A Look Into the Life of Passionate Professor O’Neill
March 9, 2017
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The office of Stephen O’Neill, professor of Language and Literature at Bucks, is perhaps the closest thing Bucks has to Doctor Who’s legendary Tardis – not just in its occupant’s ability to travel through time, but in the way it floats above it, flying through change with a sort of eternally resonant mentality. Its contents – yellowed books, a battered copy of The Oxford English Dictionary, pictures of London and a digital alarm-style clock – highlight the timeless persistence of its occupant, one of the longest-serving professors at Bucks.
O’Neill, a 75-year-old grey-haired, angular-faced passionate tennis enthusiast and a volunteer for Bucks County’s Meals on Wheels program, has been working at the college since 1969, and has been a tenured professor for as long as he can remember. Before he came to Bucks, he worked in advertising, writing ad copy. “I loved it,” he explained, “but a lot of pressure and little job security.” He thus decided to look for a more permanent career at Bucks, but it is likely that even he didn’t know how long this would last. After serving as a professor for nearly 50 years, O’Neill has finally decided to retire at the end of the spring semester.
Talking with O’Neill, one gets the impression of a passionate yet thoughtful instructor who has neither caught up with, nor fallen behind, the times. In a way, one cannot imagine him looking any different than he does now, with his silvery Einstein-like hair, his reasonable height, nearly invisible eyebrows, fit body, and scholarly demeanor. His outfit – a green sweater and black pants – could have been purchased at any time in the past 40 years.
Yet the world around O’Neill has irrevocably changed. During O’Neill’s time at Bucks, two additional campuses have been built, along with countless new buildings on the Newtown campus. Classes have gone from being something held in person using a blackboard, to online experiences that can take place anywhere. One-third more people live within the borders of Bucks County since O’Neill started. The types of courses taught, and which courses students choose to take — have all been transformed. New generations have been born, and the nation has gone through 10 chief executives.
However, one thing remains the same: even though they used to come in jackets and ties, O’ Neill makes the point that “the students haven’t changed as individuals.”
In a community, relationships matter. Perhaps they are good, maybe they end poorly, but to O’Neill, the relationship between students and the learning process has provided continuity amid a hailstorm of transformations that have swept through the college during his tenure. “Was the school different? Well, it was a different planet.” There were very few administrators. “We taught in Tyler Hall… I taught a course in what used to be Mrs. Tyler’s bedroom.” There were no remedial courses. Even the portable classrooms had yet to be built. “We didn’t know about computers, so it was the way it was.”
Speaking in a slow, quiet voice, O’Neill described his first semester at Bucks and what preceded it. “I started at Penn, took two courses, realized that I was not a scholar, I was not a researcher. What I really loved was teaching the students.” “They’re still the same hard-working, eager, ambitious – for the most part – students that I was teaching in 1969. And they all have the same hopes, dreams and problems. Nothing has changed in that respect,” O’Neill explained.
As he described this, he appeared more pleased and content. Despite the consistency of the student experience, O’Neill has become increasingly concerned with what he feels to be negative trends in education. “There’s a move away from the basics in elementary and high school, and that has not served the students well.” Thus, he rues, students need more and more remedial courses to get their writing skills up to snuff. “However, we now have a tutoring center in the library, that’s a wonderful addition, and is very important.”
Throughout his career at Bucks, O’Neill’s classes have morphed and molded around new authors, new trends, and new cultural experiences. Writers come and go, entering and exiting his curriculum like passengers on a cruise ship. But every boat needs its crew, and Updike, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald have been employed there for a long time. The grand master of this professor’s frigate is Shakespeare, O’Neill’s favorite writer and a central figure in every course he teaches. A portrait of old London hangs above his desk, and he has gone on two sabbaticals, both involving Shakespeare, including attending an avant-garde production in London.
Like O’Neill himself, the literature he teaches seem to have an eternal relevance, no matter what form it takes. “I find student responses to these books to be similar year to year, decade to decade. They are responding to the human condition, and the human condition doesn’t change.” He paused, and then added “Well, that’s my view.”
Aside from the Bard, O’Neill’s other preoccupations range from racing cars to spending time with his grandson, but his biggest love is tennis, which he plays frequently despite his age, as a sort of stress relief from the grittiness of everyday life. Although his hands may appear weathered, even delicate, they betray their true strength out on the court, where he has won many games against fellow players – including professors.
While O’Neill appears both respectful and careful, he is somewhat concerned by a few of his students’ habits, especially their preoccupation with the internet and social media. Of all of the shifts the world of higher education has undergone during his lifetime, he argues that the influx of laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other modern digital technologies is perhaps the greatest. “The biggest change is technology. It’s wonderful, and it’s intrusive at the same time. And it’s monumentally frustrating at times. And we are too dependent on it.”
Yet on the whole, by detaching himself somewhat from change, O’Neill has also embraced it. Indeed, he could even be described as a fan of progress. “The hippie movement was very exciting. And now I’m seeing, with the protests against Trump, that old fire, that old spirit, that old willingness to challenge the establishment.”
With his retirement fast approaching, O’Neill enjoys looking back on the past, while remaining apprehensive about the future. “I’ve seen people retire from many different types of jobs, and they wake up the next morning and say “Oh my God, what have I done!? They are just cast adrift.” He believes, with hope, that this fate will not befall him as he will still be teaching one course every semester despite giving up full-time instruction. And indeed, it is unlikely that it will, as to a man like O’Neill, retirement is just one more shift in a long and rich life.