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Learning to do nothing

Jul 31, 2009
by Liz Daube, '05

Retiring English Professor Vincent Puma reflects on his Flagler career

Vincent Puma has done a lot for Flagler College over the last 36 years. He built the school’s composition program from scratch when he arrived in 1973, and he later established a peer writing center that’s grown from just two student tutors to more than 60.

Now Puma is one of the last professors from the early Flagler years to retire; he taught his last classes this spring. Before he headed out, Flagler Magazine asked him some questions about how the college has evolved over the years – and how he has changed with it.

FM: What did you enjoy most about teaching? Any favorite classes?
VP: My favorite course has always been the language studies course … I liked the science side of English because it was always changing … It [linguistics] has never stayed the same; I’ve never taught the course twice.

FM: What do you find so interesting about language studies?
VP: Linguistics is really a branch of psychology … It has very little to do with underlining nouns once and verbs twice and circling the prepositions…it has to do instead with trying to answer questions about what goes on inside somebody’s head when he or she is attempting to produce or comprehend language.

How do we explain the magic and the mystery of human language production and comprehension? I think that’s the most exciting part of it, and that’s the part the students grab on to … If I could pinpoint one characteristic of my teaching that I enjoyed and tried to engender, it was trying to awaken those new perspectives.

FM: What’s different about Flagler today? Has it changed a lot?
VP: In every way possible. I think the only thing that has not changed and that shouldn’t change is the sense of community. There’s that camaraderie.

The buildings were not nearly as impressive. You have to understand, where you’re sitting right now [Kenan Hall] was just simply a rat-infested, four-story warehouse until 1982…The only people with phones were the department chairs. When we moved into this building and actually saw phones, we felt graced…and the rats were gone.

The first writing center was in the gambling room in the fourth floor of Ponce Hall…We [the Gargoyle adviser and I] were the only people who had our offices up there. Every morning we’d go and make a cup of coffee and go sit out on the turrets and watch the sun rise…it was kind of cool and kind of dirty, but it was lovely at the same time.

FM: So, are you totally done with teaching?
VP: Don’t ask right now. [Laughs.] Job No. 1 is: Learn to do nothing. I have a difficult time on vacations, for example … I couldn’t just sit down and watch television. If I found myself watching a news program, all of a sudden I’d find myself listening to the various correspondents and the kind of power struggles the language indicated. And I would sit there and start taking notes.

The idea of having no plans and not having to think on something consciously, I’m looking forward to that and hoping it will be successful … Is that true six months from now? Tough to say.

FM: Why did you stay here for so long?
VP: Because my colleagues and I were building a school. Because we were on a mission … I probably started understanding that when the first wave of people began retiring, the first original people. Losing them, and the new people were coming in, trying to tell those new people what we had been through and what we had sacrificed, and done so willingly because we wanted the place to survive.

All that baloney about mission statements has nothing to do with what I’m talking about … When someone said we’re meeting at seven o’clock tonight, nobody even batted an eyelash. We stayed as long as we needed to.

FM: What are your thoughts now that you’re leaving? 
VP: It’s bittersweet to be leaving in the sense that I see the original mission is accomplished, and in a sense that’s sad.

Flagler’s done a magnificent job of recruiting faculty – people who want to teach, people who care … I want to leave it [Flagler’s future] in their hands. I have every belief that this place is going to be someplace special. It just needs the right mix of people at the right time.

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