heart of the American project?

If you’re a former student of Williams’ we hope you enjoy hearing his voice again. If you never took one of his courses, we encourage you to listen. It’s a short philosophical trip that simultaneously soothes, encourages, and challenges the listener.

Friend of the mind

Williams, born in Canada, has been teaching at U-M since 1970. In the past five decades he has served as associate chair of the Department of English (twice) and as director of the Program on Studies in Religion. He was instrumental in creating and developing the Royal Shakespeare Company Residency program at the University.

Williams has studied 15 languages, including Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. He specializes in Medieval and Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, literary theory, comparative literature, and Biblical studies.

In 2009 students awarded him the first Golden Apple Lifetime Achievement Award, at which time he delivered his “last lecture.” But Williams found he could not stay out of the classroom, and returned to teaching in 2011.

Share your memories about Williams in the comments section below.


  1. Randy Schafer - 1977

    I had Professor Williams in the fall of 1973, first semester, Great Books 191. When I walked out of his class, I knew I was no longer in high school. This was the major leagues. To this day, he was the most inspiring educator I learned from. His passion for his classes and the materials he taught was unparalleled.


  2. Robert Cassard - 1982

    Professor Williams taught Dante’s Divine Comedy to the early morning Great Books class I took as a freshman. His lectures were ultimately performances; he paced across the stage and out into the lecture hall, keeping otherwise sleepy students fully engaged. His passion for the material was obvious, as he explained various passages, often launching into the original Italian, so we could hear the tone and cadence. Most impressive of all? An entire lecture series, perfectly structured, all delivered with no notes. (And Dante wasn’t even his focus…) To call that educational experience extraordinary would be an understatement. I’m guessing many U-M grads have similar stories.


  3. Claudette Grinnell-Davis - 1992 (BS) and 2014 (PhD)

    THANK YOU for this interview. I had Dr. Williams three times (Great Books II – Dante unit, English Bible, and a seminar on apocalyptic literature) and I was shaped not only by the depth of his study, but also with his ability to make you feel connected to him even in a 400-person lecture hall. I think that’s because he never forgot the humanity of the students sitting in front of him and the humanity of the writers he studies. I think that’s his primary motivation – embracing and celebrating humanity, in its paradoxical combination of dignity and brokenness. I teach social work now, and I freely admit Dr. Williams has shaped my approach to my students in the classroom. I will never be as good as he is at it – but at the least, I’ve had one of the best role models I could have asked for.


  4. Stephanie Lucianovic - 1996

    As an English major, I had Professor Williams for The Bible as Literature class. He’d come flying into the room and down the steps of the large lecture hall calling, “A WARM and rich WELCOME to you, now do any of you have any questions before I begin nattering on because the wind is up!”
    Every students in that 300-person lecture hall wanted to ask questions to get his attention, to get, for a moment, his brilliance concentrated just on them.
    I had heard about him for years before I had him and the reality very much lived up to the legend. And more.


  5. Steve Glaser - 1987 (English, Honors)

    Professor Williams is one of the many reasons Michigan is the best college experience in the world. College has a greater purpose than learning a bunch of information, like I did in medical school. College is a place that should provide a springboard from your childhood experiences and formal test-score-geared high school education, to your adult life; where you have become aware of the plurality of society and societal needs and opportunities. My Michigan experience, including having the privilege of learning from Prof. Williams, helps me everyday be a better physician. Thank you Professor Williams and Go Blue!


    • Bill Deubel - 1973

      As Gilles Deleuze wrote; children are artists. He does not mean they are capable of producing art. The university lacked any professor who was capable of investing in childhood experiences. This is one reason the university was a disappointment.


  6. Richard Smith - LSA BA 1993, SSW MSW 2000

    Ah, the nobility! I had Dr. Williams in Great Books, The Bible as Literature, Renaissance and Restoration Literature, and Primo Levi. His discussion about literary depictions of community led me to my research trajectory on sustainable urban community development.


  7. Catherine Chin Schwartz - 1994

    I was a science/math person, but had to take Great Books my first year at Michigan. This professor taught me to love books, thinking, questioning, and even to love the class that I thought I would dread. Thank you, Professor Williams, for inspiring me.


