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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

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Joseph Feeney on his time at St. Joe’s

Feeney speaks at the Gerard Manley Hopkins event on March 5. PHOTO: MITCHELL SHIELDS ’22/THE HAWK

Joseph Feeney, S.J., stood in the front of the room holding his hands out to make an air violin. With his classic mischievous smile, Feeney imitated the bow crossing the strings while making a screeching sound that represented an untuned violin. 

The students and faculty gathered in the Wachterhauser Seminar Room on the second floor of the Post Learning Commons sat silently with the uncomfortable sound, looking towards Feeney to see what he would do next.  

Feeney was acting out a line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins during his presentation about the author, a Victorian poet and Jesuit priest whose work has been the focus of Feeney’s academic life since 1977. 

Throughout the March 5 presentation, Feeney, an internationally recognized Hopkins scholar and co-editor of “The Hopkins Quarterly” for 34 years, continued to act out the noises and sounds of the poems, to give the audience a full immersion into the art.  

Feeney said that he used the same tactics to keep his students engaged in the English courses he taught at St. Joe’s for 45 years.

His personality allowed him to flourish as a professor, according to Feeney. 

“I am a ham by nature,” Feeney said. “I am a ham while teaching, and I have a silly sense of humor. It has gotten sillier as I have gotten older.”

Feeney is a Philadelphia native from Germantown who attended St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. After high school graduation, Feeney joined the Society of Jesus and pursued his master of arts at Fordham University. 

After training with an international group of young Jesuits, Feeney returned to Philadelphia to earn his doctorate in English from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1971, Feeney was offered a position as an English professor at St. Joe’s.

Feeney taught a wide variety of English courses at St. Joe’s, ranging from first year English courses to upper level classes, such as a seminar on contemporary Catholic imagination in America and Modernism and Postmodernism. 

No matter what class he was teaching, Feeney said he always had certain ideals that he wanted his students to learn. 

“[I want students to gain] a broadening of what it means to be a human, a greater affection for people different from them and a love of sound, especially to poetry, and beauty,” Feeney said.   “Even a development of their sense of humor and development of the human sympathy.” 

Peter Ferris ’18 took the final course Feeney taught at St. Joe’s during the fall of 2016, which was a seminar on Modernism and Postmodernism. 

Due to low registration for the course, Ferris and George Fenton ’18 convinced Feeney to make the class an independent study. The course consisted of just Ferris, Fenton and Feeney. 

Ferris said that Feeney’s discussions in class altered his view of the world. 

“Father Feeney helped me put into perspective our short time on earth and how we can use that to maximize our potential,” Ferris said. “Getting to know him really changed me as a whole person.”  

 Feeney said that in order for professors to keep their students engaged in class discussions, they have to make sure they keep students on their toes.  

For example, Feeney said he was facilitating a class discussion about a short story written by Mark Twain. In the story, a bird scratched his head with his foot. 

“[I thought], I am able to do that myself,” Feeney said. “So I was sitting on the desk talking about that story and how the bird scratches his head with his foot, and I picked up my right foot and just scratched my head.” 

Fenton, who had Feeney as a professor for two classes, said that his quirks made the class much more engaging. 

“[Feeney] was just fun,” Fenton said. “There was a lot of laughter going on throughout the class. We could take everything seriously, but it was also silly.” 

In addition to the fun teaching style, Fenton said that Feeney helped him grow significantly as a person and a writer. 

“He was really open about helping you find the best way you can write about a topic,” Fenton said. “Not necessarily in an academic way, but in some way you can contribute to a positive conversation.” 

Peter Norberg Ph.D., associate provost for academic and faculty support and former chair of the English department, said that Feeney’s teaching style was a source of inspiration for his own classes. 

“With his personal connection he was able to push students much further,” Norberg said. “He is the kind of teacher I try to emulate in my own relationship with students.”

One of the classes that Feeney taught was a seminar on Gerard Hopkins and James Joyce, two poets. 

Feeney was introduced to Hopkins in 1977 while staying at a Jesuit house in Oxford, England. He said he saw a note that advertised a celebration of the centennial of Hopkins’ ordination to be held later in the summer. Feeney said he was disappointed that he would be back in the U.S. by then.   

 “I said to myself: ‘self, somebody ought to celebrate his centennial in the U.S.,’” Feeney said. “‘So what the heck, you do it.’” 

Shortly after researching Hopkins for his personal celebration, Feeney wrote an article about Hopkins’ work which was featured on the cover of the journal “America.” In 2008, Feeney published a book on Hopkins, titled “The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins.” 

Today, Feeney is considered an expert in Hopkins’ work.

Feeney said that the most significant part of Hopkins’ work is what readers can learn from it. 

“[Hopkins] found a number of things beautiful that other people didn’t notice,” Feeney said. “He has a strong sense of uniqueness of everything and every person.” 

Just as Feeney said that Hopkins’ work helped him to recognize beauty in everyday life, Fenton said he felt the same way about Feeney’s instruction.

“The postmodernism class was more about self development than the actual literature,” Fenton said. “[It was about] finding out where you fit in a postmodern world. He wanted us to figure out what we see ourselves in and embrace that.”   

Fenton said that looking back, Feeney is one of his favorite professors.  

“[Feeney] is sincerely the greatest man, he embodies what I love about St. Joe’s,” Fenton said. 

In addition to supporting students in the classroom, Feeney became close with them through his role of as an RA in Breen Hall. This residence is no longer a building on campus. 

Connie O’Hara ’78, a health professions advisor and former student of Feeney’s, said that Feeney and his residents created lifelong bonds in Breen Hall. 

“Fr. Feeney celebrated the weddings and baptisms of so many of his former Breen Hall residents,” O’Hara. “That is how significant he was in the lives of his students.”

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    Peter DorseyMar 23, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    Fr. Joe Feeney is hands down, flat out, beyond doubt, the best professor I ever had. Sorry for the use of clichés, Joe!