"Daly life lessons, one English class at a time"

Beloved professor Robert Daly explains how literature has helped guide his life

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The Spectrum

On Robert Daly's first day of teaching, a student asked him if he was a professor. He was 22 at the time and he didn't look much different from the students themselves.

To ease the tension, he replied, "No, actually, I'm a janitor in this building. But as you know, there is a teacher shortage, so they gave me this tie and just told me to come in here and wing it."

Nobody laughed.

At that moment, Daly realized teaching was not going to be easy, but it was something that would continue to excite him.

Dr. Robert Daly, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of English, has been teaching for 40 years, all of which has been spent at UB. He did not intend on majoring in English but does not regret his decision to change majors. Now, as a professor, Daly strives to teach his students to interpret and synthesize not just literature but life, as well.

Daly didn't always have his life figured out. To him, there is nothing wrong with that. He believes the earlier a person has things "figured out," the less exciting and meaningful his or her life will be.

In the sticks of Ohio, with the help of his grandfather, he learned to love mathematics from a young age. He could calculate simple equations, performing what his grandfather deemed "lightning mathematics," before he could recite the alphabet. It wasn't until college, during the second semester of his junior year, that English became a priority.

Daly began his undergraduate degree at the University of Akron studying engineering but changed to physics at the end of his second year. He had always read a great deal of literature and it occurred to him that although he may not be as good in English as he was in math and science, English seemed more important.

His senior year, he made the decision to become a lumberjack for a while after graduation. Daly had worked in factories, farms and loading docks for financial support through college, and he planned to continue that work instead of going to graduate school.

Until he met Sharon, a girl in his American Literature Class who changed his life.

Sharon, now his wife of 47 years, intrigued him enough to stay at Akron for graduate school.

When Daly told the head of the English department what caused his change of heart to accept the offer to attend graduate school, the department head replied with a smirk, "I admire your scholarly enthusiasm."

Daly does not regret his decision. While making his switch to studying English, it occurred to him the classes taught the skills of analysis, interpretation and synthesis, all of which people utilize in everyday life.

"When we are making sense of literature, we're making sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives," Daly said. "Literature gives a strategic preview of life and we still have to make decisions ourselves, but the more a person reads, the better equipped they are to make life decisions."

Daly imposes this belief on his students and encourages them to strive for new opportunities, no matter how much they may doubt themselves.

Daly remembers the words of 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "There are no classes in life for beginners. You simply have to make the most important decisions almost immediately."

Daly believes people formulate life plans too early and cling to them too tightly.

"Think about it: If you live your life the way you planned to when you were 12, you are basing your life on the judgment of a 12-year-old," Daly said.

Daly remembered a graduate student who took his seminar and did not do very well. The same student overheard Daly giving advice to a classmate about how to prepare an essay for publication. He went to Daly's office to ask about his own essay, and Daly's honest answer was that it was not ready. Daly sat with the student and told him step by step how to prepare an essay for publication.

Years later, Daly presented a paper at the Wyoming Conference at the University of Wyoming, and after he was done, the student popped up and came over to thank Daly for getting him started. His former student is now a tenured professor at a midwestern university and continues to publish his work.

Daly recognized a quality in this student that he encourages all his students to develop: metanoia, the idea that the mind should go beyond itself, beyond what it knew before.

"No matter how bright or knowledgeable you are, all your life, you're going to need that ability to make midcourse corrections," Daly said.

Beyond connecting and influencing people who he believes possess unique and unusual qualities, Daly loves teaching because of the realization that any class working together is smarter and more knowledgeable than any one person in the class, including the teacher. By getting the class to work together, the students can teach each other a tremendous amount, he said.

Caroline Nickel, a senior English major, signed up for Daly's class because of classmates who said she couldn't graduate without the experience.

"He approaches the works he teaches both humorously and philosophically, and he wants us not just to learn about them, but learn from them," Nickel said. "I can say for certain that I am a better student for having him as a professor, even after just seven weeks."

Before accepting a teaching job at UB, Daly spent a total of two years in England working on research fellowships.

The second year Daly spent in England on the Guggenheim Fellowship, he remembers walking across the beautiful campus of Cambridge when something occurred to him.

"This campus was built during a time when there were no business schools, when there were no law schools; there were only the humanities and it was built because people believed in the power of ideas, in the power of knowledge and it was very inspirational for me," Daly said. "I thought that is what I, in a humble way, [and] what everyone who works in this area is carrying forward."

He teaches courses across the English spectrum - from a class on the Puritans to Nathaniel Hawthorne and from the modern novel in the United States to a class on the definitions of America. He wants to explore how American literature and culture influence each other.

Kerri Pickard-DePriest, a senior English major, is now taking her second class with Daly. She is amazed by his deep understanding of American literature and how it's related to history.

"His professional demeanor is balanced by a grandfatherly presence, making his class a safe space that challenges students to think more deeply about literature and their place within it," Pickard-DePriest said. "He reminds us that the works of great writers are important. Without these works, we would be left without a comprehensive foundation of understanding of where we came from and how we came to be where we are as a nation and a people."

At the end of Daly's second fellowship in England, he received offers from Florida State, Buffalo and other schools. UB had a fantastic reputation for theory and criticism, which were his areas of interest. When he received the offer from UB, he had no trouble making a decision.

Daly recalls walking into a classroom to begin instructing when a student in the front row looked up and said, "Are you always this cheerful?'"

Daly replied, "Only when I'm with you. At all other times, I'm sullen and morose."

He has taught many generations and has seen how technology has changed the work ethic of the average student. He thinks the current generation is technology focused but respectful at the same time.

"They're very sweet; they turn the cell phones off at the start of class," Daly said. "The instant the class is over, the phones are back on and they're texting away like mad. A lot of professors bemoan this [behavior], but I don't at all. They're a generations of writers."

Outside of the classroom, Daly often spends his time chasing his four grandchildren around the Finger Lakes, the Adirondacks, North Carolina and Cape Cod. He grew up in horse country and looks forward to when his grandchildren are old enough to share his love of horses.

To students concerned about their future, Daly's advice is to work on their skills and knowledge and "follow the things that really interest you, but don't worry if you haven't figured out your entire life yet. I would say worry more if you have figured out your entire life because the moment will come when you say, 'OK, this is what I should be doing. This is it.'"

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