Poet named faculty member of the year


English professor and Dux Academicus Award winner Mark Yakich describes what his new trophy means to him. Pictured in his office on Jan. 23, 2020, he is surrounded by artwork from friends and books he enjoys as well as books he has written. Photo credit: Shadera Moore

Breanna Henry

English professor Mark Yakich did not always love poetry.

“I was a political science major in college, and I hated to read and write, poems especially,” he said. “I always thought poems weren’t relevant to anything.”

Eventually, however, he changed his mind, and his passion for literature and teaching has won him one of Loyola’s most prestigious awards.

Yakich was awarded the Dux Academicus award at the Spring Convocation on Jan. 17.

The Dux Academicus is Loyola’s highest award given to a faculty member by their peers, and it is in recognition of total career achievement in teaching, scholarship, extracurricular activities and their service to the university as a whole, according to Vice Provost Carol Ann MacGregor.

“We’ve been giving this award out since 1978, one per year,” MacGregor said. “It’s chosen by a committee of people based on nominations. Anybody can nominate a fellow member of the faculty. The committee takes all the nomination materials, which involves the letter of nomination and then some supporting materials like the candidate’s CV, a letter from a student and a letter from a colleague. Faculty representatives from different areas of the university, president of the SGA, and a previous winner of the award. They get together and read all the submitted materials and then they choose among lots of qualified people.”

Yakich was chosen from among many qualified candidates.

“I really felt appreciation from my colleagues because my peers were the ones who decided,” Yakich said. “I’m humbled because there were plenty of other colleagues who deserved this award equally or more than I do and I hope they will get their turn.”

The provost didn’t reveal who the winner of the Dux Academicus award was until the day of the ceremony, keeping the whole thing a secret.

The only person who knew the recipient of the award was Yakich himself.

“The provost told me that I was selected in December and I was supposed to keep it secret,” Yakich said. “At the convocation, they revealed my name after describing my bio in the speech. The award has the names of all the other winners from the past 40 years, and I got to keep a glass award. Seeing all the people who won the award before me was very humbling. These were people I equated with being great teachers and writers and scholars and researchers.”

MacGregor recounted how one of Yakich’s students testified to his impact as a teacher.

“One of his letters of support talked about the time where he brought all of his rejection letters in the classroom,” MacGregor said. “The student who wrote that letter said that really shaped their understanding on what it means to persevere and how it’s possible to break into the competitive world of editing and publishing.”

Yakich is a widely known poet and was editor of the New Orleans Review, which is based at Loyola, for several years. However, he didn’t always have his eyes set on this career path.

After an out-of-country experience, Yakich found a passion in writing.

“I was living abroad in Brussels, Belgium and I was working on telecommunications for the European parliament,” Yakich said. “I was kind of isolated and I didn’t have many friends, so I started reading books more. They were mostly books of poems, and the more I read little poems, the more I started to like them and catch on. I began writing my thoughts down in a journal and then out of there I started writing really terrible poems. I became obsessed with trying to write and read more poems. By 27 years old, I came back to the states to get my MFA. Sometimes being isolated is a good thing.”

After being a teacher for several years, Yakich has used his experience as a poet and former editor of the New Orleans Review in the classroom.

“It just kind of comes out naturally,” Yakich said. “Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge on how I see the world that I couldn’t help but bring it to the classroom.”

Having always enjoyed the classroom environment as a student in college, Yakich had no problem envisioning himself leading a class one day.

“I love being in the classroom,” he said. “I find it all playful because of the dynamic. There’s a lot of improvisation. I can’t predict what a student will say about a poem. Class is never boring because I’m not guiding the whole thing.”

Yakich said he loves to experiment and be creative in the classroom.

“We might take a book that has nothing to do with poetry, like a manual of how to fix a dishwasher, and we’ll cut it up or black out certain words on the pages,” he said, “We take something that’s already there, kind of like when you have a piece of marble and you chisel it to make a statue instead of taking clay and putting it together. I like to start with the marble, if you will, and see what we can make and continue to play with it. I find it really fun, and it’s a process of discovery for both me and the students.”