Though this year’s path to Truman State University’s Educator of the Year was a bit different than usual, Dr. Joseph Benevento is grateful for the efforts and dedication of the students who bestowed the honor upon him.
A professor of English, Dr. Benevento has been nominated for the Educator of the Year award 10 times during his tenure at Truman and has been a finalist four times previously.
“The thing I am most happy about is that I have been here since 1983, and all that time I have sustained my work ethic — having been nominated in four different decades — and so my hard work is being rewarded,” he said.
He has always taken the student-initiated award very seriously. To him, it is one of the highest honors he can receive and a benchmark of his work as an educator.
The process starts with a nomination from a student. Each educator that is nominated is then sent a prompt to answer, which is used by the student committee to choose eight finalists.
This year’s prompt was: “What inspired you to be a professor?” which Dr. Benevento said is right up his alley.
“The neighborhood I grew up in (Queens, New York) was very tough,” he answered, “and they used to make fun of me by calling me ‘the professor.’”
Being in a very anti-intellectual environment, he explained, meant that education as a career path wasn’t even on his radar.
In fact, in college, he had aspired to be a singer-songwriter, something his American Romanticism students still benefit from each year — as an undergraduate he set all 52 cantos of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to music.
But his once-discouraging moniker became a sweet story later on.
“Many years later at a neighborhood reunion, my childhood friend came up to me and said, ‘Joey, when we were kids they called you ‘Professor, hey Professor!’ and now you are! Boy, I wish they would have called me ‘Millionaire, hey, Millionaire!’’”
Because Dr. Benevento was on sabbatical during this year’s selection process, the committee wouldn’t have been able to make a classroom visit, as they had planned to do for the final round.
He asked to substitute a poetry reading he was scheduled to do in March. But when the reading, along with the other finalists’ classes for the semester was cancelled, the committee asked the professors to choose a class of students to evaluate them.
His class had the second-highest response rate out of the eight polled — another testament to his impact on students.
Dr. Benevento credits his Catholic upbringing in Queens with his human-centric teaching methods. Not only was he one of seven children, but his mother also took in many others when she saw the need.
His education at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary gave him an edge going into academia, as well.
“I worked harder there than I ever had to at NYU,” he said. “I have always appreciated the education I received there.”
When it comes to teaching at a public university as a practicing Catholic, he says that although it is not easy, “it’s not that hard in another way — I am just myself.”
Dr. Benevento challenges his students to consider what a Judeo-Christian background is to them when they read Moby Dick.
The novel centers around Captain Ahab challenging who he believes to be an unloving God, but Dr. Benevento finds more in the story. He is surprised that students don’t often think to juxtapose Ahab’s God of the Old Testament and a figure his students are much more likely to be familiar with — Jesus.
“I am dismayed at how few students think — there’s Jesus, the benevolent God, Who suffered for us and counterpoised the idea of an unbenevolent God,” Dr. Benevento stated.
He brought up a quote from Melville himself: “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.”
He too, wishes to challenge assumptions of Christianity.
Though he may not be able to share his faith overtly with his students, Dr. Benevento, by being himself, is able to translate his beliefs of religion and relationship.
“I’m not the most orthodox Catholic in the world,” he says, “but I do think that Catholicism at its core, ‘love your God with your whole heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself’ — if we lived like that, we’d all be better off.”
Ms. Shimmens, a member of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City, is a student at Truman State University in Kirksville.