A Way to Live

 

In her teaching, Phyllis Mannocchi's passion is contagious

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Rob Kievit '09
 

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It’s hard to imagine anyone who embodies her own course titles—American Dreams, for one; Passionate Expression, another—more thoroughly than Phyllis Mannocchi, professor of English and chair of the English Department.

The scion of a working-class Italian family who earned her Ph.D. at Columbia, and now a 30-year veteran of Colby’s faculty, Mannocchi still burns with intensity talking about her teaching, her students, her family, and her desire to make the world a better place. She has the “best students.” She is “extremely proud” of the way her graduates have chosen to expend their energy. She strives for “deep, emotional experiences” in the classroom. “I know I’m going to cry at graduation,” she said in May. “Some of these kids I’ve had since their first year.”

When she received the Charles Bassett Teaching Award by vote of the Class of 2007 this spring, she took the opportunity to offer a distilled meditation—a news-you-can-use version, if you will—drawn from her course titled Passionate Expression: Love, Sex, and Sexuality in Western Literature.

“When you find yourself in the fever of love or ‘drunk with kisses’,” she cautioned students at the Senior Class Dinner, “remember that you have also been blessed with the gift of reason. If you believe that the motivating force of love is passion, remember that the root of passion is passio, which means suffering.”

Mannocchi, one of the first tenured women in Colby’s English Department, traces a personal journey over her three decades in Waterville. She arrived, she said, as a political activist, a radical, fresh out of Columbia, who “wanted to set the world on fire—and I think that’s the image some people still have of me.

“But then you change. You change because students change, and because of how your family affects you.”

After adopting a daughter, Jackie, from Haiti, and a son, Abu, from Sierra Leone, her focus shifted from feminism in America to poverty and injustice in the world. “People thought I was crazy to adopt [at age 54] a traumatized kid from an orphanage that had just been bombed in Sierra Leone,” she recalled. “But that was an incredible experience. Suddenly you feel you have an African child so Africa becomes your focus.”

Subsequently she has found herself “not so interested in creating revolutions, but in trying to figure out what kind of changes I could make.” Now she evaluates her success not in political victories so much as in individual students and the way they live their lives after Colby.

Professor Phyllis Mannocchi, left, editing video in her American Dreams course with Claire Conger ’07, who was accepted to film school for the fall.
Professor Phyllis Mannocchi, left, editing video in her American Dreams course with Claire Conger ’07, who was accepted to film school for the fall.

She talked about Elizabeth Banwell ’85, who directs the Maine Association of Nonprofits and who has done development work with police in Sierra Leone regarding how best to deal with war victims. Banwell brought Mannocchi and her son a mask from Abu’s village so he would have a connection to his original home. “I’m very proud of her, because she took up the message and is carrying it on,” Mannocchi said.

She spoke affectionately of Glenn Cummings ’87, who earned a Ph.D. in American literature, does pre-med advising at Princeton, and, with his partner, went through an international adoption.

Many students report back on the ways that their lives and work were influenced by their academic experience, Mannocchi said. “They proudly record that they’re trying to raise their kids differently [because of what they learned at Colby],” she said.

 
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