Resident medievalist teaches students with enthusiasm

1 October 2019

Suzanne Seyfi

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UCCS English professor Thomas Napierkowsi has taught at UCCS for 47 years.

After serving a term as a Fulbright scholar and earning his Ph.D., Napierkowski taught for two years in Wisconsin. He has worked at UCCS since 1973.

“It was kind of happenstance, but I have to say that this job has turned out to be basically my dream job,” said Napierkowsi.

He was and continues to be UCCS’ only medievalist. “I used to joke about this; I didn’t have to wait for someone to retire, or someone to die, and I could kind of put together my own teaching and research program, because I was the medievalist.”

Napierkowski readily acknowledges his long tenure. “I told my colleagues in a meeting in the spring, ‘I am no longer the dinosaur of this department, I am now a fossil!’”

He is regarded as a dynamic teacher by his students. “I love the stuff I teach, and I think I bring to my classes a passionate enthusiasm, with which I would like to infect them. And for the most part, they are open to being infected.”

Napierkowski enjoys teaching literature to students who are not majoring in English, specifically because it is a greater challenge to ignite enthusiasm in them.

He has several teaching philosophies, which he calls “Napierkowski Principles.” One is to get to know his students as individuals. Another he shares on the first day of every class: “I pledge to treat you with respect, and I demand that you treat me and your fellow students with respect.”

Napierkowski himself lives by the philosophy: “And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach,” as written by his favorite author William Chaucer. “If you’re not in that classroom sharing that gladness, then you probably shouldn’t be there,” he said.

Napierkowski tends to downplay his teaching prowess. Often, he will say something like “any teacher would think” or “any teacher will say,” indicating that any teacher has the capability to inspire respect, admiration and yes, enthusiasm in literal generations of students.

Napierkowski is notorious for asking where students want to be in five years. When asked what his past student self might have answered, Napierkowski said, “I didn’t know. I majored in English; I was a pretty good student. I majored in it pretty much because it was what I was good at, and where my heart was. What was I going to do with the English major? I wasn’t sure. I thought there might be lots of possibilities.”

He and his wife were encouraged to pursue graduate school, so they did. Although Napierkowski had originally thought he might go for American literature, he slowly gravitated toward medieval literature. Several mentors gently pushed him in that direction as well. “I found myself more at home and maybe more interested in medieval literature. So, I gravitated toward that somewhat by accident.”

As for Napierkowski’s present plan, he said, “I think in five years I’ll be retired.” He intends to spend more time with his children and grandchildren while continuing to write reviews and papers. “I will be able to read what I want, when I want.”

The one thing he will miss after retiring is a particular sort of moment that happens only a few times each semester, when a class is truly engaged. “Not just what you’re doing [as the teacher], but the students are being receptive and they’re asking great questions, and when that clicks, that’s a wonderful, wonderful high.”

Napierkowski has a tremendous affection for UCCS students, and nontraditional students in particular. “I hope we will always keep and welcome nontraditional students.” Napierkowski was a nontraditional student himself; he was a first-generation college student, was married and he worked. “The other joy of having nontraditional students is they contribute a lot.”

Napierkowski remembers his early years at UCCS fondly, when the campus was three buildings at the end of a dirt road. “The only thing that brought people down that dirt road was a desire to get an education. And

there was something wonderful about that.” He thinks as the university has expanded, a lot of bells and whistles have been added, which occasionally distract from the point of a university: education.

“The one thing that we probably couldn’t quite keep – although we’ve probably done better than most – is to keep a sense of community. When I came, one would know almost everybody else on campus pretty quickly. We weren’t that huge then, and not just across disciplines in LAS but across colleges,” he said.

Despite a larger and more segmented university, Napierkowski has nothing but gratitude for his time here. “What a wonderful way to make a living, and what a wonderful privilege in a lot of ways, to share that joy and that enthusiasm that one has.”

He summed up his UCCS experience: “It’s been a great joy, and a wonderful ride.”