A Florida State University English professor has many accomplishments to celebrate during his half-century at the Tallahassee campus. Still, David Kirby remains just as excited about each new semester as he was when he was starting out back in 1969.
Today, you can’t mention his name in a group of his English teaching colleagues without triggering expressions of deep respect, tinged with more than a touch of professional envy. He has the coveted title of Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English. He is a celebrated author with nearly 20 volumes to his credit and a raft of honors to go with those works. And after 50 years, you could imagine him being a bit jaded and bored by the routine of it all. But then, you wouldn’t know David Kirby.
“You know, I’ve seen so many changes,” he mused, sitting at the dining room table of the 1940s-vintage Myers Park bungalow he shares with his wife, Barbara. “So many people come and go. Technology has changed. But on a good morning, I park my car and walk across Westcott Plaza (at FSU) and I look around and it’s like my first day on campus. The basics are there (like) the buildings. But the kids and colleagues have changed, not just one-by-one but also in terms of huge demographic differences. But I often feel I’m just 24 years old, starting out again.”
And unlike so many seasoned educators who ultimately retreat into the insular bubble of research and publishing, Kirby is first and foremost a teacher.
“To this day I’m looking forward to the fall term so much because the students are my opioids: they’re my mescaline, my heroin, my methamphetamine; all those things I’ve never tried, but there’s a reason why people are addicted to it and that’s because they get a rush, they get happy.”
Kirby experienced that happiness for himself and now wishes to share it with as many students as possible.
“To be able to do with students what my professors did for me, which is to show them how to have a mind that’s agile and moves, a mind that combines things and sequences and shows what’s important and what isn’t. It’s food and drink and oxygen to me.”
Another contributor to his self-described “teaching addiction,” says Kirby is the ever-escalating quality of the students he gets to teach.
“When I was in high school, all I wanted to do is to pass trig, get Mary Jane Spate to go out with me and to avoid her mother’s glares and then goof around with my friends. These kids are starting foundations in Honduras to feed the poor. And they’ve all invented 12 new apps and they’ll show them to me on their phones. And they made an A-minus in Hebrew because they had to devote so much time to their clavichord lessons.”
Although the clavichord is by no means Kirby’s favorite musical instrument. That would have to be either a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar cranked to Richter scale volume, or a battered upright piano in a backwoods juke joint. This is a man who loves rock and roll.
“It took me awhile to make the connection, but I was always lucky to be born when Bill Haley and Elvis and the people behind them, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lloyd Price and Chuck Berry. Not only did they invent rock and roll but they invented that part of show biz that we have today. It’s still some guys and gals with instruments and a little bit of electricity on a stage. It’s not that fancy.”
Ten years ago, Kirby penned “Little Richard and the Birth of Rock and Roll” that remains a definitive text on the topic. He’s written other books, too such as “House on Boulevard Street,” which attracted much critical acclaim. His 17th book, a collection of his poems entitled “More than This” comes out in mid-August. But back to rock and roll. Kirby often brings that same free-wheeling sensibility to the classroom. Assigning a mash-up of written works similar to the eclectic choices that might appear on a very savvy owner’s I-Pod.
“I typically teach six books,” he related. “Three of them are the old guys: Aristotle, Plato, and Montaigne. And they I’ll teach someone who’s written a new book on the income gap. Things like that.”
But Kirby is also delighted when the tables are turned and the teacher becomes the student.
“My doctoral students are leading me back to female Sumerian poets that I never heard of! When you and I were coming up it was Keats, Blake, Coleridge and Dickenson. There’s just too much to discover!”
As David Kirby enters his 51st year at Florida State University, he wonders about many things. Not the least of which, the possibility that our present obsession with ever-advancing technology may be a tad misplaced.
“That’s just surface stuff,” he opined. “People are the same and they’re my barbeque. They’re my ice cream and single malt scotch. It’s what I run to every day and I can’t wait for school to start up again!”
Not too many more weeks until that happens, Professor Kirby. Just hang on.