Susan Willens

Professor Emeritus of English

Susan Willens was born in Detroit, Michigan, where she lived until College matriculation. At the time, Detroit was a very different place – prosperous, exciting, and full of opportunity. She remembers attending excellent public schools and formative experiences as a high school newspaper editor and spokesperson on a public radio station. Willens’s parents, both children of Eastern European immigrants, exuded confidence and strength despite the challenges posed by the Great Depression at the time. Her father worked diligently as an attorney and her mother as a teacher to provide a sustained middle class upbringing for her and her younger sister. She remembers growing up in a “bookish” environment, with parents and extended family that cared deeply about literacy and education, and she credits this as an influence on her professional aspirations.

After completing High School, Willens moved to Ann Arbor where she attended the University of Michigan. While Michigan was a natural choice because it was only 40 miles away from her family in Detroit, Willens fully submerged herself in student life on campus and rarely felt the need to return home. She recalls, “I loved it at Michigan. I was born to be an English Major and Teaching Minor!” As a lover of books and learning, she felt privileged to be able to cultivate this passion and develop it into an occupation. From her experiences living in a small girls dormitory, to participating in student government, to performing well in classes and engaging with professors, she describes her undergraduate years as “a great revelation and joy.” She also credits Michigan for her absolute certainty in her chosen occupation: being able to teach in Ann Arbor middle schools in her Junior and Senior years allowed Willens to test out the profession as a young woman. She knew then that teaching was indeed what she was born to do.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Willens married and moved with her husband to New Haven, Connecticut, where he commenced law school. After teaching for a year, she began completing courses for her Masters of the Arts in Teaching at Yale University. She felt overwhelmed and overjoyed to be attending such an exceptional institution and to be in a program peopled with academics who specialized in all her own interests. With professors who were the most eminent scholars of their time, she describes the experience as “a privilege from beginning to end.” 

After completing her M.A.T., Willens’s husband was drafted into the U.S. army and the family moved to Tacoma, Washington, where he was stationed. She began her career as a college professor teaching at the College of Puget Sound. There, she taught male Veterans who were in fact older than she was. Although this situation presented a challenge, she felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to read and work with these men.

After two years in Tacoma, Willens’s husband was discharged from the Army and the family moved to Washington, D.C. where he got a job in a law firm. Because she was pregnant with their first child at the time, she focused on her family for a year before beginning to teach part time at American University and to take classes towards her doctorate at Catholic University. Over the course of the next 10 years she managed to teach, complete her doctorate, and bear and raise four children. She recalls balancing everything while completing her dissertation, which examined the writing of the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and required travel, as the most challenging aspect of this time. Nevertheless, Willens recollects loving the stimulation, the exploration, and the absolute privilege of completing her research in Washington D.C., particularly at the Library of Congress, as highlights of her graduate experience.

By the time she completed her doctorate, Willen’s children were at an age where she felt ready to go back to work full time. Although she had a Ph.D., a wonderful experience as a guest teacher at a local high school, the Edmund Burke School, inspired her to join the school’s faculty. She didn’t go back to University teaching for a dozen years, at which point she joined the George Washington University’s English Department in 1986. Throughout her years at GWU, Willens appreciated the institution’s collegiality and its loyalty and support for its faculty members. While at GWU, she published several articles, and in 1996, she was awarded the Robert Kenny Award for Excellence in Teaching. The University also sponsored several teaching experiences for her abroad, bringing her separately to Turkey, Israel, and Siberia. From 1993-94 she also taught at Safarik University in Presov, Slovakia as a Fulbright Lecturer in American Literature. Each of these journeys was uniquely eye opening and meaningful for her and for her students alike; as she explains, “I learned more than they did!”

Although she has taught in many settings from middle school to university levels and beyond, she appreciates thoroughly the processes of education and the different relationships and potentials of each of the various settings. She explains that, while she loved mentoring and researching, for her, the teaching itself was always her most important contribution and her favorite aspect of her profession. She advises current university students to use their precious four years of schooling, not as job training, but to acquaint themselves with the world they might not know otherwise. Currently, she teaches courses at the Smithsonian Institute and at the American University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She continues to remain active in the community, and to travel, exercise, and spend time with her family. Further, she looks forward to continuing her lifelong love and joy for educating.


B.A., University of Michigan
M.A.T., Yale University
Ph.D., Catholic University of America