Dr. Mark Lucas, a three-decade veteran of Centre classrooms and mainstay of the English program, has been named the 2013 Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Kentucky Professor of the Year—though anyone who has taken a class with him would not be surprised.
Lucas is known for his energetic, enthusiastic and engaging classes, many of them affectionately called Grit Lit around campus due to their Southern focus. His passion for Southern literature has led to such traditions as the Grit Lit Barbecue and the senior seminar pilgrimage to William Faulkner’s birthplace in Oxford, Miss.
Among other famous Lucas-isms is the invocation of Faulkner’s spirit, which Lucas achieves by creating an altar out of an ammunition box—a tribute to Faulkner’s love of hunting. Atop the box is a lit candle and, in tribute to one of Faulkner’s other loves, an open bottle of Kentucky bourbon.
One of Lucas’ newest traditions is a springtime trip to his nearby farm, where he recently constructed a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s handmade cabin from Walden. The cabin has the same 10′ by 15′ dimensions, as well as similar cedar shingles on the outside walls and three simple chairs. There is just enough room for a small woodstove, desk and lofted bed.
For Lucas, the cabin is the perfect workspace for him, both as a professor and musician.
“It’s mainly my music-writing space,” he says. “I usually bring my guitar and work on songs here. I also read, think and grade.
“Grades are higher when I’m here, because I’m happy,” he jokingly adds.
He first brought a class to his tiny cabin in the spring of 2013, just three students at a time. At the end of the semester, he invited the entire class to a bonfire on the land, recreating a “busk,” a favorite Thoreau tradition based on Native American cultures, that involves burning unneeded things at the end of each year.
“The students had to bring something they wanted to get rid of,” he explains. “We made a ritual out of it, where they talked about what they brought and why they were getting rid of it, then tossed it into the fire.”
Lucas’ devotion to an authentic and interesting experience with literature is just one reason he was selected from more than 350 top professors for the CASE award, an honor about which he is extremely self-effacing.
“It was a really nice surprise,” he says. “I felt gratitude to the College for nominating me and for giving me a place to do what I love. I was also grateful to the students who wrote for me—three students wrote me letters of recommendation.
“They must’ve done a really good job,” he adds, “because I won!”
Even after 33 years of teaching at Centre, Lucas says each semester offers new insights to him.
“I’m teaching Intro to Humanities right now, which I’ve taught at least 35 times before,” he says. “How many times have I read The Odyssey? But the students always come in with a completely fresh and unique point of view. Just by chance, I have nine Chinese students—and it has been eye-opening to watch their response to Homer, coming from a completely different culture.”
Lucas recalls first being bitten by the literature bug as a Centre student.
“I had a class where we were reading modern fiction, and we got to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and it just blew me away,” he recalls. “I was normally a very dutiful student, but I stayed up all night and skipped all my classes the next day—I just kept reading until I got to the end of it. I found it completely electrifying.”
From there, Lucas went on to graduate school, where a happy accident sparked his desire to teach.
“To help pay the bills in graduate school, I took a beginning instructor position teaching intro to literature classes,” he says. “That was like injecting a drug into my vein—I loved it so much. Then I understood why my Centre professors looked like they were having a great time.”
Fortunately for Lucas, his passion for teaching intertwines perfectly with his other passion: music.
“I learned to talk by singing—my house was like that,” he explains. “Music was always important to me. I got into literature because I love the language, the music of the language.
“There’s a porous boundary between music and literature,” he continues. “For me, Walden is essentially a poem that just happens to go to the edge of the page. The richness of the language is my first point of contact.”
This love for music has resulted in multiple CD releases by Lucas, including the 2012 Uncle Bones album. His music (a blend of folk, blues and old country) reflects his interest in the literature he studies.
“My music is inspired by the books I read,” he says, listing Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy as sparks for some of his songs.
Ultimately for Lucas, the inspiration behind his top-notch teaching is his students, who he says only stoke his interest in and excitement about the literature he teaches.
“I teach with a sense of wonder,” he explains. “It’s a rather childlike thing to do. I share my enthusiasm about the literature, and to do that, I need an audience. I sometimes say my engine won’t turn over if the room is cold—I need some warmth in the room. Centre students provide that warmth; they share the sense of wonder that I feel for these books.”
Centre leads the Commonwealth in CASE Kentucky Professor of the Year Awards—in fact, Lucas follows four other members of Centre’s faculty who share the honor of being named a CASE Kentucky of the Year: Professor of Religion Tom MCollough (2012); Professor of French and German Ken Keffer (2010); Professor of Music Emerius Vince DiMartino (2004); and Professor of Art Stephen Powell (1999 and 2000).
For more information on the Professor of the Year Awards, visit www.usprofessorsoftheyear.org.
By Mariel Smith