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.
Like the hundreds of offerings that would follow, it wasn’t long and it didn’t try to make any single point — it aimed only to provide the reader with a catalyst for meditation. If he received a single response to the posting, he cannot recall it. He had no thoughts of following it with other essays, certainly not the more than 3,000 that were to come. A few weeks went by before he posted a second. Those early postings were miscellanies, often quotations, that struck him as interesting. What’s evolved is something quite different, a blend of personal essay, diary entry, and prose poem. “One thing he’s doing is re-examining what we mean when we think about essays,” says English professor Valerie Smith, incoming dean of the college, who joined Facebook for the sole purpose of gaining access to Jeffbook. Russell compares the postings to Roland Barthes’ “mosaic style of writing,” while Nunokawa himself cites Nabokov’s Pale Fire as perhaps his biggest inspiration, not only for its beautifully burnished writing but for its playful footnotes.
For the record, he does not call this a blog, partly, he says, because “I hate that particular syllable,” but also, more importantly, because “it doesn’t catch what I’m really trying to do, whether successfully or not. These are essays. When I think of a blog — and maybe I’m being unfair to bloggers because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere — my sense of blogs is that that they’re written very quickly. This is stuff that I compose and recompose, and then recompose and recompose and recompose. It’s very written.”
One of the great virtues of posting on Facebook is that his work is available to just about everybody. DiBerardino’s mother reads it regularly. “Just about every academic knows about it,” says Johnson. “I know people for whom Jeff’s blog is a daily thing they do in the morning.”
One enthusiastic reader is Barry Qualls, a scholar of Victorian literature and vice president of undergraduate education at Rutgers University. “Jeff’s [postings] are amazing — from Henry James and Shakespeare to Anne Morrow Lindbergh,” he says. “He’s smart, amusing; he’s also fitted with an intellectual curiosity that allows him to make connections that would rarely occur to most people.”
Johnson believes the postings hold an important lesson for Nunokawa’s students. “He wants to show how the life of an English professor, the life of a profoundly literate and reflective person, is a life where you inhabit what you have read and pondered fully,” she says. “It’s not what you do as an English professor versus what you do when you stop being that English professor. I don’t want students to think that reading a novel or a philosopher is something you do only in a college or university. [The notes] promote and encourage the art of reflection.”
The other great advantage of Facebook is that Nunokawa gets feedback almost instantly. Within hours of posting a note, he has comments from readers all over the United States and beyond. He makes a point of answering every one. “I think it’s a courtesy,” he says. “And I don’t get so many that I can’t respond to them.”
The postings have grown more and more complex over the years. Often now they include photos or photo collages full of elaborate personal symbolism — Nunokawa is aiming for something like Joseph Cornell’s sculptural boxes — and they end with footnotes that are as revelatory as the text itself, even when they are parodies, which they often are. “Initially, my footnotes were a parody,” he allows. “But one of the things I discovered was how quickly what begins as pure parody becomes something else. Parody is as likely to morph into the serious as the serious is into parody. And the play between play and non-play is totally crucial to what I’m up to.” Nunokawa hopes one day to turn them into a book of some sort, but at this point, that is far in the future.
Jeffbook is very much an extension of Nunokawa’s very public persona, a kind of public sharing of himself that is more studied, perhaps, than the face he shows in Rocky, but just as open and honest. There’s a huge amount of self-revelation in his essays. “They are not merely notes to my mother, even though many are notes about my mother,” he says.
His mother, Joyce Salisbury Nunokawa, is a huge influence and makes regular appearances in the notes. She still lives in Hawaii, where Nunokawa grew up in the Honolulu suburb of Koko Kai. “She is a very smart woman,” he says. “Like many of our mothers, if she’d been born into a different generation, maybe she’d have been a molecular biologist.”
But she wasn’t. Nunokawa’s father, Walter, was a psychologist, while she was a stay-at-home mom whose son became the other half of a duo that, during Nunokawa’s childhood, entertained each other with conversation. As she once explained it to him, “In those days, a lot of us were sitting around these suburbs, bored out of our minds, raising kids. Basically what we were doing was raising conversationalists, people we would like to have conversations with.”
To this day, Nunokawa says that his relationship with his mother is the most important of his life. The two talk every day and have what Nunokawa describes as a yin-yang relationship. She likes to cast herself as Ma Kettle as opposed to his — as she teasingly puts it — “Fancy East-Coaster.”
Nunokawa agrees with the therapist who told him that his mother had raised him to believe that everything he said was interesting. Then again, Nunokawa just might be the rare person for whom that’s actually true. A recent Facebook post suggests just how high Joyce Nunokawa aimed in training her son for conversation. The post begins with a quote from one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories: “If there is such a thing as truth, it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers ... ” To which Nunokawa responds:
“And as silent as a crown of feathers, as well: I like to think about the silent (or nearly so) subtlety of Truth during times of loud trouble, noisy and sanguinary truculence, that, sooner or later, might well shatter all glass and gladness. Finding and fixing the sources of that trouble (and not just hearing its loudest sounds), requires a quiet that coronates the least whisper, a King’s Speech — a quiet that, just in itself, partakes a little of the Just Peace — the clearing of the heavens and history, the distant calm towards which all Good will inclines its power to hear.”
In the sixth and final footnote to that posting, Nunokawa adds, “I say all that (all my usual noise about my mother’s usual noise), but then I remember the quiet of her voice, many years ago, as she read out — not loud, but in a whisper of pure wonder — the line from the Singer-story that ends that story and crowns this note.”
The relationship between parents and children is very much on Nunokawa’s mind these days. He shares an awareness of mortality that most gay men of his generation feel: “You know what the first wave of AIDS was like,” he says. “I don’t know many gay men from my cadre. I just missed the bullet.” His sense of responsibility toward the Rocky students has only deepened over the years. In his 20s, he admits, he watched friends and colleagues having children, and while he was happy to see that it made them happy, he simply didn’t understand it. Having children was not something a gay man reasonably could aspire to 25 years ago. Now, his desire to guide and counsel the students in his care is profound and inescapable.
Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.