Shimer College is an American liberal arts college. Founded in 1853 as the Mount Carroll Seminary in Mount Carroll, Illinois, it was renamed Shimer College in 1950. The college left left Mount Carroll for Waukegan in 1978 and moved to Chicago in 2006.

John Bellairs lived in Mount Carroll and taught there during the 1966-67 school year.


The Mount Carroll Seminary was founded in 1853 as a non-denominational all-girls seminary. It joined with the University of Chicago in 1896, and became one of the first junior colleges in the country in 1907. In 1950, it became a co-educational four-year college, took the name Shimer College, and adopted the Hutchins Plan of Great Books then in practice at Chicago. The Chicago connection dissolved in 1958 after the latter's decision to abandon the Great Books plan, and Shimer narrowly avoided bankruptcy in 1957.  The Great Books plan at Shimer continued, and the school enjoyed national recognition and rapid enrollment growth during the 1960s, until financial problems arising in the aftermath of the Grotesque Internecine Struggle forced it to abandon its 14-acre campus in 1978. In 2006, Shimer College moved to the Illinois Institute of Technology campus in Chicago[1].

The Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies, offering education in the areas of historic preservation, conservation, and collections care, purchased the property in 1979.  The following year the campus was placed on the National Register of Historic Places[2].

Bellairs on Campus

Selecting Shimer

Bellairs had lived and taught in Minnesota for two years and returned to Chicago in 1965. The immediate plan seemed clear: to enroll at the university, to continue working on his dissertation, and to have his degree conferred in August of 1966. This was all seemingly put aside as the following year Bellairs instead opted for another teaching position, this time alongside his friend Bernard Markwell at Shimer College. Bellairs submitted his University of Chicago Career Counseling and Placement booklet (dated July 14[3]) to Shimer and waited. He didn't wait long.

The administration took immediate interest and invited Bellairs for a tour of campus on July 27[4]. Dean Robert Blackburn notes that he had talked to Norman Maclean, noted University of Chicago instructor, about Bellairs:

...Norman had nothing but favorable things to say about him.  Norman said that he had not been in close contact with him the past year or so, but knew him quite well from his earlier work and still hears good things about him.  In fact, Norman said, "We would be fortunate if we could get him."[4]
On July 28, President F.J. Mullin offered Bellairs an appointment as a full-time member of the college faculty for the academic year 1966-67 on the following terms[5]:

  • Salary - $6500 per year
  • Duties - Teach in the Humanities and serve as Faculty Counselor one of the men's dormitories in the regular academic semesters


In order to render your services as Faculty Counselor of one of the men's dormitories, it will be necessary for you to live in the dormitory quarters provided by the college and to take your meals, also provided by the College in the college dining hall when the students are on campus and the College is in regular session. Since it is necessary in the discharge of the duties as Faculty Counselor for you to live and eat on the campus with the students, the quarters and meals furnished by the College, at no expense to you, are not regarded as part of your salary[5].
Bellairs accepted the position and over the next few weeks began receiving information regarding the college. In one such letter, President Mullin outlined the changes in the faculty and what was new to the campus and city to the incoming faculty and staff.  Around this time Bellairs also had a brief run in with the Marshall Draft Board:
Recently the Michigan Board announced that it was going to give out very few deferments in college teaching except in the sciences or in technological fields.  ...  Now, I still think my chances of being drafted are remote, since I will turn 29 in January; still, the Vietnam War is making the absurd more and more likely to come true.  ...  Perhaps in your letter you ought to point out that Shimer does not have the usual teaching fields and lines of demarcation.  ... At any rate. do what you can, and I will be grateful.  See you on Sept. 2[6].
Below this typed letter Bellairs has scrawled the following suggestion:
Perhaps mentioning of my duties as Presidential Advisor may add to my irreplaceability[6].

Round-Table Teaching

Bellairs taught Humanities III during the Fall semester, with his first class meeting on or around September 15, 1966, in a classroom on the second floor of Hostetter Hall overlooking the quadrangle. All classes met around large circular discussion tables, with typically eighteen or fewer students. This was the Socratic method, the formal lecture of which Shimer College was known[7].

Classes consisted of two 80-minute discussion groups with the students and a teacher, and then one 50-minute lecture which included all of the discussion groups en mass[8].