  8. Howard Scully - BBA, MAcc 1994

    I had a couple of free slots in my business school schedule, and I used one of them to take Prof. Williams’ English Bible because so many of my friends said I could not leave the University of Michigan without experiencing one of his classes. They were right.
    I don’t use what I learned in that class in my career, but I still consider it to have been indispensable to my college education. I enjoyed the diversity of the subject matter relative to my day-to-day studies and the exercise in critical thinking for its own sake. And watching the comedy/drama of Dr. Williams pace the stage of the lecture hall, as much performer as professor, his enormous hands gesticulating, his voice booming, always enumerating his “rubrics” yet often meandering down a conversational path akin to a Sunday drive — this stays with me among so many fine memories of Michigan. Ralph Williams personifies passion for knowledge and personal connection to those who seek it.
    If any current students read this article, and perhaps these comments, and listen to the interview herein (or if you’re an alum with a son or daughter now at U of M, tell them), do not leave Michigan without experiencing one of Ralph Williams’ classes. Trust me.


  9. Matthew Perry - 1993

    In 1998, five years after I had graduated from U of M, I was working on a project I thought Professor Williams might be interested in. I had taken two of his classes as an undergrad, but had not seen or spoken to him since I had graduated. I walked into his office during office hours, he looked up, and without missing a beat, he said, “Hi Matt. How are you?” He remembered me as if I had just talked to him a few days before, and he was genuinely interested in what I had been up to. He has been a true hero of mine since I first saw him teach.


  10. Shaghne Manning - 00

    I always looked forward to Professor Williams English Bible class. No matter how tired I was from studying and working two jobs, his infectious energy and passion were impossible to ignore and feel. Going to class sometimes felt like attending a theater performance—not class—and he brought the occasionally archaic text to life by giving it a vivid human voice (or voices).
    I remember too attending his office hours once to have him clarify a section of the text I was having some difficulty with. To his great credit, he explained the text to me (which dealt with whether one can lead a good life and still not go to heaven) without giving the slightest hint of his own personal opinion on the subject matter, letting me struggle with the moral implication on my own and come to my own conclusion. I only regret I didn’t take more classes with him.


  11. Donna Wessel Walker - 1978 MA, 1984 PhD

    Ralph Williams was awarded the Golden Apple in 1992, not 2009.


    • Deborah Holdship

      You are right about the “regular” Golden Apple. In the year 2009 students awarded him the first-ever Golden Apple “Lifetime Achievement” Award. — Ed


      • Donna Wessel Walker

        Ah, right. Thanks for the correction.


  12. Christopher Lumpkin - 1998

    Ralph Williams was the most inspiring teacher I experienced while at Michigan. I had him for several classes but my favorite was the class he taught on Primo Levi. Professor Williams’ passion and erudition of the man and his writing was so overwhelming and so addictive that I am still absorbing to this day every time I read a Levi book. I have read and reread Primo Levi and I find something new with each reading. And I owe my ability to gain this insight all to Professor Williams. The wind is up! Unfurl your sails, bend all your sense to the task and enjoy the journey.


  13. Sara Deringer - 1993, BA; 1999, MSW

    I had Professor Williams for both his Bible and Shakespeare courses. He brougth words to life in a manner I have yet to experience anywhere else. His diction is art. His benevolent presence is unmatched. I am elated to hear he is still teaching and sharing his many gifts and extraordinary knowledge with more students.


  14. Doug F - 93

    ahh, the Merchant of Venice, I love this guy.


  15. Jennifer Slate - 1998

    An English major, I had Professor Williams for both his Bible and Shakespeare classes. My very last “blue book” was for a Williams course, and as I left the auditorium, I turned around one last time to take it all in, and he gave me a little wave. It was the perfect send off from the University of Michigan.
    It’s wonderful to hear his voice again.


  16. Brian Hayden - 2001

    Great Books with Prof. Williams felt like sitting on the porch during a thunderstorm at night. You stare out into the dark listening to the rain with great anticipation. Then, suddenly, a bolt of lightening illuminates the entire horizon and you see everything just as it is for a brief second before the curtain of darkness closes again. The image is forever seared into your brain and you feel more deeply connected to that sacred landscape that previously held no special appeal. He reveals the spiritual embodied in the mundane.


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