“Literature becomes most meaningful when it gets used as a bridge between people or as a connection between people,” said Kevin O’Connor, Instructor in English. “That’s why teaching [literature] is so valuable, because you gather a little community around great works of literature.”
O’Connor has enjoyed connecting students through literature for 27 years at Andover.
“I could have gone to law school and so forth, but I think I went the right way because I have a great job. I love literature and sharing it with other people. [Being a teacher] combines the best of both worlds,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor is a scholar of Irish literature who is fascinated by the progression of English literature in Ireland and Ireland’s deep history of oral and spiritual tradition that spans back to the Druids.
“It’s remarkable that from this small island, which has had to accept an imposed English language, some of the greatest English literature has been produced.”
“[Irish literature is] in certain ways a prototype for the post-colonial literary sensibility, since Ireland was a colony of England until 1922,” said O’Connor.
Influenced partially by his upbringing in an Irish Catholic family, O’Connor’s interest in Irish poetry and literature didn’t develop until later in his English career. He was initially interested in modern poetry but became exposed to Irish literature by studying the works of poets like William Butler Yeats.
“An inordinate number of great literary works and authors, it dawned on me, came from Ireland,” said O’Connor.
In 1999, O’Connor arrived in Dublin as a visiting scholar at Trinity College, where he did research on what later became one of his Irish literature senior elective courses, “James Joyce.”
After receiving his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Notre Dame and his Master of Arts from the University of Virginia, O’Connor taught at Greens Farms Academy, a small private school in Connecticut, before he came to Andover in 1985.
“I was attracted to the reputation in academics. I wanted to go to a place with intellectual and artistic ambitions for its students. It seemed to be, of all the private schools, the most progressive in terms of trying to recruit and support a diverse student body. Not all [schools] were ‘pro-diversity,’ ethnic and cultural,” said O’Connor.
In addition to sharing his passion for English through classes at Andover, O’Connor juggles coaching Andover JV1 Boys Basketball, overseeing the Writing Center and contributing to the Outside Speakers Program.
He calls himself a “sports addict” and was “crazy about basketball” in high school.
O’Connor said, “It’s really been rewarding to coach [JV basketball] because I love the game, I love teaching the game, I love when players get better, when they’re able to play better as individuals and as a team.”
O’Connor took over the Writing Center about five years ago. He expanded the program from two to four nights a week and recruited more peer writing tutors. There are now about four times as many visitors.
“When I see two students really engaged who would otherwise never be together, you get some pretty funny, odd couplings there, it’s just great… It’s all about collaborative learning and one student helping another. Non Sibi can be a meaningless motto, or it can mean something,” he said.
O’Connor has also invested much of his time into bringing notable speakers to campus through coordinating the Outside Speakers Program, such as Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, and Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Laureate from South Africa.
“I love to see students here get excited by things outside. When I see students engaged and inspired, that is the best experience–just watching the audience and recognizing what’s happening to the students. It makes teaching better and more meaningful,” said O’Connor.
Looking inwards at fiction and literature, O’Connor admires Horatio from “Hamlet,” the character he would choose to be when given the choice of any literary character. “Hamlet” is one of O’Connor’s favorite literary works to teach.
“I am an aspiring stoic… I don’t envy [Horatio’s] position; it’s not a position I’d like to be in, of course, but [I admire] the stoic idea that Hamlet praises him for,” O’Connor said.
Even though teaching is his primary focus, O’Connor did not want to give up his ambitions of continuing to write critical and creative pieces. He has published non-fiction essays on literature and pedagogy, as well as poetry, in small journals.
When he is not teaching at Andover, O’Connor often travels to Maine. He describes it as a “psychic space” that he doesn’t have on campus, in which he can focus solely on writing and reading.
“There’s a severe beauty to the seacoast of Maine that I really like, and I find peaceful and relaxing,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor is inspired by Heaney and Robert Hass, both of whom have visited campus.
“[Their poetry] is a combination of music and wisdom. These poets have an open engagement with the world in poetry, which is so brilliant. There’s a prevailing humility in their view of the world and of other people.”
O’Connor sees literature as a continuum, one that comprises both classical and diverse contemporary fiction and poetry.
“Studying writers to me is not about the cultural currency they hold; rather it’s more that they make life richer and more interesting. Literature has a social purpose, an ethical purpose, but more than anything else it just enhances day to day life. It deepens perspective and sharpens perception and helps people to see each other in a world more fully. Art makes life more interesting,” he said.
For O’Connor, his biggest accomplishment in English is “staying true to making a sincere and sustained effort to fulfill some ideal of teaching over a long period of time.”
He said, “It’s not so much about Phillips Academy, it’s about an ideal of your responsibilities and aspirations [in] teaching, or working towards that ideal.”
Having lived on campus for almost three decades, O’Connor has also witnessed the transformation of students throughout the years. According to him, students in the 1980s were more “edgy and rebellious.”
“Teaching in the ‘me’ decade of the ’80s seemed like a contact sport. [The students] were not worse or better, but kids from a different time and attitude,” recalled O’Connor.
In one incident, two students ran away and returned a few days later.
“Back then, it was more of a challenge to harness and direct creative potential,” he said, “[Whereas today] it’s more to push [students] out of their comfort zone, to use their imagination in riskier ways, to take chances.”