A New Series

We’re starting a new series here at #bsuenglish: O Captain! My Captain!

Maybe you recognize it as the title of this Walt Whitman poem?

Maybe you recognize the phrase from the pivotal scene of Dead Poet’s Society?


In this series, we want alumni to talk about a transformative educational experience they had with our faculty (past or present), similar to what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni does here. 

Why are we doing this?

Because the humanities are not “impractical,” and we need to start telling stories like this as loudly and as effectively as we can.

We need you to start standing up on desks. 

We hope every single alum of our department had a transformative experience in Robert Bell. If so, please write to us and describe it. We’ll publish your answer on the blog, including a comment from the faculty member.

If that faculty member has retired or moved on, we’ll provide an update on “where are they now?” If they have passed away, we’ll tell you all about them. It’s important to share the history of the department.

  • Our first “Captain” is Dr. Lauren Onkey, who taught at Ball State from 1994 to 2008.
  • Our first “desk-stander” is Matt Gonzales.

We featured Matt a few months ago. He gave great advice on “How to Live a Writing Life.”  He graduated from Ball State in 1997 with a B.A. in English, and then returned to Ball State in 2003 to earn a graduate degree in Digital Storytelling. He’s written for Popmatters.com and Indianapolis Star and works now at Well Done Marketing, a full-service ad agency in Indianapolis.

Photo provided by Matt Gonzales

Photo provided by Matt Gonzales

Matt Gonzales

Lauren Onkey was a tough but incredibly smart teacher whose Irish Lit class was among the most simultaneously fun and grueling classes I ever attended. Overall, the quality of my English professors at Ball State was top-notch; I brag on ‘em to this day.

What was “transformative” about Lauren Onkey’s class for me? That’s a strong word, but when I think about it, I don’t think it’s too strong.

Dr. Onkey drew a direct line from capital-I “important” Irish literature (namely, Joyce and Yeats) to contemporary Irish artists that include Irish bands like U2 (and even more memorably to me, The Pogues).

She also used film (The Commitments) and contemporary literature (Roddy Doyle, Colm Toibin) to demonstrate how the qualities unique to post-19th century Irish literature (bleak humor,  defiance of authority, fierce independence, experimentalism, pitiless self-criticism) play out in various other art forms and eras.

Maybe most important, Dr. Onkey brought an unmistakable and contagious enthusiasm for Irish literature and culture into the classroom. She was in love with those books, movies, and albums; but it wasn’t an uncritical love. It was nuanced and questioning.

She encouraged us to question our own reasons for feeling how we felt about a particular work.

Further, she allowed us to travel down our own paths of interest, even if they weren’t a part of the syllabus (in my case, that meant writing a term paper on overlooked satirist Flann O’Brien and his place among other modern Irish greats).

Finally, she was tough. I always disliked professors who were content to coast through a class without challenging students (or themselves), because I knew I needed to be pushed. Dr. Onkey pushed me, and I really appreciated that.

Lauren Onkey

Dr. Lauren Onkey

We never quite know where our teaching efforts are going to land!

I don’t have the year when Matt was in my class, but I remember him. A great student.

I joined the Ball State English Department in the Fall of 1994, fresh out of graduate school. I was hired to teach 20th century British and World literature. There weren’t other faculty with an interest in British literature after Modernism, so I had an open lane to create courses in post-war British literature and postcolonial literature, including Irish literature. I built my courses around key issues in cultural studies—initially, a British creation—and postcolonial studies.

Students were immediately responsive to these courses, and we went about the work of how to define nation, identity, and culture through literary texts.

Matt was part of one of those classes on Irish literature, and his comments reflect the hard work we put in to create a vibrant learning environment. When a student says a class was fun, it’s always a testament to the spirit that everyone brings in the room. I had many classes at Ball State where the students showed up ready to make our time together count, and this was one of them.

I often included units on popular music in my literature classes at Ball State (and I was happy to have the freedom to do so). Situating literature in a wider landscape of popular culture helped to illuminate both. In the class Matt was in, we spent time studying U2 and Irish punk music alongside Joyce and Heaney.

And then, an opportunity came my way in 2008 to oversee education and programming at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and I just couldn’t pass it up.

I teach a very broad range of learners about the impact of rock and roll—including K-12 students, college students, adult learners, and the general museum visitor.

I also work directly with artists, conducting interviews for the public about the development of the music. You can see more about the programs at www.rockhall.com/education.

I love my job, but I miss the day-to-day contact with students like Matt that I had at Ball State.

Where is she now?

Lauren Onkey is the Vice President of Education & Public Programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum in Cleveland. Her book, Blackness and Transatlantic Irish Identity: Celtic Soul Brothers, was published by Routledge Press in 2009. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in English from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, and her B.A. in English and Government from the College of William and Mary. Today, she lives in Cleveland with her husband, Bob Nowatzki. You can read her full bio here.

Stand on your desk.

Tell us about the class and the professor who opened things up for you. What was is specifically about that class or that professor or that material that made all the difference? Write to us at cday (at)) bsu dot edu.

Stay tuned for more “O Captain, My Captain” posts in the future. And in the meantime, make your lives extraordinary.