Bill Van Pelt clicks the “print” button on the outdated computer in his office. As his curriculum vitae starts to print, he begins to tell me about the roots of his mistrust in technology.
“I wasn’t always a technophobe,” he says.
A loud clunking begins to resonate from the computer desk. The printer stops spitting out paper.
“Oh, that doesn’t sound good.”
As if it were a well-rehearsed component of his anti-technology pitch, the printer suffers from a paper jam. Van Pelt, attempting the Fonz approach, begins to smack it.
“See? Technology,” he says.
Suddenly, the printer resumes its unfinished job.
“Ha! It heard me.”
The disparity between man and technology is not typically expected of someone whose published works include Writing With WordPerfect 5.1, a technical writing guide.
Van Pelt has been an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 34 years, teaching English literature courses as well as technical writing courses. The 2017-18 academic year is his last hurrah, as he is set to retire by May 18, 2018. Students have one more opportunity to take his courses on American short stories and business writing.
Van Pelt’s approach to leading the classroom in discussion is a combination of intellectually stimulating conversation, pop culture references, and humor. One moment, Van Pelt is discussing Sigmund Freud’s three parts of the psychic apparatus. Minutes later, he drives his point home by singing a line from Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Stone.” He has been described by his students as the stereotypical “bumbling professor,” but one with a lot to teach. The briefcase that he brings to class carries an endless amount of relevant handouts, and it’s easy to imagine he’s the professor portrayed on television as chasing down his escaped papers on a windy day. When an problem with his car made him late for class one day, he made amends with the students who had stuck around and waited for him (ignoring the 15-minute policy) by giving them each an apple that he had picked earlier that day. On another day, a student who briefly mentioned he was hungry inspired Van Pelt to stop by the vending machine during a break period in order to remedy him.
Van Pelt resides in Shorewood and often sees students outside of school. When they ask what he teaches at the university, he simply answers: “humility.”
“That’s a joke,” he says. “Humility can’t be taught, but it can be learned.”
In his office, the printer’s interruption has ceased, and Van Pelt has given up on printing his curriculum vitae. He restarts his story from the beginning.
“I was an enlightenment boy,” he says. “I wanted to be involved with computers.”
His father was in the Navy, and as a result, his family was moved from location to location anytime his father’s deployment changed. Van Pelt would go on to attend 13 different Elementary schools, one junior high school, and four different high schools. Being constantly on the move caused him to have difficulties fitting in.
“I was always picked last for recess,” he says. “I was always the ‘other.’”
As a result, Van Pelt took to skipping recess and gym class and going to the library to read and study.
“I became an introvert and an intellectual. It was my way of fighting back.”
With his father gone at sea most of the time, it was up to his mother to raise him. She would give him books to read and guide him through his studies.
“She was always interested in language and she didn’t even have a college degree,” he says.
After graduating high school in 1965, Van Pelt attended the University of California-Riverside. The opportunity of choosing his own classes excited him. He decided to double major in both Math and English. “They’re both symbolic languages.”
At one point during his freshman year, Van Pelt realized that he had become disillusioned. The lack of openness regarding his education contradicted what he believed it was originally going to be like. He aspired to become a novelist, but believed he lacked the experience necessary to tell a good story. He decided to enlist in the marines and fight in the Vietnam War. He mentioned his plans to sign up to an advisor, who convinced him to stick around another year. That’s when his perception of the world started to change.
“I did a little smoking, but I didn’t inhale,” he jokes.
In less than a year, Van Pelt had been completely converted to the liberal side, donning an anti-war attitude.
“I got completely converted into a hippie,” he says. “War is wrong, it’s always wrong.”
No longer wanting to enlist and fight a war that he believes was built upon lies, Van Pelt sought out an advisor who was rumored to have knowledge on how to avoid the draft. All he had to do was write a letter to the military making an inquiry into what it takes to be a conscientious objector. The letter would take three months to process, followed by a reply from the military with the necessary information. Van Pelt was then given another three months to reply. Waiting until the end of that three month period, letting the clock run as long as possible, he responded with a letter declaring that he did indeed wish to be conscientious objector. It took another three months for the military to process this letter, in which they replied with the necessary materials.
“I’ve always loved reading and I’ve always loved writing and talking, so this thing about sending letters back and forth? It was great,” Van Pelt says. “I can do that!”
