May 1, 2019

2019 Murphy Award recipient: Derek Pacheco

Derek Pacheco Derek Pacheco, recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons) Download image

Five professors have received the 2019 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy. This week, Purdue Today will feature profiles on each of the recipients. Today's profile features Derek Pacheco, associate professor of English and director of undergraduate studies.

Years at Purdue: 11.

Teaching interests: While my scholarly interest is in 19th-century literature, I am a teaching generalist. I enjoy everything from gateway courses to capstones, including children’s literature, introduction to literary theory, American literature to 1865, gender and literature, the American novel and career exploration. I enjoy creating and piloting new classes. One of the main ingredients of effective teaching, and also one of the most valuable lessons we can communicate to students, is always being curious and willing to learn new things. Lifelong learning is essential!

Who inspired him to teach: Over the years, there have been a few people who’ve really inspired me: My 12th-grade English teacher, Mr. Trevisani, who blew my mind by reciting lines from Beowulf (in Old English) and by acting out scenes from Macbeth, and who also taught me the value of mentorship; my graduate advisor, Barbara Packer, who made reading and discussing 19th-century literature feel like reminiscing with old family friends; and my partner, Nush Powell, who’s responsible for 90% of all my good ideas, and none of the bad ones.

On teaching theoretical frameworks in a way that is accessible and relatable: By studying literature, we participate in the preservation of human aesthetic achievement for future generations, and we learn about perspectives on the human condition from authors whose life experiences are different from our own.

Yet, I’ve often encountered students who’ve told me that they didn’t like reading, or who’ve said that they didn’t consider themselves readers. Really, though, they do and are, but they tend to read certain kinds of texts over others. Teaching what’s sometimes called “genre fiction” (like fantasy, romance, detective fiction, horror, science fiction, or children’s and YA lit) alongside literary classics can help these students rediscover joy and value in reading -- after all, we tend to perform better when they’re invested in what we’re doing -- as well as help them draw connections among texts, times, and places. Students often find this multigeneric approach less daunting, even when the themes, social problems, or theoretical frameworks we tackle are virtually indistinguishable from those that are prominent in more canonical texts.

Reading is so important. It provides demonstrable benefits: cognitive (increased knowledge, enlarged vocabulary, improved writing, sharpened memory and concentration), health-related (reduced stress, enhanced brain elasticity and functioning, prevention against mental decline), and interpersonal (judgment and decision making, empathy and understanding). Literary studies in particular correlates to improved emotional intelligence, as well as heightened reflection and tolerance for complexity or ambiguity. In a fast-paced digital world bombarding us with distractions, I always emphasize the importance of slowing down and making time for fiction and poetry.

What led the English department to launch the Big Read: Our third annual Big Read is designed to enrich Purdue and Greater Lafayette through literature. Each year we select a great book, create a calendar of engaging events, including lectures, book group discussions, performances, workshops and author visits, and then provide free copies of the text to the community. Studies show that book ownership contributes to academic achievement, educational attainment, and economic development.

Next fall’s selection is Emily Wilson’s splendid translation of The Odyssey. We’re really excited to work with the West Lafayette library and Purdue’s Dawn or Doom conference again, as well as the College of Liberal Arts’ Cornerstone program, but we’re especially excited to partner with the Tippecanoe County Public Library’s One Great Read because it lets us bring the book to the whole county! It’s important for us to reach outside the borders of our campus and the temporal boundaries of the undergraduate degree. Engagement programs like the Big Read produce demonstrable, positive communal effects, and are essential to Purdue’s mission as a land-grant university.

Goals as a professor: Teaching literature is a chance to show students that the liberal arts matter, that ethical thinking, respect for diversity, appreciation for the complex and the capacity to explain complexities as accessibly as possible are indispensable skills, and that in an age of intensifying technological automation, empathy and humanity are our biggest strengths. Most notably, I take to heart Thorin’s dying words in “The Hobbit” (a book I love to teach): “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

What Pacheco’s students say: This is the one professor I know I will remember for the rest of my life. He is so enthusiastic and the way he is able to connect with students is very special. We have a great time laughing together, but we have an even more fun time learning together -- that is what I will remember. ... Prof. Pacheco is an absolutely incredible professor. Not only is he enthusiastic and passionate about his job, but also he is able to explain complicated material in an easy to understand and entertaining manner. ... Prof. Pacheco’s enthusiasm for the class is contagious. ... I am blown away by this class. ... The amount of thorough, thoughtful, and thought-provoking discussion is astounding. ... His class is the kind I look for in a college education: a class I leave feeling enlightened and satisfied and look forward to during my week.

Writer: Kelsey Schnieders Lefever,

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