Class of 2018 Speaker Introduces Professor Helga Duncan

August 31, 2017


At this year's Academic Convocation, Nicholas Sangiovanni ’18 introduced professor Helga Duncan, who was last year's Hegarty Award Recipient:

Dear President Denning, Platform Party, Faculty members, the class of 2018, class of 2021 and all other students and alumni. Welcome to this year’s Academic Convocation!

“I don’t know.” Three words spoken by Professor Duncan late in my Freshman Spring that cemented her as the most important educator I’d encountered in my academic career. That’s probably not quite where I should begin my introduction of the Hegarty Award winner for Excellence in Teaching, but there we are. Professor Duncan was teaching English and Irish Drama and we were reading Pinter’s The Caretaker. After an hour of class discussion the group was divided over some matter of interpretation and we had all fallen silent in the unspoken expectation that our Professor would illuminate our wayward minds. Instead, Professor Duncan looked over the brim of her purple water bottle and said “I really don’t know: we’re pretty far afield from Shakespeare.” She laughed, and so did we, but nothing could have invigorated me more than this admission: not because I took pleasure in a Professor’s momentary lapse in a seeming omniscience, but because my teacher had placed herself on level terrain. I was empowered to shape my own learning, and given the responsibility to account for my ideas and interpretations. A simple gesture, yes, but one that has informed my entire philosophy of learning.

That simple gesture, like a seed planted, would grow in the years that followed. I often stopped by Professor Duncan’s office with nothing in particular to talk about, yet always left with more knowledge than I entered with. When the boundaries of traditional pedagogy are passed, education becomes ubiquitous. There is never a moment when talking with Professor Duncan that I do not feel I have something to offer, and something to learn. In time, her role as my advisor moved beyond course selection into career advice, and then mentorship. In my career at Stonehill I have taken twenty-seven classes, as best as I can count (and as an English and Philosophy double major counting is most decidedly not my specialty). Of those twenty-seven, only three have been taught by Professor Duncan; and yet, there is not a single one in which I did not learn from her. When I studied water on Mars, I thought of the heavenly bodies in Shakespeare. When I read on the philosophy of race, I remembered Aphra Ben’s Oroonoko, or the self-loathing of Caliban. I was never afraid to say “I don’t know,” and I always remembered that literature, like all knowledge, should be a tool of empathy to broaden the mind, not a tower to isolate oneself inside. This, and so much more, is what Professor Duncan has given me, and I am but one of a score of students who would gladly speak on her behalf. And though we can, and often do, testify to her greatness with a frequency and fervor that might alarm some, there is no better way to grasp it than to experience it yourself. I am therefore honored, ladies and gentlemen, to introduce to you the 2017 Louise F. Hegarty recipient for Excellence in Teaching: my friend, my mentor, Professor Helga Duncan.