On December 1st, 1969, the Nixon administration held the first draft lottery drawing since 1942. All dates of birth that pertained to men who would be between the ages of 18 and 26 at the time were placed into a glass jar and picked at random. The first ticket drawn was September 14th, so all men born on September 14th between the ages of 18 and 26 were the first group to be drafted. The drawing was supposed to continue until every date of the year had been picked. However, the registration process was suspended before Van Pelt’s number was called.
“The pen is mightier than the sword, and I avoided the draft for a year and a half,” he says.
It took Van Pelt five years to graduate from UC-Riverside due to avoiding the draft. After obtaining his Bachelor’s Degree in English and Math he got a job at Bechtel Engineering Corporation, where he would delve into the professional world of technology for the first time. At Bechtel, he became the authority on engineering and budget scheduling. During his employment, he simultaneously pursued his Master’s Degree majoring in English Literature and minoring in German Literature, once again at UC-Riverside.
From Bechtel to Blake
“From Bechtel I learned how to use computers,” he says. “When I tried to take computer courses back in the ‘60s, they didn’t even have terminals.”
In 1976, Van Pelt went on to pursue his Ph.D. at the UCR, again majoring in English Literature and minoring in German Literature. At the same time, he was offered a position to teach a course on documentation for computers. Students flocked to his writing course.
“The computer science technicians would go out to Silicon Valley to get high paying jobs, but the jobs would pay better if they knew how to write,” Van Pelt says.
The problem with Van Pelt’s new role as teacher was that he was unfamiliar with the subject matter. Vi, a text editing program, was completely foreign to him. His first assignment for his students was to write a tutorial on how to find Vi, create a document with it, write something, save it, open it again, edit it, and save it again.
“I read every one of those tutorials and I learned Vi.”
Van Pelt would go on to learn any relevant programs at the time by making his students write tutorials, and grading them based on how easy it was for him to master the program from reading their assignments. The students would teach him programming, and he would teach them to write.
From 1981-1983, the final two years of his Ph.D. program, Van Pelt was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship to study in the United Kingdom. The Fulbright-Hays Scholarship was the brainchild of an Arkansas senator as a way to forgive some of the debt to the United States that Europe had accumulated during World War II — allowing students from America to study abroad in the United Kingdom. Van Pelt spent his time overseas living in London and studying at the British Library, where some of William Blake’s original engravings are preserved. He would write his dissertation on Blake, and eventually teach a class close to his heart on his poetry and paintings at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
After obtaining his Ph.D. in 1983, Van Pelt accepted a teaching job in the English department at UWM. Upon arriving, he learned that he was the only person in the Humanities section of the College of Letters and Science that used email.
“I was a computer genius to everyone in the English department,” he says.
He later became the first person in the English department to teach an online course in 2003. He attempted to imitate the face-to-face classroom experience, but soon found out that it wasn’t quite the same.
“It was a little bit like President Trump,” he says. “It was a lot more work than I expected.”
After four years of teaching an online course, Van Pelt felt burnt out. He found that he would have to spend more time on students who couldn’t naturally write well. From that point on, he vowed to only teach in the classroom.
“The illusion of control is the worst mistake we make in using technology,” he says.
In his office, Van Pelt pulls out a piece of paper. In large print, he writes the words “eye”, “sea”, and “ewe.” “Why won’t the spell checker catch this mistake?” he asks.
Van Pelt’s gradual aversion to technology is a result of many things, but a major component to his teaching philosophy is that he wants all of his students to succeed, and he found that he couldn’t easily do that through online teaching. Van Pelt doesn’t want his students to get good grades — he wants them to learn something.
“Technology is much more than a tool,” he says. “It’s a way of being in the world because it changes our understanding and perceptions of what we call a reality. People think that technology gives them control over something, and you know, I fell into this trap.”
Van Pelt has left a major part of his teaching background behind, but will continue to take his unique, personable approach to his retirement in 2018. When he is finished with teaching, he hopes to spend some time working with Habitat for Humanity, where he will undoubtedly carry on spreading his wisdom. But with a life filled with unexpected transformation, perhaps retirement won’t be the last time we see a big change in Van Pelt’s career.
“I’m not just a technophobe,” he says with a smile. “I’m a double agent.”
Mike Holloway is a 2017 graduate of UWM in Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies.