Monday, June 18, 2007

sometimes you can't go back

I reported a couple of months ago that I'd finally reached the difficult decision to drop out of my Ph.D. program at CUA. Now I'm just a little bit tempted never to pray that God make clear to me whether something was the right decision. Saturday night, I received a call from the department librarian, so she could tell me before I saw a general announcement that Prof. Michael Patrick O'Connor, department chair and formerly a member of my dissertation committee, had passed away. I'm not sure exactly how old he was--fifties, maybe early sixties. He was diagnosed with liver cancer sometime pretty recently (in the past couple of weeks, I think), deteriorated rapidly, spent his last three days in the hospital, and gave out Friday morning. It was the first I'd heard any of it, and from what I can tell, folks closer to him than I were also taken by surprise.

Prof. O'Connor was easier to love than to like. I'm speaking as a student here--he was the hardest teacher I ever had, but I never doubted that it was with the best of intentions. He wanted us to be excellent scholars. Often, a question would come up in class (the best of which he thought of himself), and the next time we met, he'd have prepared a lengthy handout on some involved study he'd done in response. When he gave an assignment, he always had a very specific idea of what it should look like; if he didn't always spell that out as well as he might have, he made up for it by requiring an outline or a draft ahead of time. (The one time I was burned on this point was my own fault--I went ahead and submitted the whole paper instead of an outline, and didn't realize until I got it back with a final grade that I'd gone in the wrong direction.) It was easy to suspect that, as a lifelong bachelor (to my knowledge, anyway), he never quite understood the burdens of family life under which his married students had to work. But he was by no means without compassion. It was at his suggestion and advocacy that I registered in absentia after a particularly unproductive year on my dissertation, which helped a great deal in easing the financial burden. I also remember how much he interacted with the kids at a social function we had for the department, and he always asked to see pictures of Ian (which I never had).

Two key memories I have of O'Connor happened in group activities outside of class. The fondest was when our two-year Akkadian class ended about the time that the movie Scorpion King came out in theaters. A couple of us had noticed from trailers that the character played by The Rock was supposed to be the last living Akkadian, and with the perfect timing, it seemed too good to pass up. You could hear O'Connor laughing throughout, mostly because he was laughing at the parts that weren't meant to be funny, when only those of us who saw the wild inaccuracies got the joke. The most significant memory was when he took our Hebrew Poetry class on a field trip to a synagogue service. Of course, we prepared by studying some samples of prayer book Hebrew. It's a funny thing that my Catholic prof at Catholic University would have been most instrumental in my spiritual life for introducing me to Judaism, but there it is. After that outing, I bought a Jewish prayer book and used it for quite some time. Even though I didn't end up becoming Jewish, it taught me the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, long before I ever learned what it was called. That principle has probably taken me further than any other single element in the journey I've been on ever since.

The hardest thing about O'Connor was his awkward relationship with Prof. Gropp, the other full-time faculty member in ANE studies, and my dissertation adviser. I never knew much more than rumors about the reasons, but they seemed never to talk with each other unless it was absolutely necessary. This was despite the fact that they shared an office suite, and for the most part shared the same students. Usually one could ignore the tension, but then there were those times when they both had to review the same paper or test (usually something particularly important, like a comprehensive exam or a major paper submitted for the non-thesis M.A. requirement). I was always a bit apprehensive about having both of them on my dissertation committee, but I knew I'd benefit from their input, and it was impossible to exclude either one on a Hebrew linguistic topic.

Well, if O'Connor's death wasn't enough shock for one week, this morning, while looking to see what info might be circulating about him in the scholarly community (he seemed to know personally just about everyone in the field), I discovered that Gropp is leaving CUA this summer for Westminster Seminary in Texas. If I had not dropped out of the program when I did, I would have lost practically my entire dissertation committee just a couple of months later. (The remaining member is in Wisconsin and is not affiliated with CUA.) In a way, it reassures me to know that I really did get out at the right time, but I find the very idea repellent. Surely God could confirm my decision through less drastic means! I was already thinking that it would be difficult to fill O'Connor's place by the end of the summer, but if Gropp is leaving, there will be essentially no ANE faculty. And for such a small department, with perhaps the highest faculty:student ratio in the university, might this turn into an opportunity for economic considerations to take over and end the Semitics program for good? I certainly hope not.

1 comment:

Trevor said...

Jim Eisenbraun has written a much better tribute to Prof. O'Connor than I ever could.