New Alumni Distinguished Professor Tom Gardner goes the distance
Tom Gardner says he prepares for a class the way he trains for a distance run; he is focused yet relaxed, mindful of time and pace and terrain.
A veteran of many marathons, Gardner says he wants to take his students further and deeper in their thinking than they have ever been before. In this journey, he admittedly “wants to change their lives.”
A faculty member in the Department of English since 1982, Gardner has consistently earned rave reviews from his students. A common theme in course evaluations is that he does so much more than cover a body of material.
"He teaches students to read and think about poetry as they never have before,” noted Carolyn Rude, professor and chair of the Department of English.
One student wrote last year, “His class taught me a new way of thinking. I feel I now have the patience to struggle through complex problems, break things down and be able to walk away with an understanding.”
Other students volunteer that Gardner is the “best professor “ they have ever had or that they have learned more in his class than in any other at Virginia Tech.
Recently appointed an Alumni Distinguished Professor by Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors, the hallmark of this title is “distinguished contribution — over time — to this university.” Currently, less than 1 percent of the faculty hold this designation that recognizes “outstanding contributions to the instructional program of the university.”
Gardner is an exemplary appointee. Beyond the perennially stellar evaluations, Gardner also directs several graduate and undergraduate independent studies, requiring students to meet with him for at least an hour every week. He serves on various Master of Arts degree and Master of Fine Arts degree thesis committees and is sought out as a reader by fellow faculty members, frequently commenting on manuscripts, both scholarly and creative.
Gardner’s own scholarship teaches students how to use poetry in thinking about world issues. He has published five books with university presses and his editorial work has also had a significant impact. He was asked to write the entry on “Close Reading” for the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which he refers to as “the so-called ‘Bible’ of my field.”
His award-winning scholarship is designed to help others see poetry "from the inside." "My research attempts, through books, articles, and interviews with writers, to describe and assess the social and philosophical implications of the ways poets speak to contemporary culture," he said.
Besides his acclaimed critical writings, Gardner is a poet as well as a playwright and frequently collaborates with colleagues outside his department.
A few years ago, he worked on a theatrical exploration of six poems with Patty Raun, head of the Department of Theatre and Cinema. The play, entitled “Ear and I, and Silence” encompassed “some of the most important thinking I have ever been a part of. This collaboration was one of the highlights of my life, for the simple reason that it showed me, in the words and tears and silences of the audience, the power of art to lead us to new ways of thinking.”
Alumni distinguished professors are encouraged to teach, when invited, across the university. Gardner says he looks forward to bringing “poetry and the arts to bear on a wide range of conversations, across and outside of the university and across and outside of disciplinary boundaries.”
He has also won various awards in his academic career, including the Outstanding Faculty Award for the state of Virginia, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, and the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has also garnered multiple university awards, including the William E. Wine Teaching Award, Diggs Teaching Scholar Award, Alumni Teaching Award, and the Phi Beta Kappa Sturm Award for Outstanding Faculty Research plus several College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences awards. He held the Clifford A. Cutchins III Professorship in English from 2005 to 2010.
Gardner received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, a master’s degree from Syracuse University and his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University.
There is an understated artistry in the way Gardner guides a class discussion. Each line of a poem is navigated the way a runner carefully negotiates uneven terrain. Together, they cover the material from start to finish. There are no short cuts, but with Gardner, students celebrate both the effort and the distance covered.