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Commencement 2012

Greetings from the Faculty

Chard deNiord, associate professor of English and recipient of the 2011-12 Joseph R. Accinno Faculty Teaching Award, delivered the following address at the Academic Awards Ceremony during Commencement Weekend.

I am deeply humbled and honored by this award. As one of many who comprise the superb whole of Providence College, I feel compelled to quote John Donne, with apologies to the poet for a few substitutions: “No professor is an island, entire of itself; each is a piece of the school, a part of the main.” I do feel very much “a part of the main here.” As for my teachers, I would like to thank my colleagues who provide such strong models of pedagogical expertise and inspiring scholarship, and, of course, my students who remind me daily of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the genius of each individual. 

Teaching, like writing, is tricky business, leaving me wondering if I have been successful in imparting some lasting knowledge or wisdom or method or idea that will stay with my students. As a writer, I know that unless I keep writing, my last poem or essay or letter, no matter how good, remains unfinished in elliptical limbo. Like writing, teaching is a continuum for which stasis is death. Far more verb than noun, it derives its original meaning from the Latin verb educo, “to lead out,” as in, “to lead out of the darkness.” If we are born prisoners of illusion, as Plato claimed in his Simile of the Cave, then we all start out as believers in shadows that are mere projections of real objects that lie behind us, between the fire and our backs. As a teacher, I am mystified by just who or what leads the prisoner — that is the student, and by student, I also mean teacher — out of the cave, away from the darkness and shadows. Plato never identifies who or what this catalyst or entity is, declaring in the passive voice, “When any of them IS liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains.” Plato knew that teachers cannot implant knowledge in their students’ minds, just as a sighted person cannot instill sight in a blind person. The student must experience the pain of acclimating to the light herself, and learn to recognize and then name the real objects of the world that appear so suddenly strange and blinding along the path that leads out of the cave.

That first mysterious impetus that prompts the prisoner to turn around — what is it? Innate curiosity? The muse? The angel of reason? I like to think it is the irrepressible force of the mind itself seeking that which lies beyond what it’s been taught or shown initially as reality. How ironic this psychic force, the imagination, in its ability to intuit the greater realities that lie beyond our immediate sight. It resides at the center of our beings as a divine gift, cajoling us to turn around, turn around, before it’s too late, so that we might discover those things we didn’t know we knew or could know, even in their most nascent forms. The teacher facilitates the fledgling convert to see things as they are in the new light, things that don’t at first appear as real as the shadows and projections she’s just turned away from. He asks such provocative, runic questions as: “Is the Earth flat or round?” Does the sun revolve around the Earth or the other way around?” “Is that a smart phone or a relationship?” “What part of you has also perished now since the golden toad disappeared?” “Is that adjective necessary?” “Do we really need to open Schrödinger’s box?”

In my classroom this year, as every year, I have been privileged to read and hear memorable first expressions of recently released prisoners, daring students, as they struggled to make their way to this room today, striving courageously to find their voices, their own “deep songs” as the poet Fredrico Garcia Lorca would say. Here is one such expression I’d like to share with you from Hannah Moriggi.

Lessons

In the middle of the first gig,

My voice died.

The words were there.

I could see them,

Rolling down that old screen

Back in Sammy’s garage.

I’ll never forget it.

The air reeked of oil, dust and disaster—

I can still taste it when my lips kiss the mic.

My voice began there—

Nudged between the vintage plates and that tool box.

Hell, I could always sing, but I couldn’t speak.

Of course, I often wonder what happens to these budding poets who have put so much time into learning “to sing,” who are so intensely here for four years, then suddenly gone who knows where before I can turn around. Occasionally, I hear from a few. I was especially heartened to receive this email last winter from Brendan McEvoy, who graduated from PC almost a decade ago.

After graduating in May of 2003 and commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the Army, I served my first tour of duty in Korea. My Brigade was deployed from Korea in August of 2004 to Iraq where we fought in Ar Ramadi and Fallujah until the next summer. I returned to Iraq in January 2007 and served for a year as a combat advisor inside an Iraqi battalion located on the Iranian border. After returning, I was stationed at Fort Campbell with the 101st Airborne Division, with whom I served two tours in Afghanistan as a company commander in the 506th Infantry Regiment, the same unit made famous by the book and miniseries Band of Brothers. I have since taken up residence near Nashville, still in the army and working at Middle Tennessee State University, teaching leadership and tactics in the ROTC Department. I very much enjoy teaching and have decided to pursue a master’s degree in history.

Unfortunately, since graduating from Providence, I have had little opportunity to work on my poetry or creative writing. The closest I have been to publishing is one poem, The Tale of The Lost Sapper, that hung on latrine walls in Camp Ramadi, Iraq for a few weeks, a tale which detailed a scary and exciting night for a young engineer soldier. This document resulted in my earning the entirely unofficial title of poet laureate of the 44th Engineer Battalion.

Your poetry class my junior year changed the way I write. Before that course I always wrote as a task to complete. Your class taught me to write for the enjoyment and benefit of the reader. It taught me about nuance and deeper meaning, enabling me to better communicate as a student and as a leader, which has proved invaluable to me during my career as an army officer.

My response to Brendon, “You taught yourself to write, Brendan, by writing and revising. I may have encouraged you along the way, shown you a few shortcuts, assigned you important reading, and befuddled you at times, but you turned around on your own, even in the darkness of war. Please keep writing.” 

Thank you students. Thank you Providence College. Thank you all.

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