English Professor Thomas Gardner transforms his classroom into a community of creators, inspiring students to build their own meaning from powerful works of literature.

“My classes are sessions in actively creating one’s own ‘reading’ of poetry, novels, and works of nonfiction,” said Gardner. “In many ways, this active building feels like theater or a performance — new each period and each year, there for an hour and then gone, a challenge needing to be engaged in anew each time we sit down together.”

Gardner earned one of the highest academic honors from Virginia Tech 10 years ago when the Board of Visitors appointed him to an Alumni Distinguished Professorship.

Citing his accomplishments over the past decade, the board renewed Gardner’s appointment this fall.

“I’m pleased and humbled to be reappointed as an Alumni Distinguished Professor,” said Gardner, who joined the Department of English in 1982. “My Alumni Distinguished Professor colleagues are quite extraordinary university citizens, excelling in all sorts of ways. It’s a thrill to continue as part of this group.”

Professors earn the prestigious title by providing a distinguished contribution to the university and its instructional programming.

The Board of Visitors decides on renewals based on a review of Alumni Distinguished Professors’ accomplishments during the appointment term. Two current Alumni Distinguished Professors handle the initial review and provide a recommendation to the provost, who then forwards a recommendation to the president and the Alumni Association for consideration. Final reappointment recommendations are made to the Board of Visitors for its approval.

During his first 10-year appointment, Gardner consistently received high marks from students for his teaching. In a recent undergraduate course, one student lauded Gardner for leading a “life-changing” class experience.

“It allowed me as a student to gain confidence in my ideas and push myself to share those ideas in class discussion,” the student wrote. “It was one of the most formative and life-changing classes I have taken at Tech.”

Another student in a senior-level course said Gardner “always came to class eager to teach and ready to make us think.”

Gardner’s recent contributions in instruction include directing 12 independent studies at the undergraduate levels and graduate on topics ranging from Virginia Woolf to the Book of Job. At the master’s level, Gardner directed eight theses and served as a committee member for 15 more in the English department, and he directed a doctoral dissertation for ASPECT (the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought).

In the past 10 years, two of Gardner’s students won Virginia Tech’s Phi Beta Kappa Wilson Essay Award for best undergraduate essay. Another won the William Preston Society Master’s Thesis Award in 2017.

“I have experienced numerous moments of pride as an educator,” said Gardner. “But honestly, I’m most proud of the students who learned new ways to think in my class and have gone on to apply those ways of thinking far beyond anything I would have ever dreamed possible.”

Gardner’s teaching and research focuses on poetry, primarily that of 19th, 20th, and 21st century American writers with a particular emphasis on the way a poem enacts the movement of the mind and emotions.

His recent research contributions include a critical book, “John in the Company of Poets: The Gospel in Literary Imagination,” and two books of lyric essays, “Poverty Creek Journal,” published in 2014, and “Sundays,” published just this month.

Gardner has provided additional services across the university. He led guest lectures in the Center for the Humanities as well as the departments of Biology; English; Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise; and Religion and Culture.

“In each of my guest lectures,” Gardner said, “I’ve tried to walk students through the way I think about poems and then show them how this way of thinking applies to their own fields.”

Gardner has shared his knowledge with university audiences in other contexts as well, including the undergraduate Commencement address in December 2014.

“In all of these presentations, I try to bring poetry to bear on the situation at hand,” said Gardner, a poet and playwright who recognizes the importance of the arts in society. “We continue to need artists and thinkers to map our world and make it visible, to challenge us to see truly and see deeper.”

In addition to receiving an Alumni Distinguished Professor appointment, Gardner has received various other awards, including the Outstanding Faculty Award for the Commonwealth of Virginia, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, and the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki.

He has also earned multiple university awards, including the William E. Wine Teaching Award, the Diggs Teaching Scholar Award, the Alumni Teaching Award, and the Phi Beta Kappa Sturm Award for Outstanding Faculty Research, as well as several College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences awards.

“What do I find most rewarding about teaching and being in academia?” asked Gardner. “It’s the chance to engage every part of my being — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, social, even physical — in a series of shared, ever-changing experiences.”

Written by Andrew Adkins