Assyrians, Simpsons, a fistful of rings ... Professor Damen a bundle of interests, energy
Leah L. Culler
Society deserves The Simpsons? According to Mark Damen, 1998 Utah Carnegie Professor of the Year, it most certainly does.
"The Simpsons is such a great deconstruction of modern society," he said. "No one comes off well in the Simpsons. I relax because I know my own views will be attacked, along with everyone else's."
Damen, a critic of theater, said great eras of freedom are characterized by their comedy.
"Show me a great comedy and I'll show you a great age," he said.
For example, the Renaissance, one of the great eras of free speech, reinvented comedy, Damen said. With freedom of speech comes the freedom to criticize, which creates comedy, he said.
"Comedy is the great barometer," he said. "You can't have good comedy without freedom to criticize."
Damen, who graduated first in his class from the University of Florida in 1978, received his master's and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. His areas of specialty include Greek and Roman drama; the history of theater and drama in performance; and ancient history.
Damen said he looks at ancient plays that have been preserved and determines how they might have been performed.
He said an important part of studying these ancient works is looking at classical drama as script, rather than text. This includes examining the interaction of the actors on stage, not just the words they are speaking, he said.
"In a performance, a silent character can be the center of attention," he said.
At Utah State University, where he is a professor, Damen could never be mistaken for a silent character. He divides his teaching time between the theatre and history departments. In both, he is well-known for his energy and enthusiasm.
Kevin Doyle, a colleague of Damen's in theater, said Damen seems to be perpetually enthused. But he backs up that enthusiasm with thorough knowledge, Doyle said.
"He has so much to say and so much to share," Doyle said. "He takes the energy from his personal life and puts it in the classroom."
And Damen has so much energy that one of his classes can be tiring. A class taught by Mark Damen is not a class to sleep through, but it may require a good, long nap afterward.
As he describes the battles of the ancient Assyrians, it's obvious from the tenseness and animation of his body that he's acting out the battle scenes in his mind. Each class is a performance, the deliberate portrayal of the particular moment in history he is trying to teach to his students.
Students in Damen's classes don't pack up their books and get ready to go when time is up. They patiently wait while their teacher finishes his "story" with flair.
"I have six minutes and I'm going to use every second of them," he said toward the end of a history class, as he realized time was running short.
Damen uses his voice, body and hands in class, just as an actor on stage.
Damen said it is difficult for most actors to control their hands when they are acting. He said he believes that teaching is like the theater. He wears several rings on each hand to remind him to use his hands effectively when teaching.
"Anything you can do to improve your teaching, you should do," he said.
Each of the rings he wears has a story, he said. One, he bought on the street in New York after a great day of teaching, he said. The students had engaged in an especially enlightening discussion and everyone had learned a great deal that day, he said.
"It was a wonderful class from all different backgrounds," he said.
Damen said that ring reminds him of his students and what he should aim at every day as a teacher.
Another ring was a gift from a student.
"It reminds me that students give you things," he said. "It's not always the top down. You have to learn to listen as ring sometimes and think, `Shut up and listen.'"
According to President George H. Emert, Damen does a good job of listening and becoming involved in his students' lives.
"Professor Damen is wildly enthusiastic about his subjects," Emert said.
Emert said Damen is involved in the lives of students in exactly the right ways.
Damen is a good teacher because he has a great love for learning himself, Emert said. He learns from his students, as well as trying to impart knowledge to them.
"He's not just talking, but listening," Emert said.
Norm Jones, department head and professor in the history department, said he doesn't know any other professor who would go further out of his way to give knowledge to people who ask for it.
Damen opened up a new section of one of his classes last year because some students couldn't get in. The new section then filled up completely, doubling Damen's load.
"He consistently teaches more classes than I, his department head, want him to teach because he will not turn away a student," Jones said.
Jones also said Damen's enthusiasm for learning is infectious.
"I don't think there is anything he can't make interesting, because he is interested in everything," Jones said. "Mark Damen is a human dynamo."
Damen's enthusiasm is also manifest through his research on a wide range of topics.
"To me, the division between teaching and research is very artificial," Damen said.
This is because Damen sees research as a way of teaching his colleagues.
Because theater is not a book-heavy discipline, Damen does a great deal of article writing. He has written articles and reviews for technical theater publications, as well as extended syllabi for more than 10 classes. He frequently lectures publicly on topics relating both to theater and history. Damen is especially demanding as a teacher, Doyle said. He advises students not to take classes from Damen unless they are prepared to work hard.
Outside of the university, Damen spends his time gardening and playing tennis. Doyle said he is just as passionate about gardening as he is about teaching.
Ted Pease, one of Damen's tennis partners and the communication department head, said Damen "beats the snot out of (him) regularly" at tennis.
"He is the only person I know that makes me look low energy," Pease said. "He is absolutely crazy."
Although Damen spends some time pursuing his hobbies, he said his true love is teaching. Therefore, most of his time is spent doing just that.
"I'm a teaching machine," he said.
Damen wants so much for his students to learn that he loans books on a wide variety of subjects to students. The side of one of his seven bookcases in his office is covered with lists of books he has loaned to various students. Damen said he doesn't mind lending the books, as long as he gets them back.
"If they (the students) don't get them back (to me), I have Italian relatives who will hunt them down for me," Damen said, grinning.
Damen said the person he is now is actually just a product of the books he has read.
"When students steal my books, it's like stealing one of my fingers," he said. "If you want to steal my ear, fine. Just make sure you bring it back."