Extant exams and papers (though no syllabi) reconstruct some of the course's reading list[7]:

  • Aristotle's Poetics
  • Aeschylus's Agamemnon
  • Sophocles' Antigone
  • Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy
  • Plato's The Republic and Phaedrus
  • Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling
  • Hesse's Steppenwolf
  • Yeats' various poems, especially "Easter 1916"
  • Eliot's "The Waste Land"
  • Woolf's To the Lighthouse
  • Flaubert's Madame Bovary

Reading lists changed from semester to semester: "I know that the Ulyssess course was taught in the fall of 1966 as I had to transcribe a record of a reading of Lestrygonians to tape for the Language Lab, which I was the TA in that fall. I am positive that Phaedrus was Humanities II and Humanities III as being concerned with James Joyce's Ulyssess. Humanities IV was a spring course.[8]"

Thomas notes that Bellairs stammered when nervous and didn't immediately make a great impression as a classroom lecturer. She describes Bellairs as a "bundle of tics", bobbing his head, stuttering, and blinking rapidly in situations where he wasn't at ease.

"He did not make a first impression unless you could see through this to the substance of what he was saying. Fortunately, our classes were supposed to be Socratic discussions, and in this he excelled. His extraordinary memory for detail and his encyclopedic interests made him a natural for this type of interaction with students, aided by his wonderful sense of humor. So we were soon eating out of the palm of his hand, and certainly I wanted to excel in his class so that he would think well of me. One way he got around his tics was to switch into the voices of different characters, as a way of saying things that might otherwise be difficult for him to say. Robin Williams does this best, but John was pretty good at it.[7]"
Praise for Bellairs as an instructor varied little according to former students decades later:

  • "One of his classes met at 8:30 in the morning and I was very appreciative that he didn't take attendance. I was, at that time, a dreadful student and my only real interest in college was the theater. I was the teacher assistant in theater that spring and did all set/lighting design. I fear that I attended more of my classes with John Bellairs after having been up all night working on a set than I ever did rested and prepared.[8]"
  • "[He was a] supportive instructor. He was one of the most inspiring teachers at Shimer...he was the one who said that I actually had some talent -- what a revelation, what an opportunity to grow. His support of my creativity and imagination has led me into a strong and enduring career in the theatre.[9]"
  • "After I introduced him to my mom at a parents weekend, she remarked that he seemed to have the body of Charles Laughton and the mind of Oscar Levant. I can also recall times spent in his apartment, and in the dining hall, and on the quad, listening to his observations about life as well as dramatic readings of some of his works. I am proud to have a copy of Saint Fidgeta in my library and I also know that somewhere buried in my papers is a pre-release manuscript of The Pedant and the Shuffly. I can't bring to mind any specific anecdotes but rather a general memory of a man who impressed me with his wit, his knowledge, his ability to express a cogent thought in a humorous but thought provoking way and his stinging sarcasm when the occasion called for it. I remember John as someone who helped to shape what I am today and I thank him for that. I was not fortunate to have him as a professor since that was my second year and I wasn't taking a Humanities courses that year. But John is certainly one of three members of the teaching staff of Shimer during the years that I was there that most impressed me.[10]"

By December, Shimer faculty member John Hirschfield made the recommendation that the Spring 1967 Humanities II course would include Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies as a text. The course, with emphasis on readings from different type of literature of which Saint Fidgeta would represent parody, would oddly enough be taught by Bellairs himself. In an article announcing the news in the Excalibur, Bellairs said of the decision, "I always thought that writings books and then requiring them for courses that you teach was a racket. Now I know it is--lust! Greed![11]"


  1. Wikipedia: Shimer College
  2. Wikipedia: Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies
  3. University of Chicago Career Counseling and Placement booklet (Jul. 14, 1966).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Correspondence from Robert Blackburn to Francis Joseph Mullin (Jul. 25, 1966).
  5. 5.0 5.1 Correspondence from Francis Joseph Mullin to John Bellairs (Jul. 28, 1966).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Correspondence from John Bellairs to Denis Cownan (Aug. 25, 1966).
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Correspondence with Patricia Thomas.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Correspondence with Warner W. Johnston.
  9. Correspondence with Barry Karp.
  10. Correspondence with George Tanty.
  11. "Hirschfield Chooses Piece; Bellairs, Filled with Lust"; the Excalibur (Dec. 12, 1966).