It’s tough keeping up with Jeff Nunokawa as he breezes through the bustling dining hall of Rockefeller College. It’s lunchtime, and Master Jeff, as the students call him, is in his element, dispensing jokes and kind words in equal measure, riffing on just about every subject under the sun, including his own fabulous new haircut. He shakes a hand here, taps a shoulder there, bestows a hug, and leans in to speak quietly with one young man who he knows, in the way he seems to know everything that’s going on with the students, has gotten “hosed” by an eating club and needs a little empathy.
He stops just long enough to grab two cups of coffee. One, you assume, must be for you. Wrong!
“They’re both mine, baby!” he exclaims with a laugh that’s a joyful bark.
It is a performance, for sure, as Nunokawa readily admits. It would bring to mind the phrase “working the room,” except that when politicians “work the room,” you sense a measure of insincerity to it all, a solicitousness that’s self-serving and stops the instant they turn away from you. There is none of that in Nunokawa’s relationship with the students. They adore him.
“How many professors can you talk to about girls?” asks Arda Bozyigit ’12, an economics major from Ankara, Turkey. “You can talk to him about anything. Princeton can be high-stress. It’s amazing to have someone like Jeff to lean on. This is what the college system is meant to be like. ... He needs the students, and the students need him.”
Hawaii-raised Nunokawa arrived at Princeton 21 years ago and became the master of Rockefeller College in 2007. He’s a professor of English, a respected scholar of 19th-century English literature with a special fondness for George Eliot. He’s openly gay, and interprets the obvious comfort that all students — gay and straight — have with him as a sign of improved conditions for everyone. He is also, without doubt, one of the more extraordinary characters on campus, a cult figure, really, just as he is on the various Breadloaf campuses where he teaches in the summer. Says Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin, “We’ve had many good masters in the colleges, but I’m not sure we’ve ever had one like this.”
“You’d think the man was fictional,” says Nick DiBerardino ’11, a music major who will attend Oxford in the fall as a Rhodes scholar.
Rumors about Nunokawa abound. Some people claim that he reads a book a day, others that he never sleeps. He can quote pages of poetry from memory. “He does an hour on the Stairmaster every day at a level that’s just ridiculous,” says Bozyigit. “I couldn’t last five minutes at the rate he’s going.”
Meeting Nunokawa for the first time, you almost expect to encounter a comic-book superhero, a man wearing a cape with a big red “J” on his chest. “The ‘comic’ part is true,” laughs Nunokawa. But in the flesh he’s not an imposing man. At 52, he’s slender and neatly dressed, with a mop of dark hair. What is impossible to miss is the force field of energy that surrounds him. He’s histrionic as can be, until it’s time to talk, and then his focus narrows to just you. “There are lots of energetic people in the world, but not many who are so energetic and so concentrated,” says David Russell, a graduate student in English.
That, indeed, seems to be the secret of Nunokawa’s deep connection to the students: “He has all his attention on you, and yet he manages to incorporate everyone else around, too,” says DiBerardino. “It’s really cool. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Over the past few years there’s been more to Nunokawa’s life than teaching, working out, and caring so deeply about the 520 freshmen and sophomores who live in Rocky. For the past six years he has been engaged in an unusual writing project. What’s more, he’s doing it on the very public forum of Facebook, hardly the most intellectual corner of the media universe. Every day he posts a short essay — or two or three — on a wide range of subjects, from literary quotes to movies, philosophical ruminations, and Fernando Torres, the Spanish soccer player, upon whom Nunokawa has a mad crush. The students refer to the postings as “Jeffbook,” and while he didn’t begin the project with any particular goal in mind, part of their fascination for him and his many readers is the discipline it takes to post them with such regularity.
“It almost has the quality of a daily meditation, as some people do yoga,” says Claudia Johnson *81, chairwoman of the English department. “The discipline of doing it every day confers a certain joy.” Then again, most people do not do yoga in the middle of the night, which is when the insomniac Nunokawa does much of his writing.
On Feb. 7 he posted his 3,160th entry, a meditation on this sentence from Jane Austen’s Persuasion: “A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early.” Musing on that, Nunokawa wrote: “When I was a little younger, I thought this sentence one of the saddest I’d ever read. Now that I’m a little older, I think, not so much. I mean, everything that blooms will vanish sooner or later, right? Even the particular cause of premature vanishing to which Austen’s sentence speaks (an unjust and unjustifiable crushing of young love by stupid elders) gets lost in the black-letter law which is the way of all flesh. ... ”
The essay is short, clocking in at just 229 words. Not only does it not reach any particular conclusion about the novel, it tries very hard not to. Rather, says Nunokawa, he wants to find just the right balance of “obliquity and transparency” that will inspire his readers to think. It’s a form of intellectual teasing, really. Nunokawa knows that rendering a final verdict would be deadening.
This is, of course, very different from traditional scholarship. “The academy’s basic mode is argument,” says Russell. “Jeff doesn’t write essays of persuasion. He’s not out to argue with you. He’s out to play, and play is something with immense, but perhaps neglected, intellectual value.”
In Nunokawa’s playful postings, not everything must be nailed down and proven to death. There’s room for speculation and musing. Heck, there’s room for much better writing than you usually find in academic journals. And despite the immense care he takes in composing them, Nunokawa’s postings are quite humble.
The project began in 2005. Two things got him started. While teaching a course called “The Form of the Essay,” he began posting lecture updates on Blackboard, the University’s academic website. Most of these addenda aimed “to prove or deepen or illuminate the points I’d made in my lecture,” says Nunokawa. He posted so many that one of his students remarked that they almost felt like a stream of consciousness.
Not long afterward, he took part in a roundtable discussion at Ivy Club on the relationship between speaker and listener in various texts and music. In the course of the exchange, one of the students said to him, “Professor, you should be on Facebook.” At the time, Facebook was in its infancy. Nunokawa had no idea what Facebook was, and when it was explained to him, he dismissed the idea, unable to wrap his mind around what exactly he’d do with it.
But he overcame his initial skepticism. His first posting was a response to Wittgenstein’s famous line, “That about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.” “It was a very brief meditation on why that remark incites us to speech and to what kind of speech,” Nunokawa says.