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Deidre O’Leary Cunningham on Combining What She Loves and What She Does

Dr. Deirdre O’Leary Cunningham is known for many things: her dynamic English classes, her witty sarcasm, her love for theater, and her connections with her students. Manhattan College is fortunate to have her ideas and energy in its classrooms, and the journey she took to get here is fascinating.

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After being raised in Long Island, O’Leary attended Mary Washington College in Virginia and then went right into a master’s program at Hunter College on the Upper East Side. Inspired by her love for Irish literature, she then ventured to Ireland, where she lived in Dublin for a year while earning another master’s degree at Trinity College.

When O’Leary arrived back in America to pursue her PhD at CUNY, she found herself in the midst of a confusing and difficult time, which led her to take a leave of absence. “A few of my friends had died in 9/11, and I was questioning my PhD in theater. I just thought, ‘this doesn’t make any sense, this isn’t going to become anything.’” she said.

She then worked for two years as a copy editor for Cushman and Wakefield, a global real estate services company. At heart, she knew it was only temporary, as her ambitions were far beyond the limits of corporate America.

“They were very nice people… but it was horrendously boring. They paid well and they let me teach while I was there, so I taught as an adjunct,” she said.

When she went back to grad school, she taught at Hofstra University as a visiting professor teaching freshman comp, but was still determined to have her instruction fully encompass her passions: “I ultimately wanted to have a tenure track position somewhere and I wanted to teach theater, novel, poetry… all that good stuff,” O’Leary said.

After grad school, she scored a job with Columbia College in Chicago, but ended up deciding not to go because of her desire to stay in New York. She forged on tirelessly in her job search, and the pieces fell into place soon enough.

“All of my friends thought I was insane, because you don’t turn a tenure track position down, but the very next year Manhattan College had an opening. It was meant to be,” she said. “And those winters they have in Chicago? Forget it!”

In her nine years at MC, O’Leary has taught a broad range of classes: English Composition, First Year Seminars, Introduction to Literary Studies, Literature and Gender, The Theater and The City, Irish Literature, Introduction to Drama, Comedy and Tragedy, British Drama, American Drama, Independent Studies and Senior Seminars.

Since her interests are expansive and genuine, she doesn’t single out one class as most important. In her mind, they’re all equally special in their own ways.

“Oh, I can’t… I can’t say which is my favorite. It really depends on the group of students. I mean, senior seminar is always a really fantastic group of students, and anyone who teaches one will say that it’s really special,” she said.

One of her other classes, The Theater and The City, is easily one of the most unique courses at this school. Offered every two years in the fall, students get to expand their understanding and appreciation of drama by seeing a show (both on and off Broadway) every week in the city. It’s an extraordinary fusion of entertainment and education, and the weekly excursions and discussions quickly establish a close-knit class.

“There’s something about going to the theater once a week with a group of students that becomes really transformative,” she said.

O’Leary also offers intriguing gender-based classes (a first year seminar and a 200 level class called Gender and Literature) which interpret literature through the lens of gender by exploring women’s writing, masculinity, gay and lesbian literature, and the gendered body.

It’s her way of bridging what her students learn in the classroom to the issues of the outside world, all while incorporating the most valuable aspects of education: critical thinking, analytical writing, and thoughtful/creative conversation.

“I think there are a lot of people who are interested in gender, both in the faculty and the student body, and I think that for students going into college, it’s a really wonderful time for them to think about how sex and gender can be seen as performative and formed by social narrative and codes of behavior. A lot of people going into college at 18 are very open to thinking about issues of gender in the workforce and on college campuses. So some people come to the class with this fully articulated political ideology, and some people are the opposite and say, ‘I never really thought about this stuff before.’ They never thought about how certain rights for women are the result of decades of struggle, not a political given. I think that part of college is introducing people to texts, writings and authors who challenge them,” she said.

O’Leary attributes her early understandings of gender and feminism to singer Annie Lennox: “I have been obsessed with her ever since I was a teenager and she was in the Eurythmics. I loved everything about her – the way she challenged gender norms, her voice, everything. I think I know the words to every song she has ever written. When she performed with Hozier at the 2015 Grammys and blew the roof off the place, I had former students contacting me saying ‘is that the singer you kept talking about?’”

So if she could hangout with anyone alive, it would be Annie Lennox. If she could hangout with someone who is deceased, she would pick Oscar Wilde, because of course.

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Photo Courtesy of Deidre O’Leary Cunningham

Another major influence on her life that she credits her success to is her family. “I come from a family that really prized education and my parents both encouraged me to get a graduate degree in what I loved,” she said. “They just kind of had this belief that a PhD in humanities was going to completely work out even though statistically, there was very little to support that confidence.”

Since students are asked to determine what they’re passionate about at such a young age, she worries that they tend to choose their majors based on whether they entail a direct path to employment rather than long term benefits for multiple careers.

“Certain majors that are not seen as viable in terms of leading directly to a job get lower numbers, even though they might lead you to doing better on the LSATs, or might make you a more critically engaged reader or scholar – which is going to help in every career you have. I think that academia is oftentimes too focused on ‘this major will get you this job’, as opposed to ‘this major will give you skills that are going to serve you in any number of jobs’,” she explains.

