Janel M. Mueller, Formidable Intellect and Pioneering Figure at UChicago, 1938–2022

Janel M. Mueller, Formidable Intellect and Pioneering Figure at UChicago, 1938–2022

Janel M. Mueller

The following was published in UChicago News on October 31, 2022. 

By Sara Patterson

Janel Mulder Mueller, the William Rainey Harper Professor Emerita in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago and former dean of the Humanities Division, died Oct. 21 in Chicago. She was 83 years old.

The first woman to lead an academic division at UChicago, Mueller combined a formidable intellect with an awareness of her role as a pioneer in higher education.

“Janel’s teaching was rigorous and inspirational at all levels,” said UChicago colleague James K. Chandler, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of English Language and Literature and Cinema and Media Studies. “She trained generations of young scholars in and beyond early modern studies who are now, in their turn, leaders in their fields.”

A member of the University faculty for nearly four decades, Mueller left her mark on the institution in every way imaginable.  

“Janel Mueller was a bracingly inspirational mentor whose keen imagination kept pace with an exacting critical eye,” said Laurie Shannon, PhD’96, the Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English Literature at Northwestern University. “As a scholarly editor, she produced landmark editions of the writings of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Katherine Parr and John Donne; these volumes ensure her legacy will outlast most of us.”

Among her scholarly achievements, she co-edited four volumes of letters, prayers, speeches and translations of Elizabeth I (2000). Gathering and editing these archival materials required extraordinary feats of research, travel and transcription, and this intervention firmly established the grounds for understanding Elizabeth Tudor as an intellectual in her own right. Elizabeth I: Translations 1544-1589 (2002) and Elizabeth I: Translations 1592–1598 (2009) published with her colleague and co-editor Joshua Scodel, were awarded the Modern Language Association’s biennial prize for a distinguished scholarly edition.

Also of note, her last publications were Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (2011) and John Donne: Selected Writings (2015); Katherine Parr received the Josephine A. Roberts Scholarly edition prize in 2012 from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender.

Her research centered on advancing our knowledge of 16th-century English vernacular and translation, 16th- and 17th-century poetry (especially John Donne and John Milton), and a bracing range of intellectual texts and topics from the English Reformation. From the beginning of her career, she understood the urgency of scholarly editing as a sine qua non of the larger humanities project, and so she not only engaged in monograph writing but also produced a simply formidable list of scholarly editions.

Mueller was aware of her role as a pioneer and what she saw as the University’s early commitment to bringing women into higher education. In her 1994 Aims of Education Address to first-year College students, she posed the question: Why were women so drawn to Harper’s University of Chicago? And her answer on that occasion was a fact that she often repeated with institutional pride: “It was the only ranking university in the United States that both admitted women at all levels and defined itself according to the research model by which leading educators were responding to the revolutionary growth of science in the 19th century.”

In addition to her service on myriad administrative committees, commissions and panels, she served as chair of the degree-granting Committee on General Studies in the Humanities in the late 1970s and as chair of the English Department in the 1980s. During the 1990s, Mueller served as editor-in-chief of the journal Modern Philology. 

In 1999, Mueller was named dean of the Humanities Division, a position she held until 2004. In each of these leadership appointments, her work was transformative with her research collaborating her insights into English literature. With each rise in ranking, she was the first woman to hold the position in question. In her first four years on the faculty, Mueller had been the only woman teaching in the Department of English.

“Janel was a superb scholar and an inspiring teacher,” said Anne Walters Robertson, dean of the Division of the Humanities and the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music. “Toward the end of her career, she brought her extraordinary skills to the office of the dean of the Humanities, where she spearheaded innovations that continue to enrich the division today.”  

‘An inspiring mentor’
Born Nov. 26, 1938, in Chicago, Mueller was the daughter of John and Nella (nee De Haan) Mulder. Valedictorian of the class of 1959, Mueller graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Augustana College, where she later received an honorary degree. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1965. She taught for one year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before joining the UChicago faculty as an associate professor in 1967.  

Mueller’s teaching was rigorous and inspirational at all levels. Her successes in undergraduate pedagogy were recognized in 1982 with a Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

“Janel hired me when she was the English Department chair,” said Joshua Scodel, the Helen A. Regenstein Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at UChicago. “She was a challenging and inspiring mentor. To me, she embodied the intellectual seriousness of this university.”

She was honored with the University’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring in 1998. In 2000, Modern Philology published a festschrift in her honor: A diverse array of essays by her students testified to the sheer scope of her pedagogical influence. In her passion for teaching, her creative imagination always kept up with an exacting editorial eye.

Mueller had an abiding love for the UChicago. She was the first woman to serve as dean of any academic division at UChicago. In her role as dean of the Humanities Division, she was able to bring a lifelong reservoir of academic experience to University leadership, and Mueller relished the opportunity to sustain and improve all she held dear about the institution. She even helped extend its footprint, with the development and opening of Chicago’s Center in Paris (where a room now bears her name) in 2003. She retired in 2005.

In 2014, the division celebrated her contributions as a mentor by establishing the Janel M. Mueller Award for Excellence in Pedagogy, an annual award that recognizes excellence in teaching by lecturers and instructional professors within the Humanities. For UChicago undergraduate students, the Janel Mueller Thesis Prize is given to English majors who complete the finest bachelor’s degree projects.

Mueller is survived by her partner of 10 years, Kenneth Johnston; her daughters, Maria and Monica Max; her sister-in-law Marjorie; and her grandchildren, Naomi and Jael. Her husband, Ian Mueller, preceded her in death.


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October 31, 2022