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Thursday, April 27, 2017

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Video: 'Conversation With... Professor Jeff Nunokawa'

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Princeton Professor Jeff Nunokawa answers questions sent via Facebook and Twitter about how social media affect teaching and literature, and much more. Learn more.

Video Closed Captions


I'm Jeff Nunokawa.

I'm a professor in the
department of English here at

Princeton University, and
I'm also the Master

of Rockefeller College.

In this episode, we're going
to answer some of the

questions that you've
sent to me by way of

Facebook and Twitter.

Our first question
is from Twitter.

What are you trying to
accomplish through your essays

on Facebook?

Excellent question.

Excellent question.

I got very interested.

I devised a course in the
history of the essay form, and

got very interested in the
theory and practice of a

genre, of a way of expressing,
which was, as it were,

intellectual and sociable
at once.

So I got very interested in
the possibility of writing

brief essays-- and they
are very brief--

essays whose network would not
be strictly scholarly,

although I hope they are
scholarly interest. But really

primarily, or at least
organically, for social media.

Our next question came
from many users.

Why write on Facebook
and not a blog?

Facebook is where you are.

I know that.

I live amongst college

It's where my students spend
a great deal of their time.

I'm not interested in the
brand per se, obviously.

What I'm interested in
is where you are.

A Facebook user posted
this question.

How does where you came from
and your family background

affect your writing?

It affects it in every way.

But increasingly obliquely.

Let's put it this way.

Let me just cut to
the chase here.

A lot of these essays are, in
one way or another, directed

to or are about my mother and
my family, where I grew up,

which was Hawaii.

These are essays written--

I am very close to my
mother, on one hand.

On the other hand, she'll never
read anything I write on

the other hand, because
I won't let her.

For people who are actually
interested in them, they'll

see that my mother functions in
these essays as the person

whom I'm responding to, who
these essays are written for,

but who can never actually
read them.

First of all, they're
not her cup of tea.

But she instilled in me certain
kinds of values that I

think are most vivid in what I
think of as the great era of

the essay form, which is the era
from mid-18th to the early

19th century.

But, specifically, Dr. Johnson,
who was a profound

and profoundly intense moralist,
as is my mother.

One Twitter user asked how
writing on Facebook changes

how I teach.

It makes me much more aware of
how much I can get students to

think of their writing
as an extension of

their speaking voice.

The writing that I do on
Facebook, it's very written.

I revise it constantly.

But it is really an extension
of the way that I speak.

And one of the things that I
aim to do, and indeed most

professors of literature and of
writing aim to do, when it

comes to teaching writing, is
to get our students to think

of what they write, of how they
write, as an extension of

their real voices.

Multiple Twitter users asked
if I think Twitter and

Facebook have a negative
effect on literature.

I think it does not
negatively affect

literature for many reasons.

Or to put it differently, what
I'm actually much more

interested in it is the way
that it, I think, helps


And by that I mean
the following.

I find that actually, the very
thing that bothers people

about these modalities, if
you'll forgive a fancy word,

these forms, is it reduces
face to face contact.

It's a simple way
of putting it.

And that's not a good thing.

We're all against that.

We want more face
to face contact.

But one thing that it does which
I think is good is to

recall something which was,
say, extraordinarily--

well I'll ubiquitous nearly in
the period that interests me

the most. And that is the
Victorian period, and that is

the epistolary, writing

Now, those texts that my that
my nephews and nieces are

constantly sending to their
friends and whatnot--

I'm not suggesting that those
are the same thing as the

letters that the Brownings
wrote one another.

But I've been struck by how much
more poised the diction

of the students on email,
but particularly on

Facebook, and on IMing.

Twitter I don't know so well.

But I'm just saying on those
things, their diction and

their sense of immediacy and
intimacy, and their sense

that, again, that the written
word here is an extension of

their voice--

I just think that is a happy
effect for literature.

So, for our final question, a
Twitter user asked, simply,

what do you think makes
a great writer?

There's this great line John
Updike says somewhere.

And he was accepting
some prize.

Updike says why do I write?

Because I have this completely
bizarre belief that what I

have to say is of incredible

And I think that you
have to have that.

And in order to have that, you
have to be sufficiently

involved in and studious about--
and I mean that kind

of in an etymological sense--
studious about, passionate

about a subject that you say,
yeah, I've got to say this.

Or to put it differently,
this has to be said.

Well thank you so much for
taking part in this.

I really enjoyed it.

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