O’Leary makes an important argument here – humanistic disciplines shouldn’t be overlooked, as their extensive benefits make for better people and better societies.

At her core, the greatest part of teaching here isn’t just what she gets to teach; it’s the people she gets to teach it to.

“I’ve taught at a ton of schools. When I went to grad school, I taught as an adjunct in every borough except Brooklyn. But the students here… they are so intellectually engaged, not just in the classes they’re taking, but they’re very aware of the mission of the school and they believe in social justice. For many of them, college is not just the result of their hard work, but their parents hard work,” she said, noting that she has taught a handful of students who are first in their family to go to college.

On top of this, O’Leary loves that her office is in such close proximity to the offices of other professors in different majors and different schools, which has allowed for her and her colleagues to become close friends.

The small-school atmosphere is also another one of her favorite things about MC – one that she was originally hoping for when she set out to become a professor.

“Part of the job search is thinking about what your ideal would be, but that isn’t always what’s being advertised. I couldn’t imagine that there would be this job in New York City. I’ve taught at large schools and I’ve done big lecture halls. It was fine, but I prefer the smaller conversations because that’s what made me want to go into education – small classes, a nice student/faculty ratio and getting to know people in the class,” she said.

Openness and humor are two of O’Leary’s hallmarks. Senior English major Carolyn Egan, who has taken O’Leary twice, points out that her classes are dynamic and engaging because of the way she covers the material.

“She is immensely passionate about everything that she teaches which makes her classes very fun to be in. It’s refreshing to have a professor who cares about the subject matter that they are teaching instead of just having someone go through the motions. She also has a great sense of humor and is generally an excellent person to talk to,” Egan said.

It’s safe to say that O’Leary’s tenacity and enthusiasm have paved the way for her impressive career, and next year she gets to add to her list of accomplishments: she will be going on sabbatical to write a book proposal and publish more writing. However, she has another passion that she wants to explore further: violence.

“The larger project that I am interested in is violence and performativity. I am obsessed with violence on stage in the theater. Most scholars will argue that in the 1990s there was this shift toward onstage violence. Violence has always been a part of plays but the act of violence didn’t happen on stage in front of the audience until fairly recently,” O’Leary said.

“All of a sudden, the theater became much more diverse in terms of race, sexuality, and gender. So I’m interested in ways that certain playwrights like Enda Walsh, Mark O’Rowe and Martin McDonagh kind of have this turn towards onstage violence – and it’s brutal violence. I find it fascinating. It’s really hard to do on stage, and if it goes wrong, it’s hilarious. Violence on stage walks this tightrope. It’s fake – you know it’s fake – the guy on stage that is ‘dead’ is still breathing, and yet in order for it to be effective, you have to believe it,” she explained.

However, O’Leary doesn’t equate violence on stage with violence on screen. The disparity makes them incomparable.

“In film, it’s so realistic that you don’t have the same challenges that you have in the theater. I don’t actually like a lot of violence in films because I find it too realistic, but in theater, because it’s artificial in a way that is in such close proximity to the audience, I find it very interesting. A lot of the violence naturally has a gender component, so I’m interested in that and I’d like to do a lot of writing on violence and how violence in theater tries to make comments on violence in society,” she said.

At this milestone in her career, she looks back on who influenced her most when she was a student herself.

“My professors in graduate school particularly, they were giants in the world of academia but were also just really nice people and very generous with their time. Really, I think that’s what any student wants more than anything – they want time. They want time with a professor to go over an assignment and talk about the assignment and grow as a scholar. It wasn’t that long ago that I was a graduate student, but you really never forget the faculty members who will make time for you and read your stuff, comment on it and really think about it. So that’s always been something that really helped me,” O’Leary said.

She recalls a small gesture that left a lasting impression on her: “When I took a leave of absence from graduate school, I remember getting a handwritten note from one of my professors – it wasn’t even the one who was my dissertation advisor – but he wrote, ‘when you are ready, we’ll welcome you back into the fold. Take as much time as you need.’ I just remember thinking that was so nice, so I hopefully try and do that to some degree.”

Although she may not be aware of it, O’Leary has undoubtedly become the same source of inspiration for her students as her professors once were for her. Her popularity doesn’t only pertain to English majors either.

Sophomore international studies major Carly Corbett-Frank was happy to reflect on how much O’Leary’s guidance and compassion meant to her as a freshman.

“Dr. O’Leary is one of those professors who genuinely cares about her students and wants to make them feel comfortable in her classroom. When I was in her class my freshman year, she made it known that she was there for us. I distinctly remember her saying, ‘the transition to college is hard and I want to let you guys know you aren’t alone.’ She’s a great role model and I was so lucky to have had her my first semester. She set the standards high for the rest of my professors at MC,” Corbett-Frank said.

Amidst all of this whole-hearted, big-brained commitment to academia, O’Leary met her husband Neil about ten years ago at a restaurant in Queens, and now her life is also focused around raising their three daughters – Ainsley, Collette, and Emilia.

O’Leary serves not only as a source of knowledge and insight for her students but also as a pillar of support – encouraging them to analyze and appreciate literature and theater, to look below the surface and beyond what is easy, to enjoy life and endure it well